Abortion : The dark secret I carry in my heart every day
I'd never really thought about the word until it happened to me. Before that, it was something vaguely frightening and shameful that a couple of women around me had experienced. But afterwards, it was a word compacted with myriad complicated feelings, including necessity and panic, sorrow and regret, degradation and stigma. Up until that summer, I honestly thought it would never happen to me.
Despite the fact I had a sometimes carefree attitude to sex and contraception, I'd never really thought seriously about pregnancy - and although through my 20's I knew I wanted to have children some time in the future, it was a topic that scarcely crossed my mind.
Back then, aged 29, I was preoccupied with falling in love, finding boyfriends and trying to have lasting relationships. In some ways, I think I was a child until I had an abortion. The short time I was pregnant and the termination itself shocked me into the sobriety of adulthood, and having to take responsibility for my own body.
The high pitch of emotion I experienced, being pregnant, having that brief but finite procedure, and the aftermath all left me feeling older and bereft. It was the end of a kind of innocence. A door slammed shut on carefree pleasures. Something had changed in me and there was no going back. It seems that women, even if they are close friends, do not talk about their experiences of abortion.
Unless you have counselling or therapy at some point, there is no outlet for the tangle of feelings around the experience. You might mention to a friend that you've had an abortion, but the rest is unspoken.
They assume it has caused you some level of pain, but do not ask, in case the feelings are too raw or too difficult to articulate. And, of course, the feelings are difficult to articulate, because - and I speak for myself here - you feel so many different things and some of them oppose each other and don't make sense.
Yet we should be talking more and exorcising this secret ordeal that so many of us bear alone. It is only in recent years that a couple of films, namely Mike Leigh's Oscar-nominated Vera Drake and the Romanian Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, have dared tackle the subject. What's strange is that with so many women having had the experience, there is not more open discussion about it among ourselves.
In 2006, 193,700 abortions were carried out in Britain. One in three women in the UK will have a termination in their lifetime, according to a newspaper report. One in five pregnancies now ends in abortion - yet it is still a taboo subject.
And while it's not ideal dinner-party conversation, women should be able to talk about it openly among their friends and, ideally, even with men. So much of it is an unavoidable, if painful, part of the tapestry of modern life. Yet while we women are still not talking about our terminations, abortion is being discussed everywhere else.
Earlier this year, it became the topic of vigorous debate in Parliament when a Bill was proposed over the current abortion time limit - though ultimately the 24-week rule was upheld. But the subject will continue to be a minefield for many parliamentary sessions to come.
Yet statistics and parliamentary debates do not tell the whole story. Abortion is highly emotive because it is about real women's experiences: their tales of falling pregnant inadvertently and how they choose to deal with it.
'Tonight or Never'
My own story that summer began around the end of May. The memory is still vivid. I'd just started a new job in London and was preoccupied with the challenging nature of my working day. The father and I had been introduced by mutual friends, we'd exchanged emails and become increasingly fascinated by each other.
On the very last day of May we arranged to go on a date. He came to meet me after work. I was excited. I'd had my hair freshly blow-dried, and a cherry-red manicure. I was wearing a mint-green and red twinset by Cacharel, a chintzy floral matching skirt and high-heeled Prada slingbacks in carmine red and cream.
I can even remember the perfume I was wearing. Fatefully, it was Annick Goutal's Ce Soir Ou Jamais - tonight or never. I remember walking towards him in the lobby of my office, heels clicking on the floor. He had his back to me. He turned around and we nervously greeted. We walked out of the door.
We were falling in love. That evening was spent in a private members' club I had recently joined. A famous boxer was having a party there that night, and people swarmed in and out. We sat by a window and drank whisky sours and talked about literature, our lives and our mutual friends. Evening turned to night and later, increasingly intoxicated by both the alcohol and each other's company, we ran down Oxford Street and I decided to hail a cab.
I never intended for him to come home with me that night, but before I knew it he had jumped into the taxi with me and we were spinning towards the village part of Hackney, East London, where I lived at that time.
Once home, we cracked open a bottle of vodka and, still deep in conversation, I began playing him some of my favourite records. None of this was planned, but the exhilaration of alcohol and of falling in love seemed to steer things towards the inevitable.
At 4am we rolled into bed. And then, drunken and unthinking, we had unprotected sex. When I woke the next day, the sun was streaming in on to my white bed linen and everything, apart from my hangover, seemed idyllic. I had always been fastidious about taking the morning-after pill on the rare occasions I'd had unprotected sex.
It had made me violently nauseous and ill the two or three times I'd taken it, but I'd been zealous in rushing to the chemist to get it anyway. This time, a combination of factors conspired and, stupidly, I skipped it. I was high with the promise of this new relationship and distracted with feelings of deep infatuation with the man I'd just met.
Lastly, I felt invincible and lucky. I'd never fallen pregnant before - why should it happen now? I spent the next week in the haze of a new love affair. In retrospect, I don't think I've ever been so headlong in love with someone. I felt intoxicated and obsessed as never before.
Two weeks passed and my period didn't come at the anticipated time. I started to notice some strange things about my body, namely a funny, sweet taste in my mouth and strange twinges in my abdominal area. I decided to buy a pregnancy test from my local chemist. I took the test home and followed the instructions. A blue line appeared and confirmed my fear. I was pregnant.
I was in a new relationship and a new job. It was the worst thing that could have happened. I spent a day or so in a state of shock, fear and panic. Then I knew I must act quickly. There was absolutely no possibility I could have a baby right then. It was almost a foregone conclusion that I would have a termination. But first I needed to consult the father.
I invited him round and cooked a risotto. I explained that I had fallen pregnant accidentally and that, from my point of view, I could not go through with it. He said he was sad, as he would have loved to have a child, but agreed that it was not the right time, and supported me in my suggested course of action.
The next day I got a number for the Marie Stopes organisation from directory inquiries and called them on my mobile on my way to work. They gave me a preliminary appointment at a Central London clinic.
I walked there early one morning before work, in the blazing June sunshine. I related all the details of the accidental pregnancy and how I could not go through with it to a female doctor. She took a detailed medical and gynecological history from me, and asked my reasons for wanting an abortion. I was fraught and frightened and, as she pricked my finger and took blood, I started crying hysterically. She called in another doctor and I quickly calmed down.
The options of what kind of abortion I might want were explained: there was a pill, if you were early enough; and if not, a swift procedure (either scraping or vacuuming the womb) performed under conscious sedation or general anesthetic.
They then made a second appointment for me to have a scan in the South London clinic where the procedure would be performed. Two Saturdays later, still frightened and sad, I found myself sitting with the father in the clinic, waiting for the scan.
A Cluster of Cells
There was a solemn air in this low, strip-lit Sixties building, which was full of couples and single women, all looking stressed.
I went in for my scan and the image revealed a blue cluster of cells, smaller than a 5p piece, clinging to the wall of my uterus. I felt immeasurably sad. But the panic and fear of the accidental pregnancy were propelling me forward and I knew there was no possible way I could have a baby at this precarious juncture in my life. On the way back home, the father and I sat in silence for 45 minutes on the bus and Tube.
Subsequently - for we did stay in a relationship for several years - he betrayed rare flashes of how he felt; murmured nothings in bed one night about wanting a child. But that day he was remarkably blank. Deadened, even. They set a date for my abortion - in a few weeks' time, on a Saturday. I felt relieved. At last there was a time when it would all be over and done with - an episode I could forget.
The pregnancy was taking its toll on me. I was fractious and hormonal; the slightest prompt would send me off on an emotional roller coaster, crying and wailing. I was eating ravenously at any opportunity. My waistline was expanding by the day and my stomach was as swollen and hard as a watermelon.
I felt heavy and tired all the time. It was a strange, uninvited feeling - as though something had colonised and taken over my body and it was no longer my own. And I was very confused: weighed down with both physical heaviness and leaden emotion.
Now I was just waiting for it all to be over with. Like the majority of women, I was less than ten weeks pregnant when I had my abortion. On the Saturday of the procedure I took the Tube to South London and walked to the clinic. It was set back from the road and shrouded by trees. (I have passed it since in the car a few times, and looking at it feels like inspecting an old scar.)
I went alone. I didn't think anyone would want to accompany me. I needed to confront this by myself. I checked in downstairs, then I was taken to an anteroom upstairs, where I changed from my clothes into a large hospital gown.
I sat on the ward and waited my turn. One by one the women around me were disappearing, going down to theater, then being wheeled back up, drowsy, on trolleys. There were all kinds of women there, from teenagers to women in their 40's.
Opposite me were a couple of black and mixed-race teenagers who couldn't have been more than 16. Their faces looked blank, impassive. Nobody spoke. The room was dimly lit. Eventually I was led downstairs by a nurse to the theater.
It was a small, dark room lit with the sodium glow of electric light. I climbed up on to the trolley and put my legs into stirrups. The last thing I remembered was the anesthetist injecting the crook of my arm with a syringe and telling me I was going to sleep. Yet that vision - of the small operating room where they removed the beginnings of my baby - is still imprinted, fresh and nightmarish, on my memory.
Minutes later (an abortion takes only six minutes) I was coming round, back in the ward area. Within an hour or so, I was ready to go home.
Secretive and Ashamed
I booked a minicab from the office downstairs and, dazed and exhausted, returned to my small flat. That evening felt bleak and lonely, so I invited my best friend over to keep me company. The following day I summoned up the courage to tell my mother. I had felt so secretive and ashamed about the whole thing that I hadn't been able to talk about it.
Thankfully, she was understanding and supportive, and didn't berate me as I half-expected. And so that chapter in my life came to a close. Shortly afterwards, that August, I bought and moved into the first flat I had owned myself. Summer became autumn, and preoccupations with work and my mortgage took over. But I suspect that wasn't the end of it.
By that September, I had become clinically depressed. This was, in my opinion, a direct consequence of the abortion, almost like some kind of bizarre post-natal depression for a baby that hadn't been born. I woke up one morning and found I had almost forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other. I felt like a dead weight. I ended up going to my GP for Prozac and, gradually, chemicals lifted me out of the abyss.
The next month, as a belated birthday present, my brother took me to Battersea Dogs And Cats Home and bought me a rescue cat. One small adorable furry thing to replace the something precious I'd lost. We named him Lenny, and he turned out to be a tenacious cat with a propensity to sink his teeth into ankles and feet on odd occasions.
Now, I don't think about my abortion as much as I used to. When I do, it is the subject of two seemingly conflicting impulses. The first, which has grown with time, is a deep longing to have had the baby - and to have one still, should I meet the right man.
The second is a pragmatic assessment: the understanding that the pregnancy was an accident and that, at the time, I had no choice. Women deal with abortion in all kinds of different ways. Some are as indifferent to it as they are to a visit to the dentist. Others harbour pain and shame over the experience for decades after the event.
For me, those two or three hours spent in that South London clinic added up to one of the two or three worst days of my life.
The abortion has left scar tissue in my emotional memory. Time has lessened the pain, yet I still carry it with me - a dark secret locked in my heart.