Grotesque is the word that came to mind as the girl dragged her feet through the doors of the grimy clinic. She shuddered, feeling a strange chill on that particularly muggy, August day in her rural town. But the gritty surroundings weren’t at fault for the cold that enveloped her body. That came from her reason for stepping inside. Her world, once brimming with adventure and joy, was now disenchanted. It had become indifferent to her.
The girl was there to confirm the existence of a life that had been stirring within her for five weeks—a life that she had, quite unwittingly, helped create during a regrettable, drunken one-night stand.
She felt the same sudden nausea that, a week prior, accompanied the appearance of a double line in the window of a home pregnancy test. Wait, . . . what do two lines mean again? This cannot be happening. She ripped into the second test—two bold blue lines. S***. She stepped outside and, without thinking, pulled out a cigarette to steady herself, pausing before she flung it violently to the ground. Ugh, guess that’s out. Squinting down at her phone in the early morning light, she scrolled to his name. She hesitated, then tapped it, and as the ring came, she tried once to clear her throat. “Hey, it’s me. Sorry, yeah, I know it’s early. Can you . . . can you talk for a minute?”
He had insisted on driving her to the clinic that muggy morning. Whether for moral support or curiosity, she neither knew nor cared. He was simply the only soul she had told. Her mostly Catholic colleagues, friends, roommates, and family she had to keep in the dark. The thought of telling them about this hellish mess was unfathomable, even terrifying.
The nurse, a kindly middle-aged woman, called her back with a chipper hello. The girl glanced at her companion, and he gently took her arm in his, guiding her to the exam room and helping her onto the table where she lifted her shirt hurriedly.
“Sorry, I have class in an hour,” the girl muttered, eyes downcast. “Mind if we make this quick?”
“Of course,” the nurse replied, smiling sympathetically. “Here we go, this is going to feel a little cold for a second. Let’s take a look. Yep, see that cluster there? That’s your baby, honey.”
The girl stared at the black-and-white image on the screen as her chill succumbed to warm, comfortably sinister numbness. She found the father’s eyes, searching earnestly for his reaction to guide her own stunted feelings. “I’ll be here every step of the way, no matter what you decide,” he murmured, “We’re in this together, okay?”
She nodded, closing her eyes. Hot, angry tears welled up and streamed down her face. Her body began to tighten, then tremble. She forced herself to look at her baby again as conflicting thoughts raced in. I don’t want you. You’ll be born to a mother who resented you the moment she saw you. What if this is my only chance to have a child? What will I regret more? This is where the rubber hits the road. Could I live with myself if I said no to you? I want you. I need you. I hate you. I love you.
The girl squeezed his hand and turned to the nurse. “Thank you,” she said, taking a deep breath. “So, what happens next?”
“That’s completely up to you, dear. It’s your body, isn’t it?”
– – –
On August 5, 2015, I chose to end the life of a person who might have taken his first breath on March 29, 2016. Each year, I devote those days to mourn a child who existed, but who never lived outside my womb. I honor him by naming him, speaking to him, crying about him, praying for him. For the toddler who, by now, would have melted my heart despite his Terrible Threes. For the teenager who likely would have kept me up at night in maternal angst. For the boy’s father—and the young man, husband, and father he was robbed of the chance to become.
I have reflected morbidly back on that terrible August day many, many times since then, spending hours staring blankly at my ultrasound. It is crumpled and worn from my hasty retreat back to my hometown to lick my wounds; for after I terminated my pregnancy and abruptly dropped out of school, I found little reason to stay. Every part of me—(theoretically) pro-life Catholic, passionate graduate student, hopeful writer, academic, good and faithful person—was shattered in a matter of months. To me, those months felt like years. I spent them buried deep in Netflix, binge eating, and mindless social media lurking, numbing my feelings of self-hatred and contempt.
I fell into a bone-crushing and unnerving malaise. I shed twenty pounds. My hair began to thin and fall out. My skin became pale, dull, sunken. The art of conversation and human interaction slipped away. I literally could not bring myself to get out of bed to eat, drink, or even go outside, if I could help it. My friends began to worry, but I ignored their calls and hid in my room when they tried to check on me. My family had gone into panic, wondering what was wrong with me. I had, astonishingly quickly, wasted away into a fragile shell of my former self.
Once a bright-eyed girl with an infectious zest for life, I found myself consumed by self-loathing, existing in the shadowlands created by that Unforgivable Evil Thing I had done. This Thing I could never take back. This Thing, as I firmly believed for years afterward, for which I could never forgive myself—nor ever be forgiven, by God or man.
It is often said that God’s work in our lives is a mystery we would be fools to try to comprehend. I was so fearful of sharing my anguish over what I’d done to the child—the soul that I’d co-created with reckless, lustful abandon—that I didn’t dare go near a church for almost a year. I was convinced that I was bound for hell and was beyond all salvation. My despair held me so firmly in its grip that I felt I’d never smile again. It was impossible to imagine that I could ever love—or be loved—again. For who could love me after I had done something so selfish, so horrific?
And I had done This Thing for the simple reason that I felt I couldn’t be a single mother—because I was desperately scared of being ostracized by my community, judged for my irresponsible fornication.
– – –
My foray into high-functioning alcoholism began shortly thereafter. I moved in with my parents and began job-hunting, for my unfinished graduate degree was practically useless. During this period of unemployment, I began to socialize frantically, hopping from group to group so that no one would notice how much I was drinking. Soon, what I called “social” drinking became the norm on most weekday nights—meaning four or five potent drinks. To my shame, I often drove home when I was quite tipsy—but never, I thought, drunk. I would spend my weekends bingeing with a variety of “friends,” who, in retrospect, didn’t know me at all. Hungover, sleep-deprived weekday mornings were my new standard.
Over the next two years, I managed to scrape by in jobs that varied widely between publishing and high tech to global intelligence and fundraising, but it never took long for me to get fired from each job. I was angry, unteachable, and arrogant, clocking in and out without taking the trouble to learn from and work with others. I hid my struggles with inadequacy by indulging in corrosive comparison via social media with other Millennials, whom I imagined had perfect and carefree lives. This growing resentment spread quickly and rooted itself firmly in my personality. I was miserable and glum, incapable of being grateful for what I had: a loving family, financial and emotional support, and friends who weathered the frequent storms of my moody and isolationary periods.
Throughout this time, my boozing-to-escape M.O. worked, . . . until it didn’t. On July 21, 2017, I was (quite rightfully) arrested for drunk driving.
I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that had I not been arrested, I would have ended up killing myself or, God forbid, another person. I spent twenty-four horrifying hours in jail, until my father and brother bailed me out. As we drove home in prickly silence, I was struck by the awful realization of what I’d done. I had hit rock bottom. After years of one failure after another—personal, professional, and spiritual—I was desperate for my life to change. But how? What could possibly be a sufficient substitute for the ease and comfort that alcohol always gave me, without fail?
Over tacos one night, my younger brother sternly but lovingly instructed me to get help by whatever means necessary. He told me that the tornado that I had become—tearing my way through the lives of others, as well as my own—was no longer acceptable. Exactly two weeks after my arrest, I stumbled into an alcohol addiction support group on a whim. It is a miraculous organization that has helped me achieve and maintain sobriety from alcohol since October 2, 2017. Through daily meetings, active service, spiritual discipline, and unique fellowship, it has now become my design for living.
Without it, I could not have summoned the strength to forgive myself, let go of my past, and let God build with me and do with me as He will. It was not until I sought help that I could see my defeated desperation not as a curse, but a gift.
Sometimes, as Paul Newman’s Luke Jackson wryly says, nothin’ can be a real cool hand.
– – –
As I dove into this sober community, hungry for the meaning and purpose that had eluded me in Catholicism, I found myself wandering through atheism, agnosticism, and Buddhism. My anger toward the Church festered and corroded my dwindling faith each passing day.
Then, while working the Twelve Steps, I slowly began to experience a psychic change and spiritual awakening. I learned to divorce my faith from the frothy emotional appeal and superficial sentimentalism that had always given me license to split myself into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I would shed my Catholic persona when I engaged in haphazard sexual encounters, often brought on by drink in a fruitless attempt to anesthetize my conscience. In my social life, I became an expert at the Jungian art of the mask as I morphed into whomever others wanted me to be. Without an internal mechanism of self-worth, I learned to manipulate others to elicit the precise emotions that would affirm my increasingly fragile, disappearing sense of self. I entered and left loved ones’ lives as I pleased, a raging and chaotic hurricane with no remorse.
When I finally summoned the courage to ask God (and myself) for forgiveness, I did not seek out a Catholic priest. Instead, my “absolution” and healing came from David, a self-described openly gay man in his seventies whose departure from the priesthood forty years ago inflicted cruel wounds that haunt him still today. We developed an intimate sober friendship that I will be eternally grateful for. After years of repressing my trauma, I finally broke down in David’s arms late one night, sobbing uncontrollably as he held me under a starry, silent sky.
“Why are you crying?” he asked, after some time.
“I am . . . evil,” I gasped through heaving sobs. “I cannot be forgiven. I am a murderer. I have killed my own child.”
David looked at me in a mixture of pity and compassion. “But you have not been destroyed or condemned by this. You have been redeemed through Christ. He loved you then. He loves you dearly still.”
The tears stopped abruptly. My ragged breathing slowed. “Does He?” I asked, wide-eyed and afraid of his response. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because He is bigger than any pain you have suffered, suffer now, or will ever suffer,” David replied, with an unsettling calm that stopped me in my tracks. “You’ve heard it from us a thousand times—listen! Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Trust Him, each day. Clean house, each day. Serve others, each day. And then do it again the next day. One day at a time.”
I could only stare dumbly at him in response, in a rare moment of speechlessness. He shrugged. I vividly remember that impish smile, his eyes shining as he said, “That is how I believe, anyway. You ought to try it.”
So I did.
Maddeningly slowly, but ever surely, my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sobriety began to afford me a reprieve from the dull pain that had all but snuffed out my desire to live. I threw myself back into my own life, showing up more and more for my loved ones—sometimes in big ways, but mostly in small ones. Whenever I made a mistake, I admitted it promptly and asked God what corrective measures I should take. I let Him discipline my wild and reckless spirit as I aligned my will—which had previously run riot—ever closer to His.
I began to pray every morning and evening for others instead of for myself. Although this was mechanical at first, I began to genuinely want to learn what I was called to do for the man and woman who are still sick. I stopped fighting my demons and acknowledged them instead. Whenever I felt agitated or doubtful, I paused and asked God for a thought or action that would allow me the courage to match calamity with serenity. Not once has He failed to guide me.
Eventually, He illumined my path back home to the Church—as I found extraordinary compassion and absolution from the same Catholic community that I had wrongly assumed would flatly condemn me. But I am grieved that our acerbic cultural and religious dialogue wreaks needless suffering on other women who, like me, could see only despair and death in the midst of hope and new life. To them I say: You are never, ever alone.
Does this joyous homecoming mean the answers come when I want them to? Sometimes. Other times I can’t see them, and simply ask Him again for direction, or listen in a different way.
Have I learned how to be happy most of the time? Isn’t that what it’s all about?
That is not it at all. That is not what I meant, at all.
What I mean is this: my once indifferent world has today become re-enchanted. What I mean is: I began to yearn for my life again. I have learned to let myself dream again, try again, fail again, love again, hurt again—to be again.
I have even dared to laugh at myself and with the world again. And that is what this miracle is all about.