In 2007, I was 17. I was a military kid living in Naples, Italy, and a recent high school graduate. I’d grown up in a fundamentalist religious family and had spent the last four years of high school tearing my way out of the oppressive bubble I’d grown up in. I was looking for an escape, a way to be free and meet people who experienced the world in ways I had never been allowed to.
I met Shane* while he was drunk, outside of a coffee shop. He was 28, had tattoos down both of his arms, and talked about music, drugs, and playing drums in a band. He liked me, with my short skirts, loud laugh, and naive underage recklessness. I went over to his house later that week, at night, after sneaking out of my house.
We drank beer and while we were kissing, he quickly pulled aside my underwear and was suddenly inside me. I exclaimed, “Hey!” And he whispered, “I can tell you’re not a virgin. I can tell you like it." I was quiet until it was over.
Shane and I started sleeping together regularly, and then we started dating. He was charming, he gave me attention, and he told me he loved me right away and said things to me that no one ever had. When you hear someone describe the history of their abusive relationship, the whole thing can seem like an alternate-universe blur. This is definitely how it was for me. I don’t really know, in retrospect, how exactly things happened the way they did.
I didn’t see any red flags, and at 17 I didn’t really know that I could be treated any differently or that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal. I scoffed and defended him when anyone said something negative about his alcohol habits, his anger issues, or the age difference between us.
I made excuses in my head when he cheated on me, when he threw his cats off the balcony, and when I, a teenager, was the one breaking up physical fights he got into. I remember one instance when my friends were visibly uncomfortable and worried as I recounted the sexual things he did while I was alone in a group of his adult, male friends.
They all had a certain look in their eyes as I tried to sit still and smile, frozen and not knowing what to do, with his hand visibly up my skirt as he chatted with them. Later he asked me, “If they all wanted to fuck you, would you let them?”
Shane didn’t like the word no, and I didn’t say it to him very often. He didn’t like to hear that I didn’t want to have sex, that I had a fever, that I had to go home, that what he was doing physically hurt me, please stop, stop please STOP, I’m serious. I spent as little time as possible at home to avoid questions about the bruises and the lingering smell of beer and smoke on all my clothes.
Shane did like to talk about how he was a lost soul and he couldn’t help what he did; how he had raped two women (in one of the cases, “the bitch had been drunk and later called it rape,” and the other time he asserts that he was held at gunpoint by Panama police. Who really knows the truth? I said to my 17-year-old self). He talked about how he killed a guy in Eastern Europe by curb-stomping him, about how he was going to kill his wife (they were separated) and her new boyfriend, and about how the only way he could cope was with alcohol.
And, of course, by being with me. If I left him, he would kill himself. He told me which of my friends he liked and which ones I should stop hanging out with. He told me he needed me to take care of him.
I dropped out of my college classes and I quit my job, but didn’t tell anyone except Shane. This way, I was able to spend my entire days as well as my nights free of questions about what I was doing. He told me to stay in his house and not invite people over. I cleaned, and I babysat his two kids when it was his turn to watch them. Sometimes “I talked too much,” or he would accuse me of cheating on him or tell me I dressed like a slut. There were always consequences when I didn’t do things right. To this day, I’m still not comfortable recounting everything that happened in that relationship, and I think some things I will forever keep to myself.
No one had ever talked to me about what a healthy relationship or safe sex was. I didn’t even know that online resources for these things existed. I thought this was normal life, because everything I had ever learned about interacting with the world outside of fundamentalist religious doctrine I learned from my own exploration and mistakes.
Do I think that the abuse was my parent’s fault? No way. It was Shane’s. But do I think that if someone had talked to me about safe contraception and healthy relationships that I would have at least had the tools to protect myself if I had realized what was happening in time? Probably.
Shane didn’t like to use condoms. He told me that he was a pro at the withdrawal method. At one point, I got on birth control pills. He told me they were making me fat and he “jokingly” flushed them down the toilet. He would talk about how “cute” I would look pregnant, and what our kids would look like, and what it would be like if I accidentally got pregnant. And sometimes he would have accidents, where he didn’t pull out quite in time but assured me it would be fine.
I was 11 years younger than him and had been homeschooled; I knew nothing about birth control. I blindly believed him. I told myself over and over that he loved me and that he knew more about these things than me. One of those times, he got me pregnant.
I found out right before I went to go visit my sister, who was living in a neighboring country. My head was swirling with the reality of what was happening. I’d experienced multiple rapes as a kid and had grown up amidst emotional and verbal manipulation before I met Shane. I had coped with those experiences by dissociating and leaving my body. The entire time I was visiting my sister, I felt an incredible numbness on a level I hadn’t before. What was I supposed to do?
I never really considered continuing the pregnancy. When I look back now as a 24- year-old, I see that as a glimmer of myself within an abusive relationship that had otherwise swallowed my life.
Even though I was nowhere near coming to terms with the reality of my relationship, I still knew that I couldn’t have a baby and be tied to him forever, that it wasn’t safe, that something wasn’t right.
When I got back to Italy, a friend of mine got me misoprostol (Cytotec). You can’t obtain an abortion on military bases overseas (or at least you couldn’t in 2007), and I was completely inept and panicked at trying to navigate an Italian clinic, not speaking the language and not having any money. I don’t know where my friend got the misoprostol and I’ve never asked.
There are websites now that supply abortion pills to people in countries where abortion is illegal and these pills are unavailable. I looked up how to take them and ended up having to do two sets of four pills to pass the pregnancy successfully, which is about twice the amount that is given in clinics.
I self-aborted at home, while my parents were sleeping. Some of the side effects of misoprostol include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and intense cramps and bleeding. I experienced all of these.
I cried silently in my bathroom from the pain, trying to be quiet, listening to Portishead on my iPod and thinking in my head that I was almost sure I was going to die. I didn’t know how much bleeding was normal; every time I threw up in the sink I could feel a gush of blood push itself out of my uterus.
In U.S. abortion clinics, pain medication and anti-nausea pills are often given for medical abortions as well as an antibiotic. Another pill, Mifepristone, is usually given along with the misoprostol (misoprostol on it’s own is only effective 75 to 85 percent of the time), and a follow-up ultrasound two weeks after taking the pills is standard to make sure there’s no retained tissue and you’re no longer pregnant. I had none of these things.
But after the first 10 hours, the cramping and bleeding started to slow down, and after six weeks, the spotting stopped. I took another pregnancy test eight weeks after the abortion. It was negative. I’d been successful.
The emotional aspects of my abortion were complex, and I don’t often talk about them. The fight for the basic right to abortion access and safety is a constant global struggle. The reproductive justice movement is under such pressure that the actual experiences of those having abortions can sometimes be overshadowed and silenced. There exists a very real fear that any story expressing emotions other than relief and happiness will be manipulated to serve the agendas of the anti-choice movement.
My abortion was one of the best choices I've ever made and I would absolutely make the same choice again. However, I was not happy. I was in a nightmare situation with almost no one to turn to. I was sad. I cried. Those things are not universally experienced by all people choosing abortion, but they are normal and okay.
While it was the best choice for my situation and I was confident in my decision, that didn't mean the pregnancy meant nothing to me (although feeling nothing or negatively toward a pregnancy is also a normal experience and okay).
Sometimes in my dreams I'm walking on a road and holding a baby that I understand is my own, were I to have continued the pregnancy. These dreams don't bother me; it's my brain processing a memory. When I wake up I give a small nod to my 17-year-old self and go about my day. What if? thoughts are a normal part of decision-making and are not the same as regret or desiring to take back your action.
The potential complexities of abortion decisions often make people uncomfortable, so the polar stances of "it's like a full-term baby!" and "it's a lifeless clump of cells" are presented as the only perspectives. This erases the middle ground where most people find themselves in their decision-making process.
I was afraid to tell Shane and I never did, which I believe was ultimately the right choice for my safety and my future. I told him that I had a UTI and couldn’t have sex, and for the first three weeks, that worked.
A month or so later, several events led to me leaving Italy and being separated from Shane. I was caught climbing through a window into my bedroom at 5 a.m. and there was an incident of self-harm that was so bad that my friend who came to help me went home with blood on her hands; her dad noticed, and came over and told my parents.
I was sent to Nebraska to a fundamentalist Christian college until I turned 18, which is a story all of its own. But this turn of events very likely saved my life. Shane and I remained long-distance for a year and a half, and the abuse continued. I’m incredibly lucky that I never became pregnant a second time.
Around the time I left him, about a year after my abortion, he was kicked out of the military for being drunk on the job. The last I heard about him, he had been charged with choking his current girlfriend and pushing her through a sliding glass door. This information still haunts me.
Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship can probably attest that a part of you feels responsible for your abuser's behavior, even after you’ve left them, because they’ve led you to believe you’re what has pushed them to be abusive.
Today, I’m a registered nurse working at Planned Parenthood. I’ve read stories this year about Texas women self-aborting using misoprostol, due to the intense legislative restrictions that are limiting abortion access to women, particularly in El Paso and near the border of Mexico. This is largely due to clinics being forced to close due to something called “TRAP laws” (targeted regulation of abortion providers; basically laws requiring unattainable things of clinics or providers in order to force them to shut down), and immigration checkpoints inhibiting undocumented women needing abortions from traveling to other clinics.
“Back alley” abortions are not a thing of the past, even in countries where abortion is theoretically legal. Legality doesn’t equal access. I was lucky; I self-aborted and I lived to talk about it. Two years later, I even got out of that horrific relationship, and most days I feel like I’ve healed from the pain it caused.
My situation may sound extreme, but it’s not at all uncommon. Reproductive coercion and birth control sabotage are prevalent and are often overlooked or unaddressed.
In a survey of family planning clinics, 25 percent of women presenting for an abortion had experienced physical or sexual violence in the past 12 months. When women present for three or more abortions, the likelihood that they’re experiencing abuse or coercion skyrockets. Over one in three women have experienced rape, stalking or physical violence by their partner. Nearly half of all women have experienced psychological aggression from their partners. These are not small issues. I am not alone.
Any of this sound familiar? Below are some resources. You deserve to be safe to make your own decisions about your life and reproductive choices.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
National Abortion Federation (for resources and information on abortion, financial assistance and finding a provider): 1-800-772-9100
Backline (unbiased talkline for topics including: abortion; parenting; adoption): 1-888-493-0092
*Name has been changed