When I was eighteen, I was a broke college student coming home for the summer — and I was so scared I couldn’t sit still. The reason? I had been raped by my boyfriend and was terrified that I might be pregnant.
I hadn’t gotten my period for more than six weeks, and I hadn’t talked to anyone about the rape. Talking about it would have meant dealing with how deeply the pain cut, and I wasn’t ready to do that yet.
As a result of the assault, I became sick with post-traumatic stress disorder. I tossed and turned with nightmares, got flashbacks that flooded me with adrenaline, and started cutting myself and developing eating disorders. Despite the state I was in, I finished the semester at college and came home to my parents’ house in suburban Maryland.
The PTSD was hard enough to get through on my own, but I felt despondent at the idea of being pregnant with the rapist’s child. I lay awake at night obsessing over this fear. I secretively bought a pregnancy test at the grocery store, and the result was negative, but fear gnawed at me because over-the-counter tests aren’t 100 percent accurate. I didn't have a primary care doctor to go to. The days passed and my period still didn't come.
On a warm day in May, I flipped through my parents’ phonebook and read the yellow-tinted ads under “P” for “Pregnancy.” I started with the listing for Planned Parenthood. I called and called, but no one answered. (I later discovered it was an inaccurate phone number.) I could have asked my family for help, but I wasn't ready to talk to them about the rape.
Desperate, I turned to another listing in the phonebook that advertised “Free Pregnancy Tests." The name referred to "Mary." I called the number and had a bad feeling about the place, but I had nowhere else to go.
So I borrowed my parents’ car and drove down the highway to the small building on the side of the road. I parked, walked inside, and took stock of the waiting room. A ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary in robin’s-egg blue robes stood watch over heaping baskets of teddy bears and other children’s toys. A statue of Jesus stood nearby. On a shelf above a row of chairs, a series of resin models showed the uterus, embryo, and fetus at progressive stages of development. I wanted to turn around and leave. But I had to know whether I was pregnant.
I was not naive about how far some anti-choice activists would go in their effort to make abortion illegal. I strongly support people's right to practice their faith in their personal lives, but they have no right to force their religious beliefs onto my medical decisions, or anyone else's. And some people wouldn't stop at trying to pass restrictive laws. I knew about the clinic bombings and shootings in places like New York, Alabama, and Massachusetts.
I was nervous enough that I wrote a false address on the forms the center gave me. I made up a phone number, and on the checkbox for what I planned to do if my pregnancy test came back positive, I marked “adoption.” I worried they might lie to me about the test results if I said I’d consider getting an abortion.
From the waiting area, a woman called me into a back room. She talked to me for almost an hour before she would give me a pregnancy test. The woman didn't have any medical credentials, as far as I could tell. She made me look through brochures filled with photos of bloody fetuses spilling out of garbage bags. She told me that if I got an abortion, it would damage me physically and emotionally and I would regret it forever. She told me that it could easily make me infertile. (In truth, while no medical procedure is risk-free, complications are rare.)
Next, the woman showed me a model of a fetus and told me it was what my baby would look like at only eight weeks old. She was lying about that, too. The model was at least six inches long and had fully developed facial features, fingernails, and toenails. At eight weeks, the embryo (the medical term for this stage of development) is only the size of a raspberry and just starting to develop webbed fingers and toes.
The woman drew a sketch on a piece of paper that looked like a giant grapefruit spoon, and she claimed this was one of the instruments that an abortionist would use to cut the baby out of me. She said that if I had an abortion, I would be denying a baby from a couple waiting to adopt. She railed against birth control pills as "abortifacients" that would ruin my health, although most contraceptives don't allow even a microscopic zygote to form.
But her most bizarre and hurtful words were yet to come. She told me, a rape survivor, that sex was "a wedding gift God gives to married couples." She encouraged me to seek what she called a "second virginity." I told her I hadn't consented to this sex, but she didn't seem to care.
Finally she gave me a Styrofoam coffee cup and pointed the way to a bathroom. Behind the closed door, I peed into the cup and wondered what the hell I was doing there. Would the staff even run a pregnancy test on the sample? Shouldn’t they be using a sterile specimen cup? Nothing about it felt right.
I walked out and awkwardly handed the coffee cup of my urine to the woman. Minutes crawled by until she came back to tell me that the test was negative. I couldn't fully believe her. She had already lied to me about so many things — how did I know she wouldn’t lie to me about the results?
I drove home feeling thankful to get out of that place, but no less scared about the possibility of being pregnant. And my period still wouldn’t come.
In the coming days, I finally found a working phone number for Planned Parenthood. I drove there and found tables full of brochures with information that was medically accurate and didn’t come with a guilt trip or agenda. The staff members were welcoming and professional. They told me about their sliding scale for payment, so that no one who couldn’t afford treatment would be turned away. A woman led me to an exam room and I gave another urine sample, but not in a Styrofoam coffee cup this time.
Again I waited for the results of the pregnancy test. My muscles were tense until the woman came back and told me: It was negative. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Then I asked about resources for sexual assault, and without judgment, she handed me brochures and phone numbers for hotlines. I drove home and felt so grateful to know with certainty that I wasn't pregnant.
I didn't know at the time that emotional trauma can cause people to stop menstruating. Eventually, my period returned. Eventually, I talked to my family about what I was going through. Eventually, I started to recover from the rape that had fractured my life.
And if I had been pregnant? I’m confident that Planned Parenthood would have helped me. They would have supported me in making whatever decision was right for my physical and emotional health. I knew I could go to them as a rape survivor and be safe. At a time in my life where almost nowhere in the world felt safe, that meant everything to me.
Earlier this month, President Trump signed legislation allowing states to strip funding from Planned Parenthood and similar clinics for services such as pregnancy tests, cancer screenings, and contraception. Meanwhile, anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers much like the one that bullied me are getting millions in public funding in many states, thanks to right-wing politicians. Vice President Mike Pence, then Indiana’s governor, said on the O’Reilly Factor last year: “The great work of crisis pregnancy centers across my state and across this nation is changing hearts and changing minds every day.”
Conservative politicians claim that these facilities provide the care that women need, the same way that medically qualified clinics do. As a woman who had been raped and was in crisis, what I needed was not bullying and medically unsound disinformation. I needed medical care from trustworthy professionals.
We have to keep fighting to make sure that people of all genders, races, religions, and income levels can access that care when they need it—because it's crucial for our society, and because you never know what someone has endured when they come to your doorstep asking for help.
As for the anti-choice center that lied to me? It's still open.
Top photo: Flickr/shira gal
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Liz Bergstrom is a writer and editor based in New York. You can find her on Twitter @Liz_Bergstrom and find her website at lizbergstrom.wordpress.com.