A Healing Journey
There are different kinds of secrets. Some are things hidden from our understanding, sometimes called the mysteries of life: how they built the pyramids, miracles, unexplained events. There are military secrets – confidential military matters, the CIA and spies. There are the secrets that are methods or formulas based on successes: if you send in your hundred dollars, you can receive a secret blend of tea/cream/pills guaranteed to make your cellulite disappear. Don’t we wish. There are the secrets where others share confidences with you.
Then you have the secrets that are of the personal nature – things that we have done ourselves, or had done to us, or been involved in that we don’t want anybody to know about. Usually it is something that is not socially or morally acceptable.
There are different kinds of personal secrets:
- Cheating – Perhaps on an exam, just looking over onto the next person’s paper.
- Lying – Even distorting the numbers on our income tax.
- Stealing – We eat those grapes, walking down the aisle in the market, and we haven’t paid for them.
That may be a stretch, but then maybe there’s a history of stealing- stealing as a teenager. Maybe its embezzlement.
- Sexual secrets – Things like affairs, crisis pregnancies that may have ended in adoption or abortion that you haven’t told anybody about. Maybe it was prostitution. Molestation. Homosexuality. Addiction to pornography. Incest.
- Drug addictions – This could be anything from sleeping pills to cocaine to heroin.
The list goes on.
We keep secrets for many reasons. We conceal out of fear and shame. We fear rejection. What if – if we expose ourselves and lay ourselves bare – we are abandoned by our friends, our family, or perhaps even ridiculed by our enemies. We fear that our projected persona would become tarnished if we showed who we really are. We may feel that to be acceptable to others we must look good at all costs. Perhaps we keep secrets in a futile attempt to erase our past.
Abortion is a secret that many people keep. We can transpose the same dynamics from this onto any personal secret. Abortion is an issue that is highly charged and can be very political, but my intent is to discuss this subject with sensitivity and compassion.
A woman’s secret-abortion
In the general population, about one in four women has had an abortion. Tracy, Lynn, Kate, Donna and Muriel all shared this secret. The first four are not their real names, but their circumstances are all true. Muriel, the fifth woman, openly writes and speaks about her abortion experience and her healing journey. As one of our volunteers at Post Abortion Community Services, she has given permission to use her real name.
When I first met these women, and learned something about themselves and their lives, they each presented with an array of symptoms specific to what is called Post Abortion Stress – also called Post Abortion Trauma or Post Abortion Syndrome. For whatever reasons the woman has had an abortion, she can enter a kind of relief phase from two to five years. That phase is starting to shorten simply because many women now have access to information and pictures that they wouldn’t have in the past – fetal development, ultrasounds, and other literature. Following that relief period, some symptoms that women describe are:
- Guilt/survival guilt – “I took the life of my baby. I feel badly about it now. I wish I weren’t here.”
- Anxiety and panic attacks.
- Psychological numbing – “I don’t feel happy; I don’t feel sad. I feel nothing. I feel devoid of emotion.” One woman in a group, after she told her story, was asked: “What was it like to tell your abortion story?” She said: “I felt like I was up in the room . . . and I watched myself, looking down, telling my story.” It was as if she couldn’t bring her emotions together with the actual details of what had happened in her life.
- Depression – Many women have, at some point after their abortion, felt suicidal.
- Anniversary syndrome – On the date that the baby would have been born, or on the date of the abortion, sometimes women feel different, kind of crazy. Some women re-experience the abortion in flashbacks.
- Child-bearing/fertility anxiety – Women may become preoccupied with becoming pregnant again. There may also be an interruption of the bonding process when they do feel that they are ready to have a baby.
- Eating disorders.
- Alcohol/drug abuse – Behaviors that only mask the pain.
- Brief, reactive psychosis – One woman described walking down a city street on garbage day. As she passed the alley, she “could hear babies crying from the garbage cans.” She had a break with reality. Another woman woke up one night after her abortion, and she looked at her hands and said: “I’ve got blood on my hands.” She said: “I went and I tried to wash this off my hands and it wasn’t coming off.”
These symptoms are primarily the result of three things:
- A. The inability to process the fear, the guilt and the anger surrounding the pregnancy and the abortion.
- B. The inability to grieve the loss of the baby – because it is a pregnancy loss, there is a child-bearing loss.
- C. An inability to come to peace with herself and others involved in the abortion decision.
Many other factors may affect the situation, such as the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. Was it an affair? Was it incest? Was it rape? Was the person unmarried? Were the rules about having sex broken? Each of these circumstances will bring a set of dynamics that will affect the woman’s situation.
Another factor is support – what sort of support did she have? Was she in a situation where either the boyfriend or the husband was pressuring her to have the abortion? Did she pressure him to agree to the abortion? What about family and friends? Did she tell anyone? Did she cross her own moral and ethical boundaries?
The type and the legality of the abortion are also important to the woman’s experience. We see many women from both sides. There are nine or ten different types of abortion, depending on the stage of pregnancy. So the woman who was awake, for example, would experience something very different from the woman who was under general anaesthetic. Her memories would be very different if she were at a clinic because she sees, she hears, she experiences and she remembers what people say to her. The woman under general anaesthetic – as is usual in a hospital – will remember the before and the after. If it were a medical abortion – where she is going to abort in her own home – this will make a difference as well. She will be reminded of that everywhere she goes in her own home. If it’s a second or third trimester abortion, she’s going to be fully awake to go through labor and delivery.
- Tracy came for counseling after keeping her abortion a secret for twenty years. She had a later term abortion, and it was illegal. Lynn arrived for her first appointment through the back door from the alley. She was frightened that she would be seen coming into our office.
- Lynn took part as a subject in an experimental project to test medical abortions. She aborted in her own home.
- Kate was adamant that she could not be in a post-abortion group with anyone who worked in her field. She was quite well-known and she was terrified that anybody in her profession would find out her story. She came for counseling five years after her abortion. Her abortion was an early term abortion and it was legal.
- Donna came for counseling more than twenty years after her illegal abortion. She was a teenager at the time of her abortion – her mother had arranged it and was present in the room at the time of the abortion, where her daughter gave birth to twins.
- Muriel came twenty-two years after her two abortions. Both were first trimester, both were approved by a hospital board, so they were both legal.
At the time of their abortions, each of the women was single. Donna and Tracy are now married and they’ve told their husbands. Muriel, Kate, and Lynn are currently single. Generally, for those who were involved in the decision-making, the abortion was a part of their lives that they chose to keep secret.
The deep, dark place
Secrets imprison, they breed suspicion, and at times they can paralyze us with a fear of being found out. They are parts of us that we hide, that we keep undercover. It’s kind of musty, dank, and dark in that place; nothing flourishes there except fear. It’s often shrouded in shame, guilt, confusion, and – in the case of abortion – there may be mixed maternal messages for the woman. If you’re not talking to anybody in the isolation of this dark place, that fear will mount.
The post-abortive woman will sometimes revisit her decision, asking herself: “Did I do the right thing? Have I done something wrong?” Or even: “What have I done?” Even a glimpse of the answer can be too painful or terrifying to face, let alone allow anyone else to see.
Somewhere in the pain and fear, consciously or unconsciously, the decision is made to conceal and to compartmentalise: “I’m not going to touch it. And no one else is going to touch it either.” This might seem very strange in a society that is quite open about abortion. Yet women who’ve had abortions usually do not talk about it again – it usually doesn’t come up in conversations. So although there is great permission for abortion, there is not great permission to talk about it. There continues to be tremendous stigma around abortion.
Building the walls
No matter what the secret we have, we employ defense mechanisms to keep the pain at bay – to keep ourselves from going to that dark place. We can avoid people, situations and anything that gets us too close to that secret. We can deny it exists, or that it even holds any power over us. We will forget, either consciously or unconsciously. We may even try harder to make up for the shame we feel: “I’ll do better, I’ll work harder, I’m going to be more successful.”
It may seem that our secrets, even small secrets, are benign. Yet secrecy runs deep, and it can take hold of us in ways that, perhaps, we had not even anticipated. Protection is of utmost importance to us: protection from pain, protection from being found out.
The secret, then, prevents us from intimacy, from the ability to self-disclose, and from the ability to be vulnerable with another person. It isolates , it restricts and it chokes.
This poem was written by a young woman eleven years ago. She came to a post-abortion group as a university student. She felt that she could not explain herself clearly, that she could not open up. This is a woman who had begun to look at her secret, but remnants of the isolation remained.
I feel foolish,
But I want to get pregnant again.
I’d never have an abortion again.
But getting pregnant now would be stupid.
Want a baby,
Glad I don’t have a baby,
Want to get pregnant,
Scared of it.
Leave me alone.
Don’t deserve love,
I killed my own child.
Don’t get too close,
Don’t touch me.
I’ll only hurt you,
Push you away.
Curl up in a ball,
No one else,
No one can touch me.
Shut you out,
Shut the world out.
Yes it is lonely.
Lonelier when I’m with lots of people.
At odds with myself, the world, everything.
I stood among them, but not of them,
In a shroud of thoughts which were not their thoughts.
Go away to a cabin in the woods.
Just me and the birds, animal, and small children.
The only ones who truly accept you as you are,
Me and my dog take off.
Candles, flames, fire, warm,
Just sit and stare into the flame,
Imagine myself curled up inside the flame,
Fire all around me.
Surrounding, protesting, isolating.
No one can touch me.
No worries, no fears, no thoughts.
Change, metamorphosis, become better,
Emerge whole, complete.
Light, warmth, acceptance.
Love is patient, love is kind.
Faith, hope and love, these three.
But the greatest of these is love.
Love my baby.
Imagine myself pregnant.
See myself with the child,
Teaching, loving, molding.
Never let myself think of it as a baby before.
Want to sleep forever.
Want to dream of paradise,
My child and I together.
No one else.
Don’t want to share her with anyone.
Don’t touch me.
Don’t be nice to me.
Salty tears down my face,
Wet my pillow
Before I even realize I’m crying.
Something inside of me is empty.
It’s broken, it’s missing.
Punishment, jail, bars.
No public sentence,
Only an eternity locked up inside myself,
Alone, tired, exhausted
When a post-abortion group meets, we ask each woman to describe pictorially what her abortion pain looks like. How would she describe it? We call that the abortion wound. One woman described it as being in a body bag. You’re dead. She said: “I feel dead. I want out. Wrapped up in barbed wire . . . I can’t touch out without getting hurt, and nobody can touch me without getting hurt.” Caged. A shattered teacup. In a dark hole, can’t get out.
Muriel described her abortion wound as being up against a brick wall that she could not see over. Some years after her description of that wall, I came across a diagram that expressed the secrecy and isolation of abortion. The woman behind the brick wall.
On the outside of the wall, there are flowers and ivy growing – life flourishes. On the inside of the wall are feelings: hopelessness, shame, numb, sad, lonely, hurt. She lives within the wall: “Often this isolation is not apparent to the person living behind the wall or to the significant others in her life.” This way of living has become her normal lifestyle; she got used to it. In fact, if a woman has lived long enough behind her wall, she may not even remember her life outside the wall. She feels that people let her down when she needed them, and probably not only when she aborted. So she builds the protective wall even higher.
It takes a lot of emotional energy to hold up that wall. A person has to work very hard to keep it looking good, so that nobody will find out what the secret is.
The journey of healing
The wall we hide behind with our secret really protects us from being free. It protects us from letting others in, from getting close and from being real. Herein lies the dilemma: we’d like to be vulnerable, we’d like to be transparent, we’d like to be intimate. But what is the cost?
The cost is being exposed – the unraveling of the secret, the consequences that might bear out, seeing ourselves as we really are.
Tracy, Lynn, Donna, Kate and Muriel, despite their fears, did not want to live as they lived. They took the first step of telling their secret. With quiet courage, they placed that first phone call. They spoke with a post-abortion counsellor, and in subsequent weeks, the unravelling began. Each woman started on her journey of healing, where she was able to sort through her fears, her questions and her emotions to grieve the loss of her baby and move into forgiveness and resolution.
Think of a person’s healing journey as peeling an onion. If you think about peeling an onion, there are usually a lot of tears. The “onion” comes away in layers, and each layer represents something different. It could be some healing for anger, healing for humiliation, for depression, for unforgiveness, hatred, sadness, hopelessness, despair, shame, grief.
Grief over losing the baby.
There is freedom at each stage, as you are exposing what’s been in the dark, and it comes into the light. But even good intentions to deal with a secret may not relieve the core issue. And that is the one of lingering guilt.
It is in the healing journey, I find, that we are often led to our spiritual journey. As more layers are removed, and more of those outside issues are dealt with, we get closer to the core of who we are. We are exposed for who we are. Sometimes if we rest quietly, and allow ourselves to see who we really are, it can be terrifying. Because we see people who are capable of evil. We are sinful people.
We don’t like to use that word very much. When I wrote that down, I thought: “Oh, I don’t know if I want to write that.” But it’s true, we really are. We hate to admit it. It can be a frightening realization that shatters our impression of who we thought we were. Yet if we don’t run away from this place, we begin to see a yearning that arises – a yearning for forgiveness, that can’t be assuaged by or from within ourselves.
We can’t deal with the forgiveness. We try many things. We try doing good work. Sometimes we try punishing ourselves. It doesn’t work. When we come to the end of that, we’re left with our core again. The prison walls of guilt are still there, they still loom large. It’s here that we’re faced with our need for God.
Four of the five women – Tracy, Donna, Kate and Muriel – all experienced the relief that comes in sharing their secret within the safe company of a selected and trusted few. One of the women decided she wasn’t ready to do that yet. Three of them, as they got closer to the core, moved into the next depth of the spiritual.
They received forgiveness, rest and peace in the safety of Jesus Christ. He is the very Son of God. He has the power and authority to forgive – the power and authority to reconcile us to God and the power and authority to bring restoration in our lives. We can be free women, authentic women, vulnerable women, transparent, truthful, capable of intimacy, and healed women.
Where we can’t break through that prison wall, Jesus will do it on our behalf. He tells us He loves us while we’re still deep in the muck of the darkness of the secret, even if we say: “Forget it God, I don’t want anything to do with you.” He still loves us. Jesus has already provided for our forgiveness, and He’s already provided a way to turn our lives back to God. A 360-degree turnaround. A new beginning, a fresh start. All we need to do is put our hand in His, trust Him and follow Him out.
Secrets are a prison. In the Bible, Jesus says: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Receiving Christ involves turning to God from self (repentance) and trusting Christ to come into our lives to forgive us of our sins and to make us what He wants us to be. Just to agree intellectually that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He died on the cross for our sins is not enough. Nor is it enough to have an emotional experience. We receive Jesus Christ by faith, as an act of our will.
You can receive Christ right now, by faith, through prayer. Praying is simply talking to God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. Here’s a suggested prayer:
Lord Jesus, I want to know you personally. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life to you and ask you to come in as my Saviour and Lord. Take control of my life. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Make me the kind of woman you want me to be.
If this prayer expresses the desire of your heart, pray it right now and Christ will come into your life as He promised.
If you invited Jesus Christ into your life, thank God often that He is in your life, that He will never leave you (Hebrews 13:5) and that you have eternal life. As you learn more about your relationship with God, and how much He loves you, you’ll experience life to the fullest.