Through The Valley of Shadows by J, with Andrew Chew
A few months shy of graduating from one of Singapore’s top universities, J found herself with an unwanted pregnancy. J’s ensuing decision would alter her life’s trajectory and send her deep into its darkest valleys. This is her story.
By the time I was 21, I had already mapped out the rest of my life. Graduate, get a good job, get married, have children, and keep on working afterwards; that was the sum of my plans. These were modest and boringly normal ambitions but for me and my parents, who are both traditionally Chinese, simply educated and of humble means, these were important dreams indeed. The oldest of five children and the bright academic star of the family, I was a source of great pride for my father and mother, neither of whom had made it past high school. A lifetime of good grades seemed to foreshadow much success in the Promised Land of work and career, a land that lay just beyond the threshold of my graduation.
Then, six months before my final exams, I got pregnant.
I had been with the same partner for three years. He was my first and only boyfriend in university and I was quite certain that he was the man I was going to marry. About a year into our relationship, we started sleeping together. We had always protected ourselves against “accidents” but that one time I missed my period, I sensed something was terribly wrong. Realizing then that I was around two weeks late, I rushed out to buy a pregnancy test kit. Heading home on the train from the pharmacy, that small thermometer-shaped object seemed to weigh a ton in my bag. It was as if it had somehow manifested the immense heaviness and dread I was feeling in my heart.
Once home, I locked myself in the bathroom, took the test, and waited. Just outside, I could hear the faint, familiar sounds of daily life in my family’s small flat; one of my sisters’ on the phone, dinner being prepared, the television tuned to the usual Mandarin soap opera. But on my side of the flimsy plywood door, it seemed as if another universe had opened up; a terrifyingly dark, cold and claustrophobic place, full of shadows and foreboding. Suddenly, unmistakably, a faint blue line began to slowly emerge from the slim white strip I held in my trembling hands. Without warning, I was hit with a huge wave of nausea and I started to feel sharp needles of pain stab me behind my eyes and in my temples. A sickening, paralyzing fear coiled around my heart. Huddled in a corner of that small, damp space in a shocked silence, I stared at that mocking, damning blue line, a faint but undeniable signpost that marked my sudden crossing over into terrifying and unknown waters, a place that I had never thought could exist on the course I had charted for my life.
A year before, my cousin had also gotten pregnant. Just one year older then me, she had kept her baby till quite late into her pregnancy before aborting. Her situation had become hot table-talk for everyone in our extended family. Another relative, a doctor, had performed the abortion. Since then, her story had become like some scary folk legend, told and retold by family elders as a warning to us younger ones against the wages of foolish and irresponsible living. “See,” they would thunder, “look at the shameful mess she got herself into. Don’t any of you ever get yourselves into this kind of trouble!” Curled up in a little ball on that cold, hard bathroom floor, the faint blue line irrefutable evidence of my stupidity and carelessness, my next steps became suddenly, startlingly clear.
After classes the next day, I slipped unnoticed into a cramped, anonymous phone booth in the middle of a crowded MRT station. There, in a dark corner of the enclosure, with my face hidden in the shadows and the incessant drone of people busily going about their lives cloaking my conversation against prying ears, I made an appointment to have an abortion done.
I don’t exactly know when, where or how I told my boyfriend I was pregnant and that I was going to get an abortion; his reply, though, I remember clearly. I’ve always wondered if I was fertile or not, he had said. Well, now I know, he went on to proudly declare. Alarm bells about him and our relationship should have started ringing loudly then; whether they did or not I do not know. The task ahead had stopped my ears and made me deaf to all but the voice that told me that I had to get rid of my problem.
At the initial checkup, the office of the doctor I was told to see was filled with fresh, young medical graduates, all of whom looked to be about my age. In their crisply ironed shirts, neatly knotted ties, prim knee-length skirts and shiny shoes, they enclosed me in a little semicircle and probed me with their questions: did you take precautions, is this the first time you have gotten pregnant, how do you feel about it… I felt the hot sting of shame and humiliation sear the skin on my face and a sickening, nauseating churning fill the pit of my gut. A grim, single-minded determination to get rid of “it” gave me the resolve to get through that day.
There was one piece of good news, though: I was only six to eight weeks pregnant; all going well, the abortion would be quite straightforward.
A few days later, I was back at the hospital for the abortion procedure. I don’t remember much of what happened that day. I recall being in a fairly large, sterile-looking room with quite a few other women. We were each placed on a bed and, like cattle in a cow pen, we were all arranged into a neat, straight row. The nurses then showed us a video of an actual abortion. A part of me knew the footage was of a small baby being crushed and sucked out in a tube but by then, I had stopped seeing or feeling anything. One woman changed her mind and she was taken out of the room, but I stayed. Soon afterwards, a mask was slipped over my face and I quickly fell into a chemically induced slumber.
I remember waking up feeling very hungry. I was given a hot Milo and some biscuits to eat and they tasted incredibly, abnormally good. Maybe it had to do with the immense relief I felt at that moment: it was all sorted out, I thought; the problem was gone and except for me, my boyfriend and the hospital staff, no one else knew what had happened. I had my life back again.
After graduation, the well-laid plans I had for myself started coming to pass. Fresh out of university, I was offered a good job and found myself in a land that, at first, seemed literally to flow with milk and honey. On a glittering corporate ladder that I found I was able to climb quite well and with more money than I had ever had in my life, an entirely new world opened up to me. Yet, all this while, the abortion continued to intrude into my life in unexpected and unwelcome ways. I found myself utterly unable to say the word ‘abortion’ and if anyone did so in my hearing, I would immediately feel as if my body had been run through with a sharp blade.
Not long after starting work, my university boyfriend and I broke up and I started seeing someone else, a much older man. That relationship marked the beginning of my rapid descent into what turned out to be an almost 10 year stay in hell.
He began cheating on me, but even after finding out I didn’t leave him, not for a long while. One night, after a huge fight with him, he dragged me shouting and screaming up the stairs to his apartment and there, he raped me. Afterwards, I tried to kill myself. I survived, of course, but in total silence. I didn’t tell anyone a thing; not about the relationship, not about the rape, and certainly not about my suicide attempt. I finally left him soon afterwards but by then, I had become entangled in a dangerous and messy web of casual and destructive relationships. Around that time, there was one other significant change in my life: every night, I would hit the drinks, hard.
So began my life as a kind of undercover double-agent, a life where I maintained completely separate identities and personas for day and night. In the mornings, I would claw my way back up from the black depths of my alcoholic misadventures, often not knowing how I had gotten home the night before. In those hours of daylight, I would work; unbelievably, I somehow did well enough to keep marching steadily up the corporate ranks. But once the sun had set and the darkness fell again, I would descend once more into the bowels of a fetid, alcohol-soaked dungeon of debauchery. After four years of this, I came upon what I thought then was a ray of hope: someone who would actually care for me. It proved to be a false dawn: he was a married man who later turned out to be paranoid, controlling and, finally, violent. In the six years I was together with him, I tried killing myself twice more but on those occasions, my drinking proved to be an unexpected benefit; I was too drunk to slit my wrists properly.
* * *
At 30, after almost a decade of living in despairing darkness, I became a Christian and light began seeping into my life again. My conversion is another story altogether but I think it is enough to say here that faith gave me a different pair of eyes to see myself and my life with. That there is Love and that He has a Name and that He loves me – truly, madly, deeply – long after I had stopped loving myself; this was a revelation that overwhelmed me with its sheer outrageousness and staggered me with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it might be true.
Slowly, I began taking baby steps on the new path Love had opened up for me. I cut every tie I had with the people I had known in my twenties. I met, fell in love with, and was loved in return by a truly good man, the man who is now my husband, and together we’ve been blessed with three treasured children. My life began to lose its hard, wounding edge and the dark nights that for so long had ensnared me in its terrible coils began to release its grip on me. Still, for all the dramatic changes that had taken place in my life after becoming a Christian, it was 10 years after the abortion and I still could not bring myself to say the word. Deep, deep down, I knew that, hidden away in a shadowy corner of my heart, there was a locked room full of memories and experiences that I did not want and did not dare to revisit.
The door to that room was thrown wide open a few years later during what began as a casual conversation amongst some friends. Quite unexpectedly, someone started to share about her own abortion experience. I wanted to flee immediately but there was no escape for me; the friends were guests in our home and my husband and I were their dinner hosts! So, forced to sit there, a prisoner at my own dinner table, I tried to tune out as best as I could what my friend, B – whom I hated passionately at that moment – was saying. What got my attention though was when she started to talk about the healing she had received from God and began peppering her sharing with words like peace, joy, and grace. I was absolutely horrified. How dare she talk about her abortion! What right did she have to talk about joy, peace and all the rest of it and relate it to abortion!
But B’s sharing succeeded in planting a seed in me. From that time on, I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and weep uncontrollably while my dear husband slept unknowingly beside me. Tears would stream down my face as the memories of my friend’s sharing and my own abortion played across my mind. About a year later, those memories would finally touch my heart and break it open. One night, I woke up and began to weep again. This time though, words that I never thought I would ever be able to say formed on my lips. “Mummy is so, so sorry,” I sobbed aloud in the dark. It had been 18 years since my abortion.
That night, I also recalled a name B had mentioned during her sharing. She had recounted some of her experiences at Rachel’s Vineyard, a post-abortion healing retreat she had attended; then, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. A quick online search showed that the next retreat in Singapore was about six months away. For the first time ever, I felt ready to walk into the room in my heart that I had hidden away from sight and from light, and I signed up to go.
One of the first things I did afterwards was to tell B about my own abortion experience and that I was going for a retreat myself. Being able to deeply and openly share with someone a part of me that I had kept hidden in a shameful silence for so long was a great, great gift to myself, and it helped prepare me for what I was to experience on my own retreat.
After months of sometimes hopeful, often anxious anticipation, I finally arrived at the quiet spirituality centre where the retreat was being held. I was warmly met by one of the retreat staff and shown to my small, sparingly furnished but comfortable room. Once I was alone though, I started pacing the floor like a caged wild animal. All the fear, shame, humiliation, and guilt of the last 18 years suddenly came flooding into my mind and heart and I couldn’t deal with it; I felt like running away from the place, from the retreat, from my whole dirty life. Yet, I knew I couldn’t afford to let this moment slip through my fingers and I managed to scrounge up enough courage to stay.
Over the weekend, in the shelter of a safe, sacred place and in the company of a few very special people, a miracle happened. There, standing on what I soon realized was holy ground, the cords of condemnation, guilt, shame, and trauma that had grown out of my abortion and that had bound me to a life of shadows and self-destruction were finally, decisively, cut. I was able to recognize the post-abortion trauma I had been suffering since my abortion and understand how it had led to the choices that had sent my life spinning off onto its disastrous trajectory. It was also a time for mourning and grieving the two lives I had lost: my child’s and my own.
I left the retreat a totally different person. Free at last and no longer feeling dirty, I knew that much healing and restoration had taken place. I still wasn’t sure I could feel joy, though. It was the word that had offended me most when B had shared because it was the thing that I had lacked the most until then. To my great surprise, upon getting home and being thrust into the noisy chaos of my normal everyday life, an overflowing sense of joy began to well up from deep within my heart, a joy that could not be contained, a joy that was precious and priceless; a joy that was pure gift. At that moment, I knew at long last that I had finally left the valley of the shadow of death for good.
* * *
Looking back from a distance of almost 20 years, this is a story I sometimes find hard to believe is mine. I certainly wish that much of it wasn’t. Yet, for all that my life has been, there is so much that I am thankful for. That I am still alive today; I’ve learned that this is, like joy, a pure gift from God. But what fills my heart with the deepest gratitude is this: that I had enough light to see by during the many days when the darkness shadowing so much of my life had threatened to overwhelm me, and that the Light who gave me light continues to love and guide me, even now.
You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light
About the ghostwriter
Born in 1974, Andrew Chew was a former film and TV producer and National Geographic filmmaker. In 2006, Andrew left the world of moving pictures to focus on making still images and he now works as a documentary photographer and writer. Andrew is based in Singapore and is currently working on a long-term, multimedia project about women and men in Singapore whose lives have been affected in some way by abortion. He has served in Rachel’s Vineyard since 2011.