Post-abortion therapy with a pro-life therapist — sounds like a contradiction, right?
When I agreed to it, I knew there could be problems. How could a woman like me, a woman who’d had three abortions, even be in the same room with a pro-life advocate?
But Maribel, the therapist, seemed so kind. With her bad perm and polyester pants, she appeared old-fashioned and wholesome. She promised the therapy would be non-judgmental and non-religious. She said she could "cleanse" the pain in my heart.
I yearned to be "cleansed." I’d carried my abortion shame in silence for two decades.
I’m from Ireland, where abortion is illegal, but women are allowed travel abroad for one. I had three abortions between 1992 and 2001. The hypocrisy of Irish law is one of the reasons I left Ireland for Spain in 2002.
My boyfriend dumped me after the first abortion. I was devastated. Our two-year relationship was over. I’d lost my best friend. It was the first time in my life I felt alone. That loneliness drove me to confide in my college doctor.
When I told her about my abortion, she was horrified. She kicked me out of her office. Still desperate for help, I confided in a local doctor. He, too, was disgusted by my actions. It was the first time in my life I was exposed to prejudice. I had no idea how to process it. "Don’t cast your pearls before swine," says the Bible, but I didn’t know that then.
The reaction of those doctors plunged me into confusion and shame, and scarred me for years. I was too scared to tell my family. I learned to keep my abortion secret.
Then, it happened again. And again. It was as if I was being tested. How much shame could I carry? I turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the pain.
"If wounds don’t heal, the patterns repeat," Maribel said when we first met. I’d set up a meeting at the Catholic Family Services Center where she worked to discuss if her charity could help a friend of mine with her unplanned pregnancy.
"I don’t want her to feel abandoned," I said, fighting back tears.
Maribel was sympathetic. She said the pain of abortion often cripples women for years, preventing them from having relationships (check), causing addictions (check) and family rifts (check).
That’s how the whole thing got started, how I ended up agreeing to therapy. After that first meeting, I cried the whole way home. I felt anxious and relieved. I was finally going to tell my story.
When I returned the following week for the first session, Maribel began by asking me not to write about the therapy till it was over. I found this odd. I’m a writer. Asking me not to write is like asking a gladiator not to wear his armor. Did Maribel want me vulnerable?
She spoke about the symptoms of abortion: anxiety, guilt, suicidal thoughts, destructive behavior, substance abuse and depression. She spoke about the difficulty of sustaining relationships after abortion.
"The heart can’t love when it’s damaged," she said.
She gave me homework to do, a worksheet with a list of emotions, which I had to rate between 0 and 10 to reflect my own experience. I hated this homework. It threw me back into the grief, loneliness, abandonment and anxiety I’d felt all those years ago. I did it and spent the next week feeling hollow and angry, like I’d been gut-punched.
I’d promise to accompany my friend to the abortion clinic that week and couldn’t let her down. I kept my despair hidden. It was easy for me to do. I’d been doing it for years.
Word got back to Maribel that I’d been at the clinic and she was hostile when I returned the following week. She began the session by planting a picture of Jesus in front of me. She took my homework and shoved it in the back of her folder.
She asked about my week. "You were at the clinic?" she said, no kindness in her voice. She wanted me to know she was disgusted by friend’s decision.
"Aren’t we going to talk about that?" I asked, pointing at the pages of my homework sticking out of her folder.
"I want to take them home where I can read them in private," she said. "Anyway, your name’s not on the sheet," she added, taking the pages out and waving them at me, "No one will know they’re yours." This made me anxious. Who was she going to show them to?
I couldn’t believe I was being cut off again. But I didn’t push her. How could I insist on talking about emotions I’d spent two decades hiding? She remained abrupt for the rest of the session.
Was it crazy to go back? Maybe. But I felt trapped. Maribel had opened a chasm of pain in my heart, and I had no one else to talk to. I needed to keep talking.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what Maribel wanted. Over the next few sessions her manner softened though her line of questioning remained blunt.
She delved into the circumstances surrounding each of my abortions, asking what songs were playing on the radio at the time of each one, who had given me advice, who had supported me, how I got to the airport, what the clinics, nurses and operating theater looked like, if I had a local or general anesthetic, who I told afterwards, how they reacted, how I changed after each abortion, how long I cried? She asked if I’d named my babies.
She made notes throughout, jotting down names and details, paying particular attention to the people who’d influenced me. As if she was building a profile.
I was concerned about who she was discussing my case with. I looked up the website for her charity. One of the pages was titled, "Post-Abortion Syndrome," but it was blank. Was Maribel counseling me or was she doing research?
After four weeks of therapy, I had a permanent headache and no appetite. I was having nightmares, dreaming my babies were born and ripped from my bloodied arms. I woke up crying. I felt empty and abandoned.
It was the same despair I’d felt after that college nurse kicked me from her office. I started lighting candles in memory of my unborn babies.
One night, I woke up at four in the morning feeling wretched. I crawled out of bed, made a cup of tea, lit a cigarette and sat down on my couch to think — or rather to find a way to end the thinking. I was done with navel-gazing, with raking over events that had happened long ago and couldn’t be changed.
I thought about the circumstances of my pregnancies and how ill-prepared I was for each of those babies. How glad I was to save them from an unpredictable life with me. I wasn’t ready to be a mother, not financially or emotionally.
I thought about the one question Maribel hadn’t asked me: why I chose abortion. I remembered why: because I have so much respect for life, I wouldn’t bring one into the world unless the conditions were absolutely right.
At our next session, I explained my decision to Maribel. This time, her response wasn’t so sympathetic.
"If you have a problem with a friend, do you kill the friend?" she asked, her tone sanctimonious, confident in her control over me.
I began to tremble. I had done it again: cast my pearls before swine.
In my quest to be "cleansed," I had revealed my pain to this woman. Now, she assumed I was weak and broken.
She got personal. "You’re afraid," she said. "You don’t know who you are. You need to find yourself," she advised.
An argument ensued. Still trembling, I told her she had no right to judge me. She said she wasn’t.
"I’m not afraid of the truth. I know who I am," I said, ignoring my palpitating heart and the anxiety gripping my stomach.
I realized I was in a room with a fanatic who was manipulating my emotions. This time, I wasn’t going to let her bias break me.
"Do you believe everything happens for a reason?" Maribel asked me throughout our sessions.
This is a compelling question to ask a person who has regrets. For years, I’d asked myself the same question: Why had these things happened to me?
In hindsight, if I could change anything, I’d change how I treated myself. Instead of losing years of my life to drink and drugs, I would have taken better care of myself.
I wouldn’t let the prejudice of those doctors destroy me. I’d have forgiven myself sooner. I’d have loved myself more.
Maribel’s "therapy" was dragging me back to a place of self-loathing, asking me to focus on the negative aspects of my abortion experience.
She wanted me to think about what I’d lost. She'd no interest in exploring the life I’d gained. I felt her aim wasn’t to heal me but reinforce the prejudice I’d experienced and exploit my pain.
Weeks later I saw that the "Post Abortion Syndrome" page on the charity’s website had been filled in, listing the "symptoms" that Maribel and I had discussed: guilt, anxiety, depression, suicidal impulses, alcohol and/or drug use. As a woman who has had three abortions, I can attest that these symptoms are incorrect. What upset me the most wasn’t the abortions but the prejudice that forced me to live for years in silent shame.
I returned to Maribel one final time to end the therapy. She was shocked. "We have five more sessions," she said. I shrugged.
"Well, we’re praying for you," she assured me. I laughed. "Don’t bother."
"Can I send you a passage from the Bible?" she asked, her voice humble and shy.
"No way." Now I was the one in control and I was done with her exploitative "therapy."
But I was also grateful.
Thanks to Maribel, I had walked through the gates of hell and come to understand the source of my pain. I found my voice. The silence was over. My shame was gone. In its place was a welcome sense of pride.
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Tasha Kerry Smith writes both fiction and nonfiction that explores stuff we’re not supposed to talk about, stuff like abortion, addiction, bad mothers and the fallout from emotional abuse.