Note: My apologies for the long post. Some stories just don’t tell short. The “Prelude” to my story is here.
The most remarkable thing about the day that I discovered I was pregnant was that it hadn’t happened earlier. It arrived towards the end of what had been a very dark period of my life: cocaine addiction, clinical depression, an emotionally abusive relationship, and a dangerous spate of unprotected, promiscuous sex had only recently given way to getting clean, getting accepted to grad school, and beginning to rebuild trust with my family. I was in the healthiest romantic relationship of my life—though “healthy” is a relative term here, as I was dating a man fourteen years my senior who kept hinting that he would emotionally collapse if I moved away to go to school.
But I was dead set on going to school; truth be told, I desperately wanted to move away from my state. I was living with my parents, forced to move back in as my world financially crumbled around me. While their taking me in was probably life saving, I also realized that both they and I were repeating some of the destructive emotional patterns we’d experienced during my childhood and adolescence. I needed to get away—I was practically white-knuckling my way through recovery and I could only hold out for so long without a change of scenery. I also felt increasingly trapped in my romantic relationship, but I didn’t know how to extricate myself from it and wasn’t even certain if I really wanted to. Leaving town—even if the relationship continued long-distance—seemed like the best way to get some breathing room. But all those plans started to fall apart around me as I wandered out of the bathroom with a positive pregnancy test.
The timing of the pregnancy was especially ironic because I’d just been prescribed birth control medication and was simply waiting for my next period—the one that never came—to begin taking it. Before this relationship, I’d never been able to keep enough money on hand for long enough to afford a doctor’s visit and a prescription. What money I had was quickly put towards devastating my health and my future and not towards any care for it. Condoms were also out of the question. The first few times I’d slept with men I’d half-heartedly asked them if they’d wear a condom and, of course, the answer was always no and I lacked the strength to argue. So I stopped asking and switched to saying: “Don’t come inside me, I’m not on the pill.” Sometimes I wished that I would get pregnant. I’d completely lost the ability to care about myself enough to do anything but stand by and watch my life, which was increasingly resembling a slow and passive suicide attempt, stumble onward. I thought maybe, just maybe, if I had child I would be able to do for it the one thing that I couldn’t do for myself anymore: to care about it. I thought maybe it would give me some purpose, some direction.
Ultimately, I did find purpose and direction and not in the form of a child. Instead, it was a gifted substance abuse counselor who talked me down from the ledge, helped me get back on my feet, and slowly, gently, and painfully got me to start giving a shit about myself again. The stream of acceptance letters from grad schools—and my ultimate decision to head up north to a relatively well-regarded state school— seemed like a sign that I had finally drug myself out of the pit by my fingernails. I was battered and bruised and bleeding but I was alive. And then the pregnancy came and I could feel myself being pulled back down into the abyss, perhaps never to return.
“Well, I’m pregnant,” I said, trying to remain nonchalant as I emerged from the bathroom with the positive test-stick in my hand. It was no use, though. I immediately collapsed sobbing into my boyfriend’s arms. He held me for a while and then led me over to the couch. “What do you want to do?” he asked. I told him the only thing that I was certain of right then: “I can’t have a child right now.” I was afraid that he’d be upset. I was afraid that he’d see the child as the perfect way to finally secure our relationship forever; I’d been anxious for awhile that he’d been planning to ask me to marry him. But instead he seemed relieved: “Well, I can’t have a child right now either. So let’s go ahead and set you up with someone.” For some reason I hadn’t thought that things were going to move this quickly, but it seemed nice to have somebody pick me up and carry me along when I was still in shock. It meant I didn’t have to think too much or try and get myself to move when I felt like I was frozen. I muttered something about marching in pro-life rallies with my parents as a child and I said something about what my parents would think if they ever found out. He told me not to think about it.
We went online and I read about the different types of abortions and I decided to have a medical (at home, drug induced) abortion. I figured if I was going to have an abortion, I should do it as soon as possible. The longer I waited, the more fraught the ethics would become. I knew that, eventually, the fetus would reach a point of development where I couldn’t justify it to myself anymore. I made an initial appointment at Planned Parenthood and was told that, because of state law, there’d be a three day period between the first visit and the visit where I received the abortifacient pills (two pills: one to be taken at the clinic, after which there was no going back, and one to be taken at home which would effectively force a miscarriage). I was angry about the waiting period; I wanted to have the abortion before the baby’s heart started beating if at all possible and this delay would put me right on the line.
Driving to the clinic I imagined all of the things that might happen: Would I have to walk through crowds of screaming protestors? Would people pull me aside and try and talk me out of it? What if some nut bombed the whole place and my parents learned where I’d been when the police called them? When I arrived at the small building, there was none of this high drama. No protestors. No madmen. Not even that many patients. It was like walking into any other doctor’s office. Once I was taken back, a nurse had me take another over-the-counter pregnancy test and then performed a trans-vaginal ultrasound to make certain that I was actually pregnant. She asked me if I wanted to look at the ultrasound, “you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” I asked to see it. I was only going to do this thing if I could do it with open eyes to precisely what I was doing. She turned the monitor to where I could see it and I felt a certain sense of relief. It didn’t look like a baby, it looked like a tiny black dot swimming in a sea of green. I probably wouldn’t have even been able to pick it out if she hadn’t pointed it out to me. This was not a baby. I could do this.
While the “decision” to have an abortion was made quite swiftly when I told my boyfriend that I “couldn’t have a child right then,” I actually debated with myself a fair amount in between that discussion and the visit to Planned Parenthood. Perhaps I could just keep the child? Like a movie I could see it all playing out before my eyes: I’d marry the boyfriend, I wouldn’t go to school, I’d drown my lost dreams in a bevy of drugs and alcohol, and try as I might I’d never really be able to hide from the child that I thought it was all his fault. (For some reason I always imagined the child as male.) Better to be dead than to have me as a mother, I thought. Of course, I could put the child up for adoption—maybe the school I’d been accepted to would let me defer for a year? But give the child up to what? Who knows what would happen to him? My previous relationship—the one that had been the catalyst for my downward spiral—had been with a boy who was adopted and who had never come to terms with it. Could I do that to a child? And what would happen if, one day, he tracked me down and asked me why I’d given him up and all I could say was “I wanted to go to grad school”? At least an aborted baby could never come back to ask questions.
Somewhere around this time—I believe it was prior to the abortion itself—I had a nightmare. The details are sketchy all these years later, but I recall that there was this town and every year, in order to save themselves, they’d sacrifice a child to a vengeful deity by drowning it in a great body of water—a giant lake, if I recall—which bordered the town. I had to steel myself against many things in order to get free from drugs; I’d had to learn to look out for myself. This felt like that steeling to the nth degree; I had to kill something within myself—literally and metaphorically—in order to survive. Or, at least, that’s what it felt like. Only one person besides my boyfriend knew about the pregnancy before my abortion: my best friend. I’d called him up almost as soon as I learned that I was pregnant and I told him that I was having an abortion. This all seemed totally sensible to him so he was a bit surprised when I expressed some dis-ease about the whole thing and even some guilt. “Really?” he asked. “You think it’s wrong?” “Not wrong like murder,” I replied. “But still wrong. Like torturing an animal or something.” Later, I told him about the dream. He told me not to worry about it.
So, at the point that I went to the clinic, I’d made my mind up. I had looked at the ultrasound and I had made my choice. This, it seemed, was the only way I could survive. Even if it meant ripping out my own heart, it was the only way to survive. Driving home that day I literally started speaking aloud to my child. “You don’t want to come into this world,” I said. “It’s a shitty world. It’s better to have not been born at all.” I believed what I said. And as I said it I felt, growing in myself, a great coldness. But also a great determination to live. It was a strange paradox: life sucked and yet you’d do anything to keep it. Maybe that was what made it so shitty in the first place.
Three days later I was back at the clinic talking to the doctor who would be administering the first pill and would be giving me the second one along with a prescription for Vicodin. The pain associated with the abortion was on a bell curve. Some women could simply make do with Tylenol. A small few would have particularly intense pain. Most would fall somewhere in the middle. Best to just take a Vicodin at the same point that you took the second pill, just in case.
I quickly discovered that I was on one of the far ends of the bell curve—and not the “low pain” one. I’d been worried about feeling guilty during the abortion, but the physical pain was so overwhelming that it was all I could think about. Two Vicodin every two hours would buy me about 15-30 minutes in the two hours where I was too fucked-up to really care that I was in pain; other than that, I really just wanted my boyfriend to shoot me and put me out of my misery. Every few minutes I’d be in the bathroom vomiting or spewing diarrhea and there was a constant stream of blood that required regularly changing maxi pads. After four or five hours, the worst of it seemed to be over. I continued to have mild to moderate cramps, though, sometimes serious enough that I’d need to take a Vicodin.
Here the story takes a turn for the absurd: before I’d learned that I was pregnant, we’d planned a trip to Disney World with my boyfriend’s parents. Not wanting to let anyone know what had happened, we decided to go through with the visit. So, a couple of days after the abortion—and with me still being occasionally visited by awful cramps that were continuing longer than the doctor said they should have—we headed down to FL (nearly a twelve hour drive). Parts of the trip I could almost pretend that nothing had happened, at other points I was in so much pain that I was having to concoct some bullshit story about severe menstrual cramps to beg Percocets off of my boyfriend’s mother. Meanwhile, I’d tried to call the clinic about the continuing cramps but my calls kept going to voicemail. I debated going to the ER, but finally decided against it, despite the looming fear of dying from post-abortion complications in the middle of Disney World. Suffice it to say, I don’t think I’ll be returning the Magic Kingdom anytime soon.
Despite the persistent cramps, in the post-abortion follow-up all seemed to be well. The voicemail system of the clinic seemed to be awry, as the woman performing the examination seemed to think that I had just called a day or so earlier rather than a full week earlier. She seemed legitimately concerned about the lack of response and genuinely sympathetic about my particularly painful experience. “Hopefully you’ll never have to have another abortion,” she said. “But if you do, you should probably have a surgical one instead.”
The next week I was headed up to the “Prospectives’ Weekend” at my future graduate institution. At this point, I’d developed such severe stress-induced acid reflux that I’d some sort of sore had appeared on my esophagus which made it painful to swallow anything. My parents chalked this up to stress around the process of transitioning back into academic life. During the visiting weekend I went to a packed pizza party at a grad student’s house. Trying to not stand out too much, I took to eating the pizza in small deliberate bites that still hurt like hell whenever I tried to swallow them. Lots of overly-enthusiastic students asked me what period of literature I worked on. I tried to reply but everything just seemed to press in against me more and more. My skin started to go clammy and darkness creeped in at the edges of my eyes—it was getting hard to breathe. I excused myself to the bathroom and lay down on the cold welcoming tile for a good ten minutes. It was the first and only proper panic attack of my life. I wandered back to my hotel wondering what in God’s name I was doing up in this faraway state with people I didn’t know the first thing about. Maybe I should have just stayed home.
But I made choice: I’d already sacrificed so much to get away and I couldn’t let fear hold me back now. I went to school. The long-distance relationship with the boyfriend predictably fizzled out. I did very well in school, at least academically. I didn’t really get my head around the social aspect of things until I’d moved on from my Master’s work and to the Doctoral program that I’m still completing. The truth of the matter was that I didn’t really want to get too close to people. Nothing good had ever come of that. The only way that I knew how to survive was to close myself off from all the feelings that would open me up to the other. I worked like a madwoman: ten to twelve hour days at least six days a week. I suppose it was hardly a surprise that I enjoyed such academic success because there was no sense of self that I had anymore that wasn’t defined by my work. My work I had control over. My work couldn’t hurt me, or leave me, or make demands of me.
It took me a long time to find balance, I’d cut myself off from so much. The abortion was certainly not the only thing that did that, but it felt like the culmination of it. I felt like it was the most brutal thing I’d done: not simply to the unborn child but also to myself. But it also seemed necessary. A birth felt like it would both ruin the life I’d only recently rediscovered and I could imagine nothing but misery for the child if it had been born.
When I was first thinking about becoming Catholic, one thing that always held me back was the abortion. I would, presumably, have to confess it and be remorseful for it. But was I? If I could go back, would I have made a different choice? For a long time, I didn’t think that I would. I didn’t think that I could. It was a life and death situation for me; not only would I not have the life I have now if I hadn’t have done it, but I might not be alive at all. I might have been killed off by my addictions by now. I felt like I was where God wanted me to be. Surely if it brought me to this place, then it couldn’t have been wrong? I decided to look things squarely in the face, just like I had when I asked to see the ultrasound. I looked at pictures of what the fetus looked like around the fifth to sixth week, roughly when my abortion occurred. It doesn’t look human then; it looks like some strange, lumpy, primal animal. But I still felt something for it. Heck, I was a vegetarian; I felt something for tiny fuzzy animals. How was I not going to feel something for this alien creature that I myself had once been? But that didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have made the same choice. What could I have done? Maybe I was too weak.
I had something like an epiphany almost five years after having had the abortion: it wasn’t actually a life-and-death situation for me, I just thought it was. Obviously, for some women, their pregnancies truly do hold their lives in the balance. But I had failed to give myself credit for my own strength. It was not inevitable that I’d slip back into my old addictions. It was not inevitable that I’d marry the father of my child—I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted and that it wouldn’t be a healthy choice. I was capable of being a parent; I just hadn’t believed myself to be so. At one level, it was a healing realization. I used to not even be able to think back on that time without feeling my chest seize up like I was back in that moment of existential panic. Now I could look back on it all more calmly, even if I also felt regret. I have done a lot of crazy things in my life and I’ve made a lot of major—and sometimes questionable—decisions. But this is the only decision that I made where I still, even many years later, find myself asking “What if?”
As it turns out, I never did have to confess my abortion to a priest. My childhood baptism was considered “invalid” since I was not baptized using the trinitarian formula. As a result, I was baptized upon my reception into the church and, as a result, did not have to confess any sins committed before the baptism. The baptism itself was considered an absolution. However, I had begun to actually want to confess my abortion. I felt like I needed to wring the whole story out of me once and for all. To put it all on the table. So, consider this post my confession.