So I hurtled towards abortion with my mind and body in turmoil, hoping that when it was all over I would wake up and discover that the whole thing had just been a bad dream.’
A highly personal and in-depth account of one woman’s experience. A true story.
The following are excerpts from the full story. If you would like to read the full text of Catherine’s Story, click here to download in PDF format. It is approximately 15 pages in length. (For further reading on unplanned pregnancy and pregnancy loss issues for women and men, including articles for health and welfare professionals, see menu link to Open Doors Education pages.)
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Catherine’s story –
The experience of abortion drove me to the edge of my sanity and left me hanging on by a fingernail. The road since then has been long and hard. I became pregnant in the early (and, as it would eventuate, the latter) stages of a relationship. We were only together for about 3 months. I met James at a party and we embarked on a fairly intense relationship, spending a lot of time together and talking of plans for the coming months – plans as a couple. He seemed genuine and sincere, though retrospectively, I can see that he wasn’t entirely honest and was less than caring in some of his actions.
…I cannot be 100% certain but it is most likely that I became pregnant when he forced me to have unprotected intercourse. I had a prescription for oral contraceptives but was waiting for my period so that I could begin taking them. In the meantime we used condoms and I was, many times, a consensual partner to protected intercourse. However on one occasion he held me down, ignored my protestations of ‘no’, and forced himself into me. He said he wanted to see what I felt like without a condom. It took me a very long time to acknowledge this and name it appropriately as rape. This was at least in part because after the abortion I felt so guilty, so culpable, that I was unable to contemplate sharing the blame.
…My menstrual cycle is usually very regular, so I suspected pregnancy for a couple of weeks before it was confirmed. I knew intellectually that pregnancy was a distinct possibility, but emotionally I denied it could be true. Even when breast tenderness, indigestion, nausea and morning sickness were increasing the likelihood, I told myself I ‘couldn’t’ be pregnant. I told no one of my concerns, as if verbalising it would make it more likely to become a reality.
James had told me of a couple of false pregnancy scares with a previous girlfriend, and of their needless worry. I wasn’t going to be that kind of a girlfriend. I wasn’t going to be paranoid. I tried to put on an act of normality. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that I probably failed miserably and that it was a mistake to shut James out. By the time my period was three weeks overdue, I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Even knowing that there was a good chance that I was pregnant, it was still an enormous shock to have it confirmed. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted a child and certainly wouldn’t have chosen this time or these circumstances. This was the sort of thing that happened to other people. People such as irresponsible teenagers or those who were ignorant about contraception. How naive was I?
… I was repulsed by the thought of becoming fat, developing stretch marks and of my breasts sagging. However I also felt secretly proud that I could get pregnant and felt strangely protective towards the baby. Such contradictions!
Even as I was plotting to kill it, I was also nurturing it by stopping smoking, avoiding alcohol and by being careful about what I ate and lifted etc. I felt a lot of ambivalence about the pregnancy and the baby. Being pregnant in my circumstances meant failure to me. I was acutely embarrassed and ashamed and felt guilty for being an intelligent, single woman, without a long-term stable relationship, and in this situation. I cried a lot and felt very distressed at the thought of anyone finding out. I was sure they would judge me to be a slut. Nevertheless I also felt excited. I was wondering how the baby would look and act and what its life might be like.
Pregnancy was confirmed by a urine test at my local health centre. Before telling me the result, they asked whether I planned and wanted to be pregnant. I responded that I didn’t. They then told me that my test was positive – that I was pregnant. Their immediate assumption seemed to be that an unplanned pregnancy should be removed. Without asking for it and without any discussion of my feelings about or thoughts on the subject, they proceeded to give me a letter of referral and a list of abortionists detailing addresses, costs etc. They did suggest I discuss it with my boyfriend before deciding. However they offered no information about options other than abortion. No mention was made about adoption or single parenthood. It seemed in their minds there was no decision to be made, no options to be considered, that the obvious course of action was to terminate the pregnancy. They seemed oblivious to the fact that their news had thrown me into the middle of a major personal crisis.
… Basically, James was my last hope. Unless he could offer some support then abortion seemed like the best solution. Sadly this offer was not forthcoming. He made it quite clear that he wanted me to have an abortion. He had already rejected me once and I hurt from that. I felt unable to risk a second rejection by directly voicing my desire for help and support. I neither expected nor wanted an offer of commitment to me but would have liked an offer to be an involved father to our child. However there was no expression of support and I felt my options narrowing. I think that is when I decided to have the abortion.
I was influenced towards abortion by the belief that it was the only way to assert some sort of certainty over the future. It seemed futile to hope for the other options. They seemed to offer a doubtful future. A future too dependent on ifs and buts. I didn’t recognise that abortion offered even less.
Everyone else seemed to assume that abortion was the obvious path to take and I allowed myself to be railroaded towards abortion by their assumptions. No one suggested that I would manage (or even thrive?) if I had a baby. Certainly no one expressed confidence that I would manage without a partner if need be. This confidence that was missing in other people’s attitudes towards me was also lacking in my own feelings about myself. I was so doubtful that I would cope emotionally, physically or financially even in the short term, let alone for the next 16+ years.
… Sadly I decided that an abortion would solve all of my problems – both real and imagined. Then I would get back to being me – the pre-pregnant me. Not realising that I could never be that person again. Abortion is sold to women as the great solution. A minor procedure to remove a major problem. But that hasn’t been my reality. Abortion just released a maelstrom of new problems for me.
Imagine yourself alone on an out of control roller coaster. You are going up and down, feeling sick and scared. There is a dark tunnel up ahead – but you can’t see how long the tunnel lasts or what is at the other end. Just before the tunnel is a station marked ABORTION. What do you do? Do you take your chances through the tunnel or do you jump off at the station? I jumped.
… I had 2nd, 3rd, 4th ….. 100th thoughts. Many, many times I imagined what it would be like if I continued with the pregnancy, had the baby and raised it. I just couldn’t visualise myself having the strength of character to do it on my own. Then I would fantasise about my ex-boyfriend James offering his support. Not offering to be my boyfriend but offering to be a father to our child – an involved father. This fantasy relied on his actions and they weren’t forthcoming. They weren’t volunteered and I felt unable to ask for them.
So I hurtled towards abortion with my mind and body in turmoil, hoping that when it was all over I would wake up and discover that the whole thing had just been a bad dream. Even on the day of the abortion I was still hoping that somehow another escape route would materialise. My hopes soared briefly when James was late collecting me. Perhaps he had changed his mind? But there was to be no reprieve.
… In the days and weeks following the abortion I had extremes of feelings that at times seemed contradictory. The anticipated sense of relief that I was no longer pregnant and the hope that things could now return to normal never happened for me. Instead I felt terribly empty inside and had a sense of horror at what I had done. I couldn’t quite believe it, nothing seemed real.
I felt empty, my breasts were returning to normal, I was bleeding and yet somehow I was also fantasising that I was still pregnant. Hoping I was still pregnant. I remember thinking that if my baby really wanted to live, really wanted me as its mother, then it would have escaped the suction device and might still be there. I mean my baby would have been really clever and it wouldn’t be so hard to hide in my womb if it wanted to … right??? And if God’s plan was really for me to have this baby then he would have helped it, wouldn’t he?
While I was thinking this some of the time, at other times I was filled with anguish and despair. In private I would cry and cry with body racking sobs. I would cry for the baby and for myself. I felt like an injured animal that just wants to curl up and lick its wounds. I had started to think suicide was the only way to stop the incessant hurt.
I was also sleeping poorly. I was having disturbing dreams and would wake up crying with my heart pounding. Once I awoke to the sound of plaintive wailing – and realised it was coming from my mouth.
There seemed no escape, no prospect of relief. My grief was so pervasive. My whole life felt like it was disintegrating around me. I felt like I was losing my mind and going mad. Yet insanity would have been a welcome release from the hell I was living.
… If I had made the right decision with the abortion then it wasn’t rational to feel so unhappy … and if I had made the wrong decision then it was my own stupid fault and I had no right to expect anyone else to understand or be empathic. Anyway how could someone else understand when I wasn’t able to myself?
… The days of feeling sad and confused spread into weeks, the weeks into months and then a whole year had passed. It all felt very fresh to me even though 12 months had elapsed. My pain and grief still felt so tangible. I was acutely aware that time – that supposed healer – was passing. Yet I was far from healed. I still felt such a profound sense of loss. I felt swamped by my feelings of depression and desperation, but think I had stopped fighting them as much. I accepted with acquiescence that this was where and how I deserved to be. Thoughts about the abortion and the baby were still occupying a lot of my time and using a lot of my energy. If I realised that I had missed thinking about it for a day or two then I felt guilty for forgetting. It felt like an omission rather than a positive step forward. I don’t think I experienced a single moment of true happiness or contentment in that year.
… There were 3 things that happened around the 12-month mark that did help for awhile. The first of these was seeing a billboard in a railway station, which read: Abortion and miscarriage can be a lonely and emotional experience. It is natural to want to talk it through. A skilled and caring listener can help you resolve these feelings. It then gave a phone number for Open Doors Counselling. It was a revelation to realise that there must be other women feeling as I did and that someone had recognised the need to help them. It was a huge relief to know that perhaps I wasn’t so abnormal after all. I sat in the station and cried and cried. I didn’t phone them for another 6 months. It was enough for awhile just to know that they were there if I needed them. It was like being thrown a life buoy. I was able to keep treading water for a little while longer with the knowledge that help was near at hand.
… I was overcome with fresh waves of grief on the day that would have been the baby’s first birthday – had I not aborted it. It was a very emotional day for me and I had the need to mark it with a symbolic gesture. I went to a cemetery, which seemed appropriate for remembering the dead. I spent about 3 hours wandering among the graves and crying. I talked to my baby and apologised for what I had done. I spoke to some of the graves and asked their spirits to look after my baby. The headstones with photos were good for this. I could look for a kindly face and imagine them with my child.
… The aborted pregnancy was my one and only. For months after the abortion I was disturbed by the sight and sounds of babies and couldn’t bear to be near them. I was repulsed by them. As if I was trying to convince myself that I hadn’t given up anything that was worth having. Gradually this changed until I would look at other people’s children with longing and would feel jealous that others had their children while I had killed mine. It wasn’t that I wanted their children to also be dead. More that I just wanted mine back. But she is irretrievable.
… The abortion had a major impact on how I felt about myself. It badly affected my self-esteem. Afterwards I had expected to be me again. The pre pregnant me. I didn’t realise that person was gone forever. But if I wasn’t me, then who the hell was I? I had to look at myself long and hard and try to salvage an identity. For a long time I was filled with self-loathing. I hated the person who had killed my baby. I hated the weak person who had allowed herself to be swayed by others. I hated the person who, having made the decision to abort, was now feeling sad, angry, depressed, anxious and confused instead of just getting on with life. I hated that person; but that person was me. So I hated me. I hated me with a vengeance.
… Part of me recognised that what I was experiencing had a psychological cause … but another part of me hoped it had a physical cause. A psychological problem wasn’t very acceptable to me or to some of the doctors I went to for help.
Though I could date my symptoms back to the abortion and even when examinations and tests failed to find a physical cause, still doctors didn’t direct their attention towards my psychological state. They seemed to have trouble accepting what a powerful influence the psyche can exert not only on the mind but on the body too. I understand that they don’t wish to overlook a physical condition and I wouldn’t want them to. But I am concerned by their tunnel vision and disbelief. It angers me that psychological problems are dismissed as if they are somehow less important than physical problems. To the person experiencing them they are just as important and equally disabling.
… I felt panicky about, and helpless to stop myself losing control again. I couldn’t stop crying and felt myself becoming embroiled by depression and misery again. I bought and smoked my first cigarette for 3 months and phoned Open Doors for an appointment. I couldn’t continue like this any longer.
… When I first came to Open Doors, I just wanted someone to stop the incessant pain I was feeling. Someone to somehow ease the guilt that seemed to be indelibly seared to my soul. I had a notion that there would be a formula to follow. That if I did A, B and C then I would feel better. I had a sense of urgency and wanted to rush through this process and emerge ‘well’ at the other end. If I had to do this journey, then I wanted to do it with a first class express ticket. I would never have envisaged that it was possible to start feeling even worse than I already did. This was beyond my comprehension but it became my reality.
I ended up having a total of 3 1/2 years of various therapy and eventually when it became apparent that therapy alone wasn’t doing the job for me, I also had a long course of anti-depressant medication. That combination allowed me to finally turn the corner.
The experience of depression is very hard to describe, even retrospectively. No words can recreate or do justice to the sensation felt at the time. Sometimes its monotony is unrelenting. Other times its nature changes like a chameleon but each facet is as unpleasant as its predecessor. I had never understood the literalness of the saying ‘weight of the world on their shoulders’ until my depression lifted and it really felt as if a heavy press had been removed from my head and shoulders. I hadn’t realised it had been there until it was gone.
Initially in therapy I was encouraged to explore and express my reactions. However the days, weeks and months spread into each other and I became even more despondent about and confined by my prolonged grief. I was so tired of grappling with my conflicting emotions. My therapist tried to provide a safe haven where I could unburden myself, but I just felt like I was being sucked into quicksand and suffocated. I despaired of ever having any sort of catharsis or resolution. I failed to find any logical, acceptable reason for my depression in my life events or external environment, so I turned my thoughts inward to seek a cause.
I was so angry at myself for having the abortion and causing myself so much pain. I was also angry at other people but didn’t realise it and couldn’t express it. I had an abortion because I thought having a child would be too hard and would ruin my life. Yet paradoxically, because I had killed my child, how could I ever hope or deserve to feel better? How could anyone understand or help me to resolve such a conundrum? Being told I was grieving was no help. I didn’t feel entitled to grieve. This was something I had chosen after all. Even though I now had someone to talk to, I still felt very alone and unworthy of help.
… My psychological problems began to slowly lessen and over time, with lots of help, have largely resolved. Occasionally they flare up again at times when other life events are testing me. I think all these psychological problems arose for me because I was so burdened by my dark secret and by my inability to share it. Abortion is such a private loss and there is nothing tangible to grieve for. There are no mementos, no photos, no memories to share, no grave to visit or take flowers to, nothing recognisable to anyone else. It all takes place in your imagination.
For the first couple of years after my abortion it was possible to think of ‘the baby’. But when that baby became a toddler and then a young child in my mind, it was no longer possible to imagine it in gender non-specific terms. This was another source of distress and conflict for me. I thought it would be letting my child down again if I thought of it as a boy and it was actually a girl – or vice versa. For a long time I was in a quandary about this and strenuously resisted committing one way or another in my mind. Eventually I listened to my inner most feelings about it and allowed myself to grieve specifically for my daughter.
… I no longer feel depressed about it and thoughts of it no longer fill my days. But I am still sad that I had the abortion. Sad about what it did to my child and to myself. I will never feel good about it and nor would I want to. I will never think of it as a positive decision because it wasn’t.
… I don’t think the actual abortion had any positive effects, but yes, certainly there have been positives in the aftermath. It took a very long time for any of these positives to be revealed to me. It has been a very painful journey of discovery. However now that I am aware of them I wouldn’t want to relinquish them.
… I have also created some positives from my grief. The first few Christmases, being as they are so focused on children, hit me hard. It is a difficult time for many people for a wide variety of reasons – many of them far sadder than mine. I now deal with it by going to one of the department stores and buying a gift to leave under their charity tree. I select with great care and love, something for a little girl the same age as mine would be. Then on Christmas day, instead of getting melancholic, I can think of another little girl hopefully being happy as she opens her present. I have found this ritual helpful and healing for me.
Perhaps the greatest positive can come from telling my story. Having an abortion took me to a dark and tortuous place and left me plummeting alone into an abyss. It was a place I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Yet ultimately mine is a story of hope. That place showed me a depth of love that I never knew existed and I have used that to claw my way back.
My ghost child lives on in my heart and conscience as a legacy of that love. If my story can increase awareness, change attitudes and give hope and support to other women, then that helps to provide a reason for it all. Perhaps in death my child can have a meaning that I denied her in life?
How can you make a valid choice – and live with it – if you don’t have the information and the support? I feel strongly that crisis pregnancy counselling must include information about all options and about both the positive and negative effects of these options. It is of paramount importance that women are given whatever help they need to make a decision that may affect them for the rest of their lives. I don’t think doctors and counsellors are maliciously propelling women towards abortion. They are probably deluded, as much of society is, about abortion being a minor thing.
I also think that medical staff, especially those working in the abortion industry, should educate and inform themselves about post abortion depression and should provide treatment for this or have a plan of referral. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away – not for the woman suffering it.
… I have had a lot of help and support in my travels along the path to peace and acceptance. I am so grateful for that and don’t think I would be here without it.
It is only rarely now that my abortion experience dominates my thoughts. But sometimes still something will happen to trigger a forceful return and increased intensity of my feelings about it all.
I sometimes liken it to a kite on a string. Mostly I am happy to let it soar far away in the sky; let it go almost out of sight as it mingles with the clouds. But at other times I am compelled to reel it in close again; to examine its details and confirm its existence; to make sure that I am not just holding an empty string and that I didn’t imagine it all. Perhaps one day I will feel safe enough to release the string from my grip and let the kite and myself be free?
(Names and other identifying details are fictitious to protect confidentiality.)
Coping with an abortion can be a lonely experience. Many women feel very isolated with few people they can talk to. Because of this OPEN DOORS has established a specialist counselling service for anyone needing support following an abortion. Skilled and caring listeners can help ease the pain and confusion of hidden or unresolved grief. Low cost counselling and psychotherapy are both available for women, men, teenagers and couples.
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