Healing the Wounds of an Abortion in Sobriety

By Charlotte Grey 03/18/16

With the help of 12-step meetings, I was able to face the trauma of a decision that had haunted me for years.

Healing the Wounds of an Abortion in Sobriety

I had almost 90 days sober when that ominous pink "positive" sign crystallized on the pregnancy test. I was 20 years old and carrying my drug dealer boyfriend's child. Knowing in my heart that I wasn't ready to give birth and put my child up for adoption, I had an abortion. I refused anesthesia and painkillers during the procedure because I was terrified the narcotics high would make me crave a relapse. I remember everything. The jarring physical detox from years of daily drinking, snorting cocaine and heroin, popping Klonopin, and smoking angel dust ensured that this freshly inflicted wound remained buried. Ignoring the emotional aftermath wasn't even intentional; it was natural, so I thought I was over it. But the psychological trauma begged to be healed, and I stifled my pain with active sex and love addiction until I was four-and-a-half years sober. 

By that point, I'd conceded to the omnipresent weight the abortion bore from within me, sometimes making me feel suicidal. Then one day, at a women's Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meeting, I suddenly felt obligated to share about it. I believe this was my higher power's way of intervening; the thoughts seemed to form from thin air. As I spoke, I cried for the first time since scheduling the procedure five years earlier. By no coincidence, one woman approached me after the meeting and confided that she led a spiritually based therapy group for Post Abortion Stress Syndrome, a term that resonated with me immediately and profoundly. Because abortion is a voluntary decision, parents typically don't feel permitted to grieve their "chosen loss," and mourning becomes an excruciatingly private abyss of suffering. If not processed, this grief can lead to delayed-onset depression, haunting flashbacks, and debilitating self-imposed anger.

I scheduled my intake interview to begin the group as soon I could. Describing my experience, I became distressingly overwhelmed and hysterically upset. I decided that I wasn't ready to confront the pain, and promised to try therapy again in a few months. At the last moment, before leaving the building, a seemingly disembodied voice from inside me asked the counselors if I could audit that evening's group. I returned for every session thereafter. My first AA sponsor calls this "smart feet:" taking positive actions that nurture my growth despite not wanting to take them. This was the first time in recovery that I consciously chose to walk through a traumatic wound, instead of nursing the emotional hangover and gingerly avoiding the triggers as crisis control. 

There were five women in my group. Three of us completed the course, having met for 2-3 hour weekly sessions. Our workbook outlined a practical course of recovery. It applied the stages of grieving, first helping us to articulate and process our anger, then guiding us to accept our decisions to abort. It asked us to mourn the loss as we would with any other death. The assignments prompted us to reflect deeply on the group discussions for further healing. The counselors also encouraged me to mourn a child both my gynecologist and I suspected I miscarried when I was 17, induced by a characteristically quotidian cocktail of wine, cocaine, weed, and dust. 

Though the workbook chapters elucidated Christian scripture, the group welcomed my insight on the spiritual principles applied to the readings. I love and admire that the group leaders were Christian but had also had abortions. Here were followers of a seemingly rigid faith who stepped outside the confines of their creed and maintained a belief in their god, who deepened a nurturing relationship with that god instead of punishing themselves for taking action that their sect protests. It broke down walls of prejudice I staunchly held against Christianity since kindergarten, having been raised Catholic and resenting the religion as my church taught it to me. It's no coincidence I ended up at this specific therapy group. I believe my higher power placed me there at a time when I could finally listen to a religious discussion yet hear a spiritual message. I identified with these Christian principles instead of begrudgingly and egotistically comparing myself with them. The counselors guided us to redefine our relationships to our higher powers on the newfound conviction that this higher power would love us exactly as we are. 

The process was psychologically draining. For months, I felt like I was trapped in quicksand, clawing to keep my head above ground while it fought to pull me under. I quickly learned to balance self-care with the intense therapeutic work. I set aside extra time to sleep so my body could recover from the ensuing exhaustion. I caught twice as many AA and SLAA meetings and fellowshipped frequently; when reliving something so profoundly painful, it’s important for me to resist my inner alcoholic's natural desire to isolate. Distracting myself with others' company so that I didn't brood on the heavy material also helped me set boundaries, distinguishing time for therapy work from rest. Even treating myself in small ways, like a concert or a gourmet slice of cake with lunch, were validating self-love initiatives that made the difficult days easier, and those tiny spurts of joy motivated me to persevere.

The group sessions culminated in an at-home meditation assignment where we visualized our children to define their personalities, physical features, and names. During my meditation, I saw my little ones as clearly as I would see someone standing in front of me, and they were engulfed in light. I knew immediately that my children didn't die, but were instead born directly into the arms of my higher power. I wasn't ready to care for them, so my higher power did it for me. The days I miscarried and aborted were their birthdays, to be celebrated in love rather than ruminating on my perceived failure as a mother. I suddenly felt my children near me in a way I had feared and resisted for years. I satisfied a seemingly irrational urge to then open my Facebook news feed, only to see that the first two posts showed a birthday cake featuring my son's name, followed by a photograph of my friend's daughter who shares a name with my own daughter. Back in our group, we held a memorial service for our children. We bought flowers that embodied their personalities, wrote them letters, and read them aloud to each other. It felt important to give myself permission to honor them and to have closure. 

I talked about what I was going through at AA and SLAA meetings. Men and women alike identified with my experience, applauded my courage for sharing it, and thanked me. I knew then that what my therapist said about trauma was true: in speaking about it openly and unapologetically, we reduce the trauma’s power. I stay in touch with the women from that group, for in our successful healing we will forever share a unique and precious bond. 

Once I felt adequately relieved of the emotional burden, I chose to stop talking about my abortion. Memories of the procedure still upset me, so I don't rehash them unless I know they could help someone. I no longer avoid triggers or bury the events, but instead focus on the light and love in my life. Now seven-and-a-half years sober, I believe my higher power asks me to go through things like this because I’m strong enough to do it. I stand by my decision to abort. If I could go back, I would make the same decision, but it's one I never want to have to make again.

Author recommended for further reading:

Will I Cry Tomorrow?: Healing Post-Abortion Trauma by Susan M. Stanford and David Hazard

H.E.A.R.T. (Helping & Educating in Abortion Related Trauma), www.evecenter.org

Adopting a Buddhist Ritual to Mourn Miscarriage, Abortion” by Deena Prichep, NPR, August 15, 2015

"Get Your Politics Off My Grief" by Kassi Underwood, New York Daily News, May 2, 2011

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