“What I Didn’t Know About Having an Abortion”

A standard D. and C. left Carla Ciccone with severe bleeding and abdominal pain—but when she sought help, her doctor shamed her

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A portait of writer Carla Ciccone

(Photo: Matthew Barrett)

A teenage girl sits across from me, biting her nails and spitting out electric-blue polish. For a moment, her eyes fix on the curious little black journal on the waiting room coffee table. She looks back down at her nails; I pick up the journal. It’s filled with the thoughts of women who have been here before us — words of pain, heartache, solidarity and encouragement, and doodles of hearts, clouds, broken umbilical cords and butterflies, which feel like modern-day cave drawings trying to communicate feelings that the English language may not have words for. Some of the women sound unsure, and others guilt-stricken. A few of them say they’re getting a dilation and curettage (D. and C.) for medical reasons, including fetal congenital defects, but most talk about being too young, too poor, too traumatized, too career-focused, too “not-maternal,” or too unsure of the man who knocked them up to proceed with their pregnancies. I belong to the last group—not that it matters.

I flip to the middle of the book, and the tone takes a sharp turn. Bible passages are underlined in red with drawings of dead babies and blood, and scrawls alongside them that say, “YOU’RE GOING TO HELL,” “SAVE YOUR BABY,” “WHY DO YOU HATE JESUS?” and “DIE BABY KILLERS.” I bring the book up to the receptionist. “Did you know this journal is full of anti-abortion hate speech?” I say. She narrows her eyes at me and takes it.

I sit back down, trying my best to ignore the surprising shame that the journal, and this clinic, has sparked in me. This shame will follow me like a shadow through the entire experience, but for now, I’m trying to stick with the facts by reminding myself what Google has taught me. Women get D. and C.s every day. Abortions done in professional medical settings by trained doctors are some of the safest surgeries with the highest success rates. Besides a bit of tenderness and light pain for a few days afterwards, there is nothing to worry about.

I’m brought into a counsellor’s office and she asks me if I really want to have an abortion. I tell her yes, and she asks me to sign papers saying so. Afterwards, I’m taken to the medical area, where a nurse instructs me to put on a gown and get on a table. The gynecologist walks into the surgery room laughing with the anesthesiologist and introduces herself to me without looking me in the eye. I fight my body’s urge to jump off the table and run out of the hospital, mostly because there are nurses standing by, the anesthesiologist is swabbing my arm with a wet cotton ball, and I don’t have underwear on. As soon as the anaesthetic hits my bloodstream, all thoughts are silenced.

The recovery room is a rectangular space with a long row of what look like dentist chairs. Each has a sleeping, drowsy and/or sad-looking woman reclining in it. Right before I come to, I see a flash of red light that speaks to me. “I’ll come back when you’re ready for me,” it says, sounding a lot like the Childlike Empress from The NeverEnding Story. I wake up wearing a large pad that feels awkward and full, so I stand to go to the bathroom and promptly fall to my wobbly knees. A kind nurse helps me up, warning me that there might be a lot of blood on the pad and not to be shocked. There is; I’m shocked anyway. When I return to my dentist chair, she gives me juice and cookies — the greatest comfort I’ve experienced all day. If you want to get to the soft core of someone in physical and emotional pain, give them preschool snacks.

Afterwards, my friend Megan picks me up and takes me to her house where she makes me more preschool snacks (macaroni and cheese) as I recover on her couch. I feel warm and safe, and the next morning, I decide that’s all the comfort I need; all I want to do now is get on with my life.

But every day, I wake up to my guts churning and pads full of blood. Every day, I down painkillers and muscle relaxers and pass an obscene amount of liver-like tissue. Every day, I cry and agonize about what’s happening to my body and try really hard to stop my failed Catholic brain from telling me this is the price I’m paying for what I did.

After about a week, I decide that my body is not reacting normally. At the same walk-in clinic I went to when I first found out I was pregnant, the doctor taps a chart and asks me why I’m there.

“I had a D. and C. last week, and I’ve been feeling nauseated every day since,” I say. “And I’m bleeding a lot.”

“You decided to have an abortion, then?” the doctor says, tugging on her turtleneck collar.

“Yes. There’s no follow-up care with the abortion clinic and something doesn’t feel right.”

“I thought you were having the baby. I’m Catholic, so I personally don’t believe in abortions unless the case is extreme.”

“Are you going to examine me?”

“No. I’m sure you’re fine. Give it time to heal. At least another week.”

The next week, the pain and the bleeding haven’t gone away. I return to that same doctor because I’m away from home, staying in Calgary for a few months for work, and I don’t have it in me to figure out where else to go. I am doused in the shame of the abortion, beaten down from emotional exhaustion, and feeling weak from blood loss and abdominal pain. I’m finally sent for an ultrasound, the first of a few that will come back inconclusive, until, a full month later, one of them finally gives me confirmation of what I already knew—something is wrong.

“You had an incomplete abortion,” the Catholic doctor says. “Most of the pregnancy tissue was left behind in your uterus. Not viable though. The baby is not alive.”

“It was an embryo, not a baby, and what does that mean?”

“You need another D. and C.”

***

The first time I had an abortion, I was a little sad. The second time, I am furious. I spot the small black journal with the pro-life rhetoric back on the coffee table and put it in my purse to throw away later. The counsellor calls me in to sign some forms. She’s delicate with me in a way that says, “I see you are about to lose your mind and I’d really like you not to make a scene.”

On the surgical table, the doctor, a different gynecologist this time, looks me in the eye and I am momentarily at ease until I notice that she only has one functioning eye. (The other one is made of glass.) There’s a medical student standing behind her with a miner light on his head. The anesthesiologist, also new, tells me that this time, they won’t be injecting as much of the drugs, because they gave me too much the first time around and it knocked me out cold. I can painlessly feel what they are doing and I can hear what they’re saying, but the miner light is shining so bright that I feel like I’m lost in a dark underworld, following some blinding, twinkling star.

Everything goes as it should, except afterwards, I’m left with a pain in my left side that remains there for years and flares up every now and then to remind me of my unfortunate two-for-the-price-of-one abortion.

***

A few months after my second D. and C., at Thanksgiving dinner, my uncle is telling us about his latest heart surgery and all the pain he went through. Commiserating over medical problems is a great way to bond with your family. I want to join in and say, “I had surgery too—two surgeries, actually, back-to-back. I might have lingering pain in my left side forever, and I feel like crying whenever I think about the experience.” I say nothing, drink some wine and look around at the women in the room. One in three has had at least one abortion. My cousin starts biting her chipped nails across the table from me, and I think of the teenager from the clinic waiting room. I’m glad she didn’t read that stupid journal, and I’m glad I threw it away so no one else will, either.

Related:
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“My Autoimmmune Disease was Misdiagnosed as Herpes”

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