Guest post by Anonymous
A couple of weeks after I had an abortion, and I was still struggling to get out of bed in the morning, struggling not to see the man who had gotten me pregnant, and broken up with me two weeks before I found out about it, still asking for extension upon extension for school assignments I’d ignored for the past month, I wondered if there were other people like me out there. I wondered if it was normal to take this long to heal, as a relatively healthy, happy 21 year old college student with close friends and family who at least did their best to support my decision.
It’s been over two years now, and I’ve healed. I’m still dealing with the repercussions of the things I let slide during those months, but I rarely think about the procedure anymore, I’m no longer in the unhealthy relationship that started the whole thing, and I’m completely at peace with the decision I made. The one thing that still bothers me, though, is this: When I do think about abortion, it is inevitably in the context of a debate about policy. It is inevitably a discussion in which the pain of both the pregnant person and the fetus are invoked, but in which neither experience is represented by either the pregnant person or the fetus. And it is inevitably a discussion which, if I had read it during the decision making process, or recently after the procedures, would’ve been incredibly hurtful.
So it is from this place of peaceful resistance of our cultural narrative of abortion, largely drawn from imagination and prejudice, that I offer this: A personal narrative. My hope is that someone in the position I was in will encounter this and draw strength from it. But I also hope that those who have drawn conclusions of what it’s like for people to have abortions, who has them, why, and what it means, based on anything other than personal experiences or narratives, will take some time to reconsider. I want to warn readers that this piece, of necessity, includes frank discussions of sex, blood, and gore. If you’re interested in reading but feel you can’t handle that, I’ve sectioned off those segments that include that material. You should be able to skip it without too much confusion.
I know and know of a lot of women who have gotten pregnant while practicing safe sex, using birth control. This happens, and it’s an important thing to acknowledge when discussing abortion. I, however, was not one of these women. I would say it was the perfect storm of bad luck, bad communication, and lack of education that led to my pregnancy, but it really didn’t take much. I was in a relationship with a man who, for the purposes of this story, I will call James. I was infatuated with James, and ecstatic when he asked me to be his girlfriend. We both struggled with some mental health issues, and neither one of us took initiative when it came to communication, especially about sex.
***FRANK DISCUSSION OF SEX BELOW***
On my part, I think it was because I sensed that he was less invested than me, which, coupled with run-of-the-mill young adult insecurity and inexperience, made me feel like each night we spent together was potentially the last, and somehow that made those nights seem magical. Spoiling them with a trip to the drugstore in the middle of it all, which was always when the question of condoms came up, seemed unthinkable.
As it turned out, the relationship did only last for 2 weeks, during which time, on the nights I spent with him, condoms were always, for one reason or another, unavailable.
So we used the pull-out method. We’ve all heard what a miserable substitute for proper birth control that is. I had heard that it was only 70% effective, but I’d assumed that meant that the other 30% of the time the man failed to pull out before he ejaculated. If that happened, I figured, I would just take Plan B. I’d used it before, and it was not a pleasant experience, but the economics of scarcity made it feel like a worthwhile trade.
Two weeks after James asked me to be his girlfriend, I brought up birth control. I told him that I understood that some guys didn’t like using condoms, but that at this point, if we were going to keep doing what we were doing, I wanted to go on birth control to be safer. He told me he’d assumed I was on birth control already. I told him, no, and that if I was going to go on it for the sake of this relationship, I thought we should at least talk about it. James avoided the question, and then avoided me for the next week. When I finally confronted him about it, he broke up with me.
***END FRANK DISCUSSION OF SEX***
The next couple of weeks were, I assume, terrible. But I don’t remember much of them. I’m sure I moped quite a bit. James had wanted to remain friends after we broke up, but I was smart enough at least to know this was a bad idea, and I’d managed not to contact him since the breakup, which I was very proud of.
But mostly what I remember from that time was that my breasts started aching. This happens to me every month, before I have my period, and I hadn’t had one in a while (at that point I didn’t keep track), so I wasn’t too worried the first week. But then my stomach started feeling weird. I joked with my friends that I was dumped and pregnant, because it still seemed like too remote of a possibility to even consider. But after another week, one of my friends got worried enough to make an appointment for me at our school’s health center for a pregnancy test. I was escorted there by her and another friend, fairly convinced that this would wind up just being a horror story to tell the rest of our friends at our favorite bar that weekend. But I was sweating profusely, and I felt nauseous, a symptom I still don’t know whether to attribute to morning sickness or stress, but one which lingered for the rest of my pregnancy.
I was called in for my appointment. I peed in a cup, which I gave to an NP whose name I don’t remember. She did whatever it is she needed to do with the sample, and came back. She asked me about my sex life, when was my last period (“Ummm…”), did I know about the discounted birth control available to students through the health center. She asked me if I had a plan, if I found out that I was pregnant. I told her that I definitely wanted an abortion.
Then she went out to get the results. When she told me I was pregnant, I could tell she was joking. I understood by then that I hadn’t made the best decisions regarding safe sex, but I thought this was a pretty fucked up and inappropriate way for her to teach me a lesson. I was about to say so, when all of a sudden tears started running down my face. This woman was looking at me through her straight, brown bangs, and all of a sudden I knew it was true.
I asked if I could have my friends come in for the rest of the appointment. I was intellectually aware that this woman hadn’t done anything to me, but some irrational part of my brain had registered her as the enemy. The NP insisted on making an appointment for me at the affiliated women’s health clinic that did abortions on Saturdays, a week and a half out. I told her I wouldn’t be ready by then, and asked to make the appointment later, but she insisted that if I still felt that way in a week, I could cancel, and if not, this would make it easier.
Starting with the nurse, I sorted the people I told into pros and antis. Nurse: clearly pro. The friends who escorted me: pro, but at that point, at least a little more subtle about it.
After the appointment, my friends had classes to get to. I called James, who hadn’t heard from me in several weeks, and asked if he was home. I practiced my speech on the way over:
“I found out today that I’m pregnant. I’m going to have an abortion, and I don’t want your input on it. I’m only telling you because if I were you, I would want to know. And because I think I’ll need a lot of support in the next little while, and if you can give me some, I would appreciate it.”
Part of me expected him to object. James came from a Catholic background, and although I knew he didn’t practice, or believe, I’d wondered whether the weirdness about birth control had had something to do with latent Catholic guilt of some sort. Instead, James held me while I sobbed, told me he would do anything I needed him to, and when I was getting ready to go, he said, “As messed up as this is, I’m glad I at least get to see you again.”
I knew that James had had experiences in his life that were fucked up possibly to a higher degree than what I was about to experience, and his levity in the face of the terror was the only thing that could make me feel better about the situation. But my attachment to him was also one of the things that kept me from moving on when I wanted to.
For whatever reason, keeping things like this to myself is more or less against my nature. I respect and understand why many people decide to keep something like this hidden, but to me at that time, it felt safer to share. First I told my roommates, who said they were sorry and asked if they could do anything, and what I was planning to do. I told them I wanted to have an abortion, and they all said they understood.
Then I called my mom. We talked over it a lot. She said she supported me in wanting an abortion, but also that she and other women she’d known had had babies when most people thought they were too young, and that she knew it could be done, and it could be a joyful experience. She told me if I decided to keep the baby, she and my dad would help me. I slotted my mom in the anti category, although realistically I have no idea if that was her real feeling on the matter.
My mom asked if she could tell my dad, and I told her yes. The next day I received an email from him. He said he loved me, and he understood that it was my decision. But he wanted me to know that if I chose not to abort, he and my mom would do anything, including raising the baby themselves, to help me. This scenario seemed unrealistic to me, but also had an appeal I couldn’t really place my finger on. I love babies. I was a senior in college and had no idea what I wanted to do next. Returning to my natal home and caring for what was sure to be an adorable baby, with loving approval from my parents, was a tempting alternative to whatever chaos was waiting on the other side of graduation.
I started wondering whether I really wanted to go through with the abortion. I cancelled the appointment. I called my best friend from high school, who was also Mormon, but going through a similar transition from belief by default to experimentation. She told me she loved and supported me. And that she would take a semester off from college to help me through my last semester if I decided not to abort.
Now I had a friend on the anti side. A friend who understood my background and the extra weight my decision held in a way my college friends totally didn’t.
I called James and told him I wanted to talk. We went walking in one of the beautiful parks in our neighborhood, where the grassy lawns were starting to get soggy and patchy, and the trees had already lost their leaves. It was the middle of October, and it would only be warm enough for walks in the park for a few more weeks. We trudged through a woody area that was meant to be a haven for wildlife in the city, and after a few minutes of watching the ground under my feet and the branches in front of me, I started to feel like we were somewhere else, somewhere without cars or buildings. I told James I wasn’t sure anymore about getting an abortion. I don’t remember what reasons I gave him, but I remember the desperation in his voice when he said he thought it was a bad idea to carry the pregnancy to term.
I asked James if he didn’t also assume he would have a family with kids someday, and he told me no, he didn’t. I didn’t entirely believe him when he told me he didn’t know if he could love a kid, he might not be wired that way, but he sounded scared. I moved James into the “pro” column. I told him I needed to think about it more and I would get back in touch with him when I figured it out.
For the next couple of weeks, I prayed, I talked it over with friends, with family members, I read about my options on the internet. I had been drinking pretty regularly before I found out I was pregnant, but I consciously quit at this point. I hadn’t had any reason to drink before, as I’d been more or less in seclusion, going from my room, to class, to the bathroom, to the lobby of our building to pick up an order of Mu Shu Pork, and back to my room. Being alcohol free had the added benefit of excluding me from the regular outings with my friends, who I assume were relieved not to have to tote me along, staring morosely into the distance. My best friend at school thought I should terminate the pregnancy. She told me she was scared of losing me, if I didn’t. She and the other friend who had escorted me to my pregnancy test appointment expressed doubts that I would be able to finish the next year of school if I didn’t terminate the pregnancy. She told me she probably wasn’t the best person to talk to about it.
My counselor suggested writing two letters to James. One telling him I wasn’t having an abortion, and explaining why. And one telling him that I was, and why. I wrote the first letter, but I couldn’t bring myself to start the second. I took this as a sign that I wanted to keep the baby. And then I got mad at myself for needing a sign. It was MY decision. I believed that with all of my heart, but somehow my brain had a hard time accepting it. I kept returning to my pro and anti tallies, searching in the words I’d had with my friends and family, for something that rang true. I read the scriptures. I wrote in my journal. I flipped through my hymn book–hymns had always spoken to me more than anything else at church.
I had more or less resolved to carry the pregnancy through to term, and I was thinking about how to tell my friends. I felt a strong sense of camaraderie with a woman in one of my classes who was VERY pregnant, and had to lower herself slowly into her chair while holding tightly onto the arms of the chair in order to maintain balance. I contacted my dean and my adviser and let them know that I was pregnant and still deciding what to do next, but I was fairly sure that regardless of what I decided I would need their help.
It was at that point, for whatever reason, that my fantasy of making it through the next several months while pregnant, graduating a month before I would be due, driving home, since I wouldn’t be able to fly at that point, to live with my parents, in their overcrowded house, while looking for a job that would take me away from the hypothetical baby, whose father I wasn’t sure I wanted it to meet, but from whom I would almost certainly require financial help, crumbled. I had never felt that the thing I was making inside of my body was a baby yet, but the baby in my fantasy started seeming less and less real, as well. Did the fantasy still work if the hypothetical baby was sick, or made me sick while I was making it? What if it prevented me from finishing school? What if it embroiled me in family drama with James’ parents who, from stories he’d told, scared the living shit out of me. What if I became a financial burden on my parents? What if carrying this baby to term wasn’t the heroic task that guaranteed their approval for the rest of my life, or even the rest of the year?
I don’t know exactly what it was that tipped the scales. But what I did know is that the week of not discussing the decision with anyone, originally because I was planning out how to give the news that I wasn’t going to terminate my pregnancy, had made some space to hear my own voice above the roar of politics, desires, projections, predictions, and opinions that had engulfed me since my NP insisted on making that appointment when I knew I wouldn’t be ready.
I called the clinic and scheduled a new appointment.
I called James and told him the date and time, and asked him to accompany me.
The next day, I told my friends and family.
The next week, I met James on a corner near both of our apartments, early in the morning, to catch the bus. Our words turned into fog as they left our mouths. He told me I looked good. I told him I couldn’t believe I’d woken up so early on a Saturday. The bus came. We got on.
As the bus wound through neighborhoods I’d never had the occasion to visit before, except on my way to a somewhat remote art museum in the area of the clinic, I got sadder and sadder.
The wait in the clinic lobby was interminable, and being surrounded by other pregnant women was unbearable. I started crying. I told James to ask the receptionist why we weren’t being called back, over half an hour after the appointment we’d made. She didn’t have an answer.
Eventually, I was called back. I asked James to come with me. The nurse told me to change into a hospital gown and wait on the table. James sat at the head of the table and said something soothing while we were waiting for the doctor to enter. She had a medical student with her and asked if I was okay with the student observing. I said sure. While the doctor prepared the transvaginal ultrasound, she asked how James and I had met. I sensed her perception of us as a young, brave and wounded couple, in this together, and felt simultaneously validated and sickened. James told her that we’d met through mutual friends the previous summer.
For the next hour, I imagined that we were the “right” kind of couple seeking an abortion. That we hadn’t slept together the first night we met. That our usual, safe, method of birth control had failed. That we had communicated in a healthy and productive way about everything, including my decision. That we were still together. That James hadn’t met someone else just weeks after we’d broken up. That he shared my heartbreak and bewilderment.
***FRANK DISCUSSION OF MATERIAL READERS MAY FIND DISTURBING BELOW. IN SUMMARY, I DECIDED TO HAVE A MEDICAL (RATHER THAN SURGICAL) ABORTION***
I had decided before the appointment that I wanted the procedure rather than the medicine. I generally like being in clinics and hospitals with doctors–for whatever reason they make me feel safer–and I thought that this would be the easiest thing for me. After the ultrasound confirmed that it was not an ectopic pregnancy, the doctor opened me up with a speculum. I winced, and James gave me his hand to squeeze. The doctor explained that she would be giving me a shot of something to numb me in my cervix. I’ve always been squeamish, especially about needles, and all of a sudden I was hit with a wave of absolute terror. I started crying and told the doctor to wait. She looked a little wary and didn’t seem to want to stop what she was doing. The med student continued preparing the needle after I’d told them I didn’t think I could do the surgical method, and wanted to do the medical abortion instead.
The doctor told me that the shot would just feel like a pinch, that it really didn’t hurt too badly, if that’s what I was worried about. I told her I wanted her to take the speculum out. Instead, she urged me to keep going, it really wasn’t that bad. I had read enough about the procedure to know this generally wasn’t true. I explained to her that I wanted to take the pill, that I still wanted to go through with it, but that I was too scared to do it this way. After a couple of minutes of persuasion mixed with sobbing, she agreed and removed the speculum from inside of me. I have rarely felt as violated as I did at that moment, or as patronized. All of the sudden the research I’d done, the difficulty I’d had finding detailed information about the procedure that wasn’t either a horror story, or a vague and glossed over summary, took on a whole new meaning. The anonymous doctors and researchers who were meant to provide me with unbiased information and advice sifted into the “pro” and “anti” along with my friends and family, who at least had some real stake in my life.
I was furious. The doctor got me the pills for a medical abortion, explained how I had to take them one after another, and seemed especially concerned that I not take one and then fail to take the other, which can be dangerous and, she emphasized, will not prevent the pregnancy from being terminated.
“I know. I’ve read about it.”
I also wasn’t supposed to use tampons for an unspecified period of time, in case of infection, or, for the same reason, to have sex. It might’ve been the horror of the last hour, but this rule was offered in a way that seemed much more accusatory than any advice I’d ever received from a doctor before.
We left the clinic and took a cab back to James’ apartment, where I cried myself to sleep. That evening, after stocking up on huge pads and filling my prescription for painkillers and the anti-nausea pills meant to combat the side effects of the painkillers, I sat with James in my room and took the the pills. An hour or so later, I started to feel the worst cramps I’d ever experienced, despite having already taken a painkiller. The first wave of bleeding was so intense that I had to spend almost half an hour on the toilet just to keep it from getting everywhere. It felt as though the blood was falling out of me, as though my uterus was a bucket being filled and then tipped, interrupted by the occasional clot. The whole thing was horrifying to me, but I remember being so relieved to have the privacy of my own bathroom, my own bed. After the first wave, the bleeding slowed down enough that I could sit in bed with a hot water bottle on my stomach and the diaper-like pads to soak up the blood. When the cramping got bad enough that I was crying, James offered me another painkiller. I asked him to tell me stories, and we talked for the next few hours. I was too loopy to remember what we talked about, but I remember I was laughing a bit, in between frequent trips to the bathroom to change my pads. Eventually the bleeding slowed to something like a heavy period. I wasn’t used to sleeping without a tampon when I bled, but I was exhausted enough not to be bothered by the ickiness. I told James to go home, and after a few visits from friends and roommates, I fell asleep.
***END OF DISTURBING MATERIAL***
I continued to have extremely painful cramps and heavy bleeding for the next week, and then slightly less heavy bleeding after that. I started to get used to the pads, although I still hated them. I later learned that the period of time in which I was told no-tampons-or-penises-in-your-vagina had been exaggerated. Apparently the time during which you’re not supposed to have sex is much longer than the time during which you’re not supposed to use tampons, but the original doctor hadn’t mentioned this to me. I wondered whether it was because she worried that if I knew the one was okay I would do the other as well. Or maybe she was just distracted by my histrionics.
A couple of weeks after the first appointment, I had a follow-up scheduled. I slotted my best friend and roommate to come with me, but we went out and she had too much to drink the night before, and apologetically opted out that morning. So I went alone. I waited for over an hour after the scheduled time in the lobby before finally telling the receptionist I needed to be seen soon, or leave. She told a nurse, who ushered me into the back and instructed me to remove my pants and underwear and wrap myself with some sort of medical cloth, the same type that hospital gowns are made of, and wait for the doctor. I was still bleeding, though not very heavily at this point, so I was a bit uncomfortable without underwear, and therefore without a pad to soak up the blood. I was waiting in the same room where I had had my appointment two weeks ago, and where my doctor had refused to remove a speculum from my body when asked. I started to have vivid flashbacks of the experience. After half an hour of waiting, and walking back and forth from the bathroom to the table in order to keep myself relatively clean, I was crying. I left the room and told a nurse what was happening. She apologized and said the doctor on duty was running late. By the time the doctor entered the room I was sobbing. I was furious. I told her I was furious. And she defensively told me that they were understaffed and she was doing the best she could.
Everything checked out fine. I was told I could switch to tampons. I took a cab back to my neighborhood and asked James to take me to lunch. He was reluctant, but I was still furious, and determined to get my way. James got me gnocchi at an Italian place nearby. Instead of spending the day doing the homework that really needed my attention, I went to my bed and slept, and cried, and slept, until afternoon the next day.
A few days later I was still wrecked. I googled support groups, group therapy, and hotlines for people who had had abortions, and came across a lot of resources with a clear bias toward women who regretted their decisions. Who wanted to repent and mourn their “little angels.” I learned that acknowledging the fetus as a potential child to be mourned was one way that people healed, but I also knew that I didn’t relate to this mindset, and I was frankly suspicious of the motives of some of the organizations that provided funding and information for these groups.
I found some message boards where a lot of women shared their feelings months and years after the fact. A shocking number of these seemed to have gotten pregnant while in abusive relationships that they were still struggling to leave behind, and from the comments they posted seemed to be in a much worse position than I had been and was in. This was a familiar feeling throughout my pregnancy. As hard a time as I was having, I was constantly reminded that I was solidly on the lucky end of the spectrum of people who have unintended pregnancies. I ached for the women who had shared their stories, but these ultimately only made me feel worse about the amount of pain and trouble I was in, considering the advantages I had.
The main fruits of these searches, which probably won’t surprise anyone reading this, were pages and pages of opinions on the legality and morality of abortion, largely written by people who hadn’t had them, often disguised as advice or resources, and backed by by organizations with political affiliations.
So I gave up on the idea of healing with other people who had been through the same thing, and focused instead on working with my counselor, who was wonderful throughout the whole thing. I learned through her about another woman at my school who had had similarly horrific experiences at the quite reputable clinic the school referred us to.
The healing process took a lot longer than I would have ever expected. After making the final decision to terminate my pregnancy, I never questioned it. But the emotional consequences went far beyond that. I felt alienated from my faith community in a more permanent way than drinking or having sex had ever caused me to feel. I felt isolated from friends and family from home, who I felt were disappointed, and friends at school, who I still felt vaguely betrayed and misunderstood by. I was angry with myself for letting my school work slide so much while I was dealing with the whole thing. And on top of all of this, I was struggling with the same questions that were paralyzing the rest of my friends: Who did we want to become? What would become of us when we had to leave behind the safety and sense of direction provided by full-time schooling?
The good news is, things finally started falling into place for me. The bad news is, we still live in a culture where the extremely personal experiences of pregnancy, abortion, and motherhood are permeated with the politics of control, hatred of women, fear of our reproductive power, and shame about our bodies and our choices and our mistakes. Supportive and well-meaning friends and family can only do so much to combat the spiderweb of sexuality and shame we are entangled in from the time we are born. I hope that sharing my experience will change something, somewhere, for someone, at least a small amount. But mine is just one out of millions of stories of women who have had abortions, many of which will never be told out of fear of shame, fear of exposure, and fear for our lives.