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Advice Abortion

One Desi Woman’s Story: Taking Care of My Mental Health During My Abortion

Shelly Khan

This Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, it's critical to put your well-being first.

While I come from a culture that once produced the ancient Kamasutra, these days my community can be deeply and dangerously regressive when it comes to sexuality. In many cultures, sex may not be dinner-table conversation, but it is generally understood that as children grow old, they date and have physical relationships.

However, in desi culture—a loosely defined diasporic culture that includes communities from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka—speaking about sex with your family or even friends may not be easy, and speaking about abortion can be even harder. If you have a history of sexual abuse (and, let’s be honest, you might), sex and abortion get way more complicated, and not just because the topics are heavy. In the desi culture in which I was raised, discussions about sex and abortion are also attached to concerns about “honor” and are meant to be kept “hush-hush.”

Depending on where you are and what your family is like, the consequences of a pre-marriage pregnancy in desi culture can be as simple as being grounded or as severe as being forced into marriage. In extreme cases, pre-marriage pregnancy has even led to straight-up “honor-based execution.” I know parents who have ended up sick or hospitalized upon finding out their unmarried child is pregnant. (Yes, it really can be that big a deal.)

If you are married and you choose to get an abortion, you might get a different set of emotional lectures since your parents want you to fulfill your ultimate purpose—to be a babymaking machine. It is a difficult choice to navigate, and since I have experience in dealing with an abortion alongside PTSD and anxiety, I have some suggestions for you if you’ve decided to seek an abortion.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Join a community

If there is one time in your life that you need support most desperately, it may be this one. And if you already have a support network of understanding family and friends, ones who won’t lecture you or throw your vulnerability in your face later, then you’re fortunate.

For most of us who aren’t so lucky, Facebook Groups are a lifeline. (I won’t recommend any specific groups, but make sure to join an “abortion” specific group. If you join a generic women’s group, you may not get specific advice related to abortion.) There are small groups of people all around the world who offer each other health advice, share experiences, and—most importantly—can give you courage, all centered around the experience of abortion.

Deal with guilt and shame

Whatever your culture, you probably won’t be able to escape the feeling of guilt and shame that years of “pro-life” cinema and TV have taught us. To accept this decision and not carry guilt inside may be one of the hardest things you do in your life. There are a million reasons why you might not want to carry your pregnancy forward, and only you can make that decision for yourself. Not your husband or partner, not your family, not your auntie, and certainly not the freaking patriarchy!

I have found that the best way to deal with guilt and shame is to change my mindset. Instead of seeing yourself as the villain of this story, see yourself as a hero because you didn’t allow a human to be created in circumstances that might have been toxic for them.

Ask your doctor about sedation

As someone with anxiety, I feel fortunate that my gynecologist offered to do my procedural abortion without me being conscious. That kind of full sedation isn’t always necessary for a procedural abortion, which in most cases takes just 15 minutes to perform and is often done with local anesthesia to numb the pain or conscious sedation to ease discomfort. (And if you’re in your first ten weeks of pregnancy, you may be able to choose a medication abortion: a two-step regimen involving mifepristone and misoprostol that allows you to safely end a pregnancy at home.)

But I was clear with my doctors about my mental health issues. I have Complex PTSD and anxiety with flashbacks, and I was confident that if I were awake for the procedure, anything I saw or heard would haunt me. Going under the gas saved me from that needless suffering. If you have similar mental health issues, I urge you to talk to your abortion provider beforehand about your options. Be open and honest about your history with mental health, your pain tolerance, and all your concerns.

Plan on post-abortion comfort

They’ll send you home a couple of hours after your procedure. You’ll be hazy but weak because of blood loss and severe abdominal pains. Make sure you have purchased lots of healthy juices, fruits, candies, or anything that gives you energy and comfort. If you like to read, grab a stack of books. Have movies, Netflix, and everything you love to do when you want to chill. You’re going to need to be spoiled.

Seek professional help (and consider antidepressants)

Despite taking the steps above, you may still experience clinical depression. We are all different, and our reactions to abortion will be different too. So watch out for your own mental health. Consider seeking professional help if that option is available to you. And, perhaps ask your doctor about medications. The stigma around taking antidepressants is complete BS. You’re going through a difficult time, and the last thing on your mind should be about what others will think.

Your abortion, your choice of procedure, and your medications are all your private matters. Never feel guilty if you don’t want to disclose it to your family or your friends. If you have a partner, I hope they support you each step of the way—if not, then you’re under no obligation to share things with them. You don’t owe anyone anything.

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