On Abortion: Shame, Stigma and Choice

The Magazine: On Abortion: Shame, Stigma and Choice
I had an abortion. There, I said it. Honestly, that was half the battle.

A wise friend once told me that shame lives in the dark, and she’s right. Shame is like a nasty bacteria. It thrives where others cannot see it. It’s protected when nobody knows about it. It preys on our vulnerabilities. By sharing my story, I hope to lift my experience out of the darkest depths of my mind and my body and banish my shame once and for all. The guilt no longer serves me, but I will carry the experience with me forever. It is part of me, and I will always remember just how lucky I was to have had a choice when I needed it the most.

Days before college graduation, I found out I was pregnant — closing one chapter of my life and welcoming another with more tears of sadness than joy. It felt like utter chaos, like my life was ending. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what I wanted to happen. I started redefining my stance on abortion and identified as a sinner. I started believing in my fate as determined by the Catholic Church. I was going through that thing that I never thought would actually happen to me, and let me tell you, you really don’t know how you are going to feel until it does happen to you. Let me tell you something else: the last thing you’d want in a moment of total chaos and confusion is to lose the only control you do have left— your choices concerning your own body. With all that was in flux, I cannot comprehend what my experience would have been like if I were stripped of this rightful power.

All I can say is, thank god my friends and family supported my decision to have an abortion. And thank god for California’s acceptance of my choice.

Only my parents, three close friends, and the guy I was seeing at the time of the abortion knew what had happened. I had to keep it a secret. If I didn’t, I was convinced everyone around me would disown me and be ashamed of me. I asked my confidants not to say anything, to anyone. Even my boyfriend. I didn’t want him to share the secret because I felt like it was my secret. My shame. But in a panic, I propelled myself into a strange kind of survival mode. Even though I knew other women who had abortions and were open about it, I still couldn’t bring myself to let it out. I was in denial.

I never brought it up — not even to the few who knew my deepest, darkest truth. I feigned unbreakable resiliency. Invincible qualities. I never let anyone see me cry. I was always “ok.” I acted like I didn’t need to deal with it and all I needed to do was deal with it. I had a long-term boyfriend who I lived with for a few years, and he didn’t even know about my abortion. If you’re reading this now old long-term boyfriend, I wish I had told you. I wish I had let you in, because I know you would have helped me carry the load, and I could have helped myself so much sooner.

The experience was so emotionally and physically exhausting and complicated that it quite literally catapulted me into another level of adulthood — womanhood, and motherhood (to myself). It startled me to my core at one of the most formative moments of my young adult life. In lieu of raising a child, I was given an opportunity to grow up — and I took it.

I became more resilient while accepting and sharing my vulnerability. I tried respecting boundaries without building walls. I held myself and others more accountable. I let go of my grudges and found ways to connect with people I thought I didn’t like. I told the truth so I could call myself honest. I took responsibility for my actions and found ways to procure more responsibility. I loved people even when they didn’t love me back. If I felt judgment growing inside of me I tried replacing it with empathy. I began to forgive myself and love me unconditionally. I learned how to nurture myself and others like the mother I was—and wasn’t.

Me trying to write my abortion story almost feels like one big metaphor for my life before I decided to have the abortion. Just as any story can be told in an infinite number of ways, so too could my life have taken on a multitude of different forms had I not been given the choice to decide the fate of my body. The ripple effects of any decision are endless, and I often daydream about the what-if scenarios that could have plagued me and played out had I become a young mother under unwanted circumstances. The thought of these alternate universes used to haunt me to no end — in my waking moments, in my dreams.

For years, not a day would go by without a hot rush of painful memory lighting up my entire body and throwing me into a downward spiral of self-deprecation and judgment. I convinced myself that I would quite literally burn in hell. I’d take pregnancy tests every month even when I got my period. And I’d take them even if I wasn’t having sex because I convinced myself that I could feel a baby’s heartbeat in my uterus. I thought others would judge me if they knew, so I kept it all locked inside — for way too long.

Even in this moment, I am finding it very difficult to put my thoughts to paper, to articulate my jumbled emotions and shake this experience free from the shackles of shame. To acknowledge what I went through is to immediately feel it again, and I am scared to step into the shoes of my 22-year-old self. I am scared to remember just how terrified I was, and I am terrified right now knowing that so many young girls and women of all ages are going to have to experience this unique yet seemingly universal hardship. Men will too.

Some are undoubtedly setting afoot on this arduous journey as I write these words, and as you now read them. I am so sorry that you have to go through this or any trauma for that matter, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It can get easier. Despite the fact that there is no obvious or perfect way to heal, I have learned that the more you share and bring to the light, the more you are able to ease the burden with those willing to carry the weight. And it’s through this support structure that I was able to, very slowly, gain control over the hurt and mold it into a new, empowering narrative.

I can proudly say that I haven’t had an abortion-related nightmare in a few years. The baby’s heartbeat I thought I felt has dissipated, and I no longer hold my stomach and feel pangs of guilt. The memory flashes into focus very infrequently. When I do face the inconvenient reality of my past, the memory is most often met with sincere gratitude — sometimes even a nostalgic smirk coupled with a thankful nod, as I’m doing in this very moment. Getting to where I am now took quite a bit of work, and even though my final days as a college student did not go according to plan, I still had the opportunity to direct my life’s path during that crucial crossroads.

I’ve been wanting to write this story for a long time — ever since I had my abortion seven years ago — but guilt-led procrastination got the best of me. As a writer, I’ve also made a bad habit of taking myself off course because I am so concerned with crafting the perfect narrative. Stringing together the perfect words. Expressing the most profound sentiments, and shedding light on the most universal truths in a new, authentic way. And when it comes to my abortion story, this insecurity shines even brighter because the narrative feels inherently flawed.

This isn’t a story of perfection — far from it. It’s a story of an imperfect girl who made imperfect choices that led to imperfect circumstances. I can now calmly reflect on my life and all that I have accomplished over the last seven years. I’ve traveled all around the world, I’ve joined the workforce and started building a career, I’ve lived in two new cities, I’ve fallen in love — more than once — and I’ve made enough friendships to last anyone a million lifetimes. In realizing all of this, I am more grateful than ever for my abortion.

When I do decide to bring a child into this world, I know wholeheartedly that I will be ready. I will be the mother that my child deserves. And I have my abortion to thank for that.

My abortion saved me. It helped raise me.

Olivia Robertson is an artist, writer and real estate executive living in Los Angeles, California.

The Goods

Cart is empty.