How I Came to Realize That My Abortions Do Not Define Me
I’m going to share something here that I haven’t ever publicly said but that, over the past several months, I’ve felt compelled to share. I have started writing or talking about this episode of my life on several occasions but each time I get started, a lump starts to grow in my throat, my chest gets tight, and my breath shortens. Many people know about the period of depression in 2012 that led to my discovery of running, but that was not the first time I felt my world collapse. Despite my work as an activist and advocate for women’s reproductive rights, I still carry shame around the two abortions I had in college.
The first time I had an abortion, I was a sophomore in college. I was living really recklessly within the dorm, taking full advantage of the privilege I had as a college student in New York City attending Columbia University. While I was able to somehow maintain excellent grades, I was drinking too much and dating a misogynist. I now know that I was dealing with depression and anxiety and acting out, but then, I was just doing what felt good.
I found out I was pregnant a Wednesday night after a cappella rehearsal and remember I spent the night with my friend discussing possibilities. My boyfriend characteristically ignored my calls that night and all of the communication about my pregnancy that would follow. The next morning, my friend sat with me as I called and hung up several times before finally making an appointment to get an abortion. I was distraught by my decision—embarrassed, disgusted with myself, enveloped with shame and guilt. Another friend arranged to accompany me to the hospital for the procedure and took me to get a pedicure afterwards. When I finally got home, I didn’t leave my room for a week. I was damaged property.
This experience led me into an even deeper period of depression. I continued to drink excessively, I continued to date men that were far too old for me and only interested in manipulating me—I did not believe that I deserved anything good in the world because of what I had done and I was going to make certain that I suffered for it. I lost 30 pounds off of my already small frame and finally, one day on my way home from a summer internship interview during the first semester of my junior year in college, I broke down and called my mother to tell her that I had done something unforgivable and needed to go home.
My parents moved me out of the dorm and I spent a day in the ER being assessed for suicide and medicated to alleviate my symptoms of anxiety and depression. Back home in Teaneck, NJ, my parents arranged for my cousin to drive me in to school only for class and a cappella rehearsal. I was somehow able to stay on track, despite the voices in my head that continued to tell me I was worthless.
By the end of my junior year, I seemed to have it back together when I started dating another man who was truly a reflection of what I thought about myself. Within a few months, I found myself once again pregnant but this time feeling that I did not even deserve the support of friends to deal with this second offense. I made an appointment, got an abortion, and came home to relieve my mother of taking care of my father, then just two years into his diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia.
I began to hate myself so much that I started browsing the internet for how to relieve myself of the pain. I came upon stories of self-harm and people who cut themselves and felt a sense of release. I started to cut myself on my hip and other places no one would ever be able to see, and, each time I did it, I felt like i was getting what I deserved. After months of relying on cutting as a coping mechanism to deal with my psychological pain, I decided I had had enough and somehow came up with the idea to get a tattoo that would be a constant, daily reminder of what I had done; almost like my very own scarlet letter. I wound up getting two small hearts tattooed on my left wrist and I felt a deep sense of relief—I was forever marked for my bad deed.
Looking back, I’m thankful that at this point in life I found myself in therapy, thanks to the insistence of my mother. Many sessions of therapy allowed me finally to process my experiences from college, forgive myself, and remove much of the shame I felt. I now have a circle covering those little hearts because I came to realize that my abortions do not define me. Abortion is healthcare, period.
I fiercely and deeply believe in the importance of women having autonomy over their own bodies. However, I share this story now because, as an activist in this space, I am constantly challenged and triggered by the very situations I place myself in and therefore, must show myself empathy. While prioritizing self-care can feel selfish, it is the only way for us to continue to grow personally, make our own breakthroughs, and have the energy and insight to do what we do. And perhaps most importantly it is a reminder that I matter in a world that would have me believe otherwise; my own self care must come first. In the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
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Author Bio Named by Women's Running as one of twenty women who are changing the sport of running and the world and by The Root 100 as one of the most influential African Americans ages 25 to 45, Alison is an endurance athlete, activist, and mental health counselor. Alison is the founder of Harlem Run (an NYC-based running movement) and Run 4 All Women (an initiative that has raised over $150,000 for Planned Parenthood), and just launched the podcast Finding Meaning (on the RUN). Alison is currently featured in Under Armor’s latest global campaign, Unlike Any, which celebrates and honors the unprecedented achievements of female athletes that rise above gender comparisons and stand on their own as marvels of athletic prowess. Alison started running distance after a period of depression, and, over the past 5 years, has been able to Find Meaning on the Run. When Alison is not running, she is working to resolve and speaking passionately about issues related to women and girls as well as mental health. Alison recently wrote the foreword for "Running is My Therapy," by NYTimes best-selling author Scott Douglas.