My interpretation of trauma is a close encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger. I figure our brains haven’t changed much since ‘close encounters with sabre-toothed tigers’ were a major problem for humans, so I our brains see all traumas as equivalent. Nightmares, flashbacks and involuntary avoidance tactics are really just not being able to give your brain a good enough answer when it asks:
“So if you have another close encounter with a sabre-tooth tiger – could you see it coming? Could you avoid it? Could you prevent it? Could you come out better off than last time?”
I’ve encountered many sabre-tooth tigers – bullying, neglect, sexual assault(s), sexism, grooming – and that’s just my childhood but unlike most people, I was trained from an early age to function during crisis. I still was ill-prepared for HG and how it would impact my body, mind and future.
After 15 yrs of working towards affording a child, I became pregnant and discovered I had HG, and that it is hereditary. I then had to abort to save my own life.
The first thing I had to deal with was the desperate need to justify my being alive. I set about frenzied efforts to prove I was worth being alive, like so many who narrowly escape the jaws of death. The pressure was overwhelming. At this point I was still able to see my baby as a merely traumatic blip in my life – as that 2 mm radius ball of cells that didn’t even have a nervous system or a heart or a brain. I had outwitted this horrific parasite, and killed it in self-defence. That was all… Until the guilt hit.
Straight after the abortion, I lived every day continually reminded both of the suffering I’d endured, but also that I wasn’t suffering anymore. My abortion was my saviour, and my experience a reminder to live each day and value it as if it were my last. Fortunately this active recall of trauma fades over time, but so too does the euphoria of surviving it. Doubts began… I… had done something horrible, something nobody should ever have to do if the world was right and life was fair. I was beginning to remember that I had loved and wanted my baby.
I had taken a life. More than that, I had taken the life of a child – not some child-soldier in a warzone actively trying to kill me, but a child so innocent she hadn’t even been born. Innocent… and mine. The child I had longed and waited for. My husband’s daughter. I had killed her.
Surviving didn’t taste as sweet as it did bitter anymore. The triggers are overwhelmingly common. Every time a baby cries or I see someone pregnant. Every time I see or hear mention of pregnancy or children… Everywhere I go, everyone I speak to – “children” is assumed to be a socially normalised, welcome topic for women to discuss. Then there’s the physical: every time I couldn’t eat something for fear or memory of the nausea. Every time I had to explain why it was I couldn’t eat or I quietly made up an excuse so that I didn’t have to explain the real reason.
Even if I lived in a cave far removed from civilisation, I’d still look down every day and see the shape of my abdomen. I’d know instantly each time, what I did, what I lost, and that I was the one who made that decision. I began to doubt my decision and my worth for being alive. It didn’t help that I found out that there were other medications I could have had, and that another woman who had HG condemned my decision and suggested that I could have survived. The harm she did to me is unparalleled barring the doctors who tried to block us finding out information about abortion, to discourage us from that path, and to urge us to ‘wait and see’.
Thanks to that fellow HG sufferer, I began to see myself as a monster. I honestly began to believe that just by seeing the shape of my belly and the look on my face, other people would know what I had doneand reject my reasons for it. It doesn’t help that like some ‘politically incorrect wars’, people feel just as authorised to villainise post-abortees, just as they do war veterans, maybe even more so.
Thankfully I sought help and got it. First the Director of the HER Foundation confirmed to me that actually, as severe as I was, I’d probably have simply died too early to save either me or my baby. Someone else then pointed out the science that it was the placenta – not my baby – that inflicted the damage. Finally I was able to understand and accept that we were both victims, and it was OK for both of us to be innocent. HER research also confirmed that HG is hereditary, so I began to see myself as my daughter’s saviour: I had saved her from suffering HG one day.
I picked myself back up again, but as her should-have-been-due date drew closer, I again started to fall apart. I had just begun to properly grieve, but the guilt and fear of judgement were still there. I began having occasional breakdowns where I’d claw at my own skin in tears of sheer exacerbation. I knew I had a problem when knives started to look appealing, so I looked up self-harm and realised that I wasdesperate for a sense of control – another piece of the puzzle fell into place.
Unfortunately by then most people – even my husband to an extent – had started to talk to me like this had always been a part of me, like I was always going to have had HG… like I was this me that had of course accepted and acknowledged all that. I was on the verge of sheer rebellion – I wanted to say this was not my life. I felt a detachment growing. I felt like some character in a sci-fi series who comes back to their base and everyone’s talking to them like they belong, but everything feels subtly different… Then with a growing sense of dissonance, they suddenly realise they’re actually in a parallel dimension. I felt like I’d been picked up and dropped into someone else’s life.
Details like “my mother had it” had never existed in my life. If I had had that knowledge I’d never have conceived. I’d never have consented to passing this on to my children. I’d never have planned my life around making allowances for pregnancy. I’d have begun pursuing adoption or a demanding career. But this? This is not my life!
During HG, I had to fight for the right to abort to save my own life. I should have been told about other treatments and that I was predisposed to a horrific condition (HG). I felt as if I had been abused on all sides – decisions made for me that affected me profoundly, made selfishly by people who at the end of the day could walk away from the consequences. I could not regain that sense of control, of agency over self. Post HG – post abortion – I felt constantly under threat of having my being alive questioned or disapproved of. It wore me down. Guilt started to creep back in, I’m still not immune to peer pressure – imagined or real.
I relapsed. The first signs that I still wasn’t quite right in the head, should probably have been when I had extreme menstrual bleeding… and did not go to the doctor about it. The second sign would have been when a month later I fell off a wall due to dizziness and refused to go to the doctor. But what made me see it was when my husband, after writing her memorial with me the day our daughter should have been born, said that he was feeling a lot better and wanted to move on and make a fresh start… and my heart sank like a lead balloon.
I had worked so hard to deal with the impact what I’d gone through. I worked hard to learn not to react to babies and pregnant women and conversations about family… That broke my heart in ever-increasingly painful ways and still enrages me to this day… But I still wasn’t ready to move on. His words made me recognise a wall was forming between us – and that was my greatest fear because without him, I really was alone.
I realised my guilt and fear had manifested in a new way: I no longer wanted sex. I could no longer ask for sex. I could no longer allow myself to want it. If I was closing the door on self-harm then surely sex was suicide given what I now knew. How could I be dumb enough to want the one thing that could result in my death in potentially less than 7 weeks’ time, each time? It’s not like I could trust the health system or doctors to help me. The rational response seemed to be appreciating that sex was a death wish. Meanwhile I was emotionally distancing myself from the one person who’d been none other than my backbone through all of this, because I struggled to admit any of this to him out of shame.
Deep down though, what was really going on was that I believed that I have no right to enjoy what made a life that I had to end. It seemed irresponsible, care-free and ultimately cruel. We had a blazing row before I managed to explain to my husband I was angry with him for being OK, angry with him and myself for wanting him, and wanting sex at all.
I sat there unable to think or feel, until a part of my brain stood up and saved us both mental breakdown by asking loudly, albeit uninvited:
“What would Sophie say?”
Sophie was the name we gave our unborn daughter. For just a moment: I thought of her as a hilarious mix of myself and my husband – sharp, witty, clever, resourceful but kind above all else. Then, having just asked the same question to my husband out loud, he and I built our daughter’s personality as a grown woman together, and answered the question. It was that which helped me realise the depth of what I was truly feeling, and finally… I was able to forgive myself.
After that epiphany I managed a telephone appointment with a different doctor. Prior to that a trip to the pharmacy had me speechless, shaking, sweating and involuntary tears rolling down my face as I tried to hold my nerve speaking with the assistant. I’m still nervous about that place. I’m terrified of seeing that one doctor again. But at least I actually managed to set foot in the place and when I had a real appointment, I did manage.
I’m still scared of throwing up, of starting and not stopping, and facing death again that way. At least thanks to that doctor I now know I have IBS, and that it is that which me my intermittent ‘pregnant tummy’, driven not by the space I emptied but by my own anxiety – I’m not being punished. At least I can believe that now. Sophie… helps me the rest of the way, alongside my husband. He’s a better husband now than he was before it all happened! Still… it’s not an easy road to walk, and I fear it is still a narrow one, easy from which to stray.