I never thought I’d have an abortion at 31.
In fact, when my (now ex-) boyfriend and I started dating, one of the first long conversations we had was about how neither of us would get rid of a baby.
However, saying and doing are two very different things, and when I actually fell pregnant (accidentally), our certainty quickly dissolved. We discussed keeping it, at length, but when we took a good look at ‘us’, it turned out the foundation wasn’t even there for a meaningful relationship, let alone a child.
The morning after the procedure I woke up and, with all traces of the soft cloud of anaesthetic gone, burst into tears. My boyfriend wasn’t there to comfort me – he’d left in the middle of the night for a work trip, because we’d been repeatedly assured by a number of experts that the recovery time was short, and that I’d be fine.
The thing is, I was not fine.
Physically, I was in the unlucky minority that doesn’t recover quickly. I had stabbing pains for weeks, and I continued to bleed for nearly two months. Which was a shock, to say the least.
But it was the mental, emotional, and spiritual stuff that really hit me. Every bit of (pro-choice) language surrounding abortion that I’d encountered talked about the freedom and empowerment it afforded women. It all talked about the relief following the procedure; none of it – none of it – talked about the regret.
It sounds so dramatic to put on paper (or screen), but I felt like I had torn my soul in two. I felt like I had hollowed out a part of myself – which I guess I had – and the unexpected sense of loss was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe I’d made a decision I couldn’t take back. It affected me so profoundly that I kept looking in the mirror and expecting to see a new face.
Now, I consider myself compassionate, but rational. I don’t cry often, I don’t dwell on things, I pick myself up after loss or heartbreak; I believe in the power of positive thinking and moving on, and everything happening for a reason, etc, etc.
But none of that made any difference to me then. It didn’t matter that I knew that it was the right choice – unquestionably – and it didn’t matter that I knew that things would work out for the best – again, unquestionably. I didn’t fucking care about any of that, I just missed the barely formed foetus.
I cried a lot, for a long time. I cried when I woke up. I cried falling asleep. I cried walking to work. I cried during yoga classes, so much so that one teacher made it quite clear she wasn't sure what to do with me. I told her I'd ‘lost a baby’, because telling a perfect stranger you've had an abortion and hate yourself for it isn't exactly acceptable normal human practice.
My boyfriend and I broke up a few weeks later, which I’m sure didn’t help. He tried to be supportive but ultimately, it wasn’t his body and mind, and he didn’t possess the empathy to imagine it was. Hell, I barely possessed the empathy myself. I was completely shocked – floored – by my reaction.
Because no one tells you that maybe it’s going to hurt. That maybe it’s going to be really difficult. That maybe you’re going to struggle with having taken a life. Except, of course, the pro-life campaigners, but I disagree with them so strongly that their message held little meaning. The pro-choice information all suggested that it was difficult for a few days, then you picked yourself up and moved on. I felt further weighed down by my failure to be okay. What was so wrong with me that I couldn’t cope with having taken what was clearly the right decision?
A very wise friend said to me: a loss is a loss, whether it's by chance or by choice
Eventually, I told my friends. And isn’t it amazing what people tell you about themselves when you open up? At least half the women – and quite a few of the men – confided in me that they’d had one, or been through one with someone. And almost every single person said it had been a traumatic experience.
“It took much longer to recover emotionally than I expected,” says 30-year-old Lola, of her surgical abortion in 2015. “I thought I’d just shrug and move on, but the truth of it was that it seemed to permeate my life. It sent me free-falling. I wasn't an emotional wreck but it dislodged something in my brain. I felt removed from myself, which ultimately made me feel removed and alienated from others. I’d say it took six or seven months for me to recover.”
“It was much harder than I ever expected – emotionally more than physically (which, it goes without saying, was not nice),” says Antonia, who was 29 when she, too, had a surgical abortion. “I felt a pressure to be fine about it, but definitely was not.”
Around 200,000 abortions are carried out every year in England and Wales alone, and I don’t think it’s possible that myself and my friends are the only ones who struggled. I don’t think it’s possible that we are the only ones who made a choice that – although we knew was the right one – was also hard, and painful. I think having an abortion at an age when you expect to have children is definitely more of a strain than, say, having one at 18. But I also know that I’ve spoken to women who had one when they were young, and still grappled emotionally for some time afterwards.
I wasn’t sure whether to put my name to this piece. In fact, given the nature of the internet, I’m still not sure whether it’s an insane idea. But ultimately, if I can make one person feel half as alone as I did then it’ll be worth it. I don’t want another woman to search the internet for help – like I did – only to be confronted by unintelligible, grief-filled, anonymous Mumsnet posts or wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing pro-life websites, telling you you’ve made a huge mistake and yes, you should regret it, and yes, you are going to hell.
Regardless of my personal experience, I remain 100% pro-choice. And I feel so unbelievably lucky to have had not only the unconditional support of my friends and family, but also of the state. That picture of Trump sitting in a room with seven other old white men signing away women’s rights over their own bodies and reproductive organs makes me feel sick, and scared. The USA has an archaic approach to birth control, and one of the highest unplanned pregnancy rates in the developed world. I would suggest that you donate whatever you were going to spend at the pub tonight to Planned Parenthood; they’re going to need it.
With the combination of a lot of yoga, a very good therapist, and the simple passing of time, after about six months I began to feel like myself again. And now, while I still have moments of sadness, on the whole I’m actually – to my astonishment – much happier even than I was before.
So if you’re struggling, the advice I would give is be kind to yourself. A very wise friend said to me: a loss is a loss whether it’s by chance or by choice. Don’t judge yourself, and don’t deny yourself whatever it is you’re feeling. It’s okay not to be okay. It will get better, of course it will. But it might take a bit of time.
And that’s also okay.
Names have been changed to protect the identity of some individuals.