Illustration by Chelsea Charles.

Depending on your sex education, you may have been pulled through a bashful nurse’s opinion of what they think you should know about sex: How to put a condom on a banana, or listing as many names as you can for the vagina. Ultimately, you have probably been taught that P-in-V sex leads to pregnancy, and then to a baby, and then to the end of life as you know it. What they may not have mentioned is that although unprotected penis-in-vagina sex can lead to pregnancy, abortion aside, pregnancy doesn’t always lead to a baby. Something between 20 and 30 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. So if you think back to your sex ed class, among those awkward, fidgeting faces, miscarriage is likely to affect at least one of you. As for me, I was just too goddamn fidgety and happened to be in that number.

It was the first week of my second year of college and I was 20, clueless, carefree, and completely caught up in my own life. Finding out that I was not only pregnant but already SIX ENTIRE WEEKS into my pregnancy brought my life to an almighty halt. After being unable to stomach a trip to the supermarket, followed by a night out where two sips of my usual made my head spin, I took the plunge and peed on a stick. Not once, not twice, but seven times, seven positive times. My reaction was to cry and lose the ability to form words. I threw the test toward my boyfriend; it didn’t take a genius to get the message. Despite being unsure how to react himself, Alex was every bit the supportive rock that I needed at that time, open arms and full of reassurance.

All at once the pregnancy gods sent me every symptom they could think of, from severe morning sickness to even more severe constipation, I had it. After days of not eating and not knowing what to do, I turned to the one person I knew would be able to help. I was terrified of telling my mom, and as I prepared to call her, it was the first time I’ve been grateful that we live in different cities and that no technology exists that’d allow her to jump down the phone. Following the three longest rings of my life, she picked up. I blurted it out: “I’m pregnant.”

“You’re joking.”

“Shall I FaceTime you?”

I’m not sure why I thought FaceTime was a better way to have this conversation. Maybe if she could actually see my panic she’d take it easy on me. Surprisingly, she did. She was calm while I cried, she was exactly what I needed. I left the conversation with a clearer head and more remedies for morning sickness than I knew existed. Telling her was the best decision I could have made, and with a minimum of 10 texts from her daily, I began to consider my options.

It wasn’t just me that a potential baby affected, my boyfriend Alex was just as shaken and unprepared as I was. (I’m still unsure how he remained so together while I turned into a monster who only ate pickles and lemons and shouted a lot, but he did.) Ultimately, the thought of us bringing a baby into our hectic little bubble was unthinkable. I was just starting another year of university and he was in the music industry. We were barely able to manage ourselves never mind another human. Abortion seemed like our only choice and even though the thought of it didn’t sit perfectly with me, we booked an appointment at a clinic three weeks in advance. I needed time to make sure it was what I wanted and that I would be prepared to deal with how I’d feel afterward.

Meanwhile, I was growing attached to the feeling and idea of what could happen if I didn’t end the pregnancy. I’d always told myself that if I got pregnant at an early age, I would have an abortion. I’m career-focused, which I’d believed would defeat any hormone-induced emotion. I can’t explain it, exactly—like a bad joke, you just have to be there—but whenever I was alone, I watched pro- and anti-abortion videos on YouTube. Not the most sensible thing to do, I know. (Those videos haunt me to this day. The mix of graphic internal images with “pro-life” placards left me feeling helpless and hopeless. Needless to say, I wouldn’t recommend this.) I still couldn’t understand how pregnancy could have happened to us; I was on the contraceptive pill, the odds were really against us. I felt silly for not realizing sooner that that’s why I’d been feeling unwell, for not feeling sure of what I wanted to do, and about what people would think of me when they found out.

I started bleeding the day after finally accepting that I was pregnant. It was the evening and I was at a friend’s place. She’d made me a meal that catered to all of my cravings, we’d settled down to watch The Inbetweeners, and for the first time in a while, everything felt normal. I was three roast potatoes in when I threw up and had to run to the bathroom. To this day I’m unsure what told me to check ~down there~ but I did. It wasn’t a lot of blood, just enough to raise concern. By the time I emerged from the bathroom my friend had packed some sandwiches and we headed to the hospital.

As two girls who look younger than we are, some of the looks we received in the Emergency department were unfathomable. Perhaps if people had known why I was there they wouldn’t have been so judgy, then again, maybe not. I explained my situation to a lovely, if disappointed-looking doctor, and was referred to a ward to be poked and prodded by overworked and overtired nurses. At 4 AM and none the wiser, I was sent home and told to return for a scan five hours later. When the time came, I was tired and sore and far from mentally prepared to face the reality of the pregnancy on a little screen. It was shaped like a jelly bean. I hate jelly beans, but I couldn’t hate this.

They sent me home, again, this time with the standard warning to come back if anything got worse. For now, they couldn’t see anything severely wrong. I was relieved. However I couldn’t help but feel awash with guilt at having been seated in a waiting room surrounded by deeply nervous women waiting to see a jelly bean that I wasn’t sure I even wanted. Two nights later, I was bleeding heavily and the stomach pains were unlike any I’d had previously. Before I knew what was happening I was in the back of an ambulance wearing unflattering pajamas and filling out a form about who should be informed first in the event of my death.

I was trying to stay positive, but being carted around in a hospital bed was daunting to say the least. I was scared shitless. I sensed that most of the hospital staff saw me as another young pregnant girl; their caring personas were forced, at best. I was pregnant and rapidly losing the pregnancy, and still we had to wait a painfully long time to be seen. I can’t say for sure, but maybe had I been 10 years older I would have been taken more seriously, treated sooner, and with more care. Eventually, a doctor greeted me with a gloved hand and a clear plastic contraption that she pushed inside me without hesitation. Alex’s face was already white, as she asked me to spread my legs a little wider he turned ghostly. It was awful. She stayed down there for around three minutes. When she pulled out her instrument it was caked in deep red, clotted blood. Again I was told they couldn’t see anything obviously wrong. Although I knew what was really happening and didn’t care for her false reassurance, I pretended to listen. I was sent on my way and told to return for another scan a few days later. I felt deflated, more like a piece of meat than a sentient being.

The bleeding continued, and at the next scan a nurse confirmed what we both already knew: There had been no growth in my jelly bean and there was no heartbeat. She patted my leg in the same way you would a dog that you didn’t know, unsure whether it would bite or roll over. I was told to do a pregnancy test a week later and to call with my results; by then a test should be negative and I would be fully discharged. I was given instructions, but not the information I needed for what was to come. I expected an extended, heavy period, what I didn’t plan for was a whole night on the toilet with precise stabbing pains as each individual bit of my pregnancy came out. It was bloody and brutal and I wouldn’t have wished that night on my worst enemy. I wanted to be strong for myself and Alex, so early on I told him to stay out of the bathroom. Despite being reluctant to leave me alone, he didn’t argue. I didn’t want him to witness what was happening and even though part of me desperately wanted him to hold me, I chose to stay alone in the bathroom until the next morning. Going back to bed seemed somehow disrespectful. I needed my own time—to say goodbye, I suppose. When it was over, I felt relieved and guilty, and then guilty for feeling relieved.

It took over a month of weekly pregnancy tests and another scan to get that negative result. I was baffled about why it took so long; I couldn’t get the closure I needed. Ultrasound by ultrasound, I’d had to witness the decline of my jelly bean. I felt like a failure. Not only had I had an unplanned pregnancy, I’d then done pregnancy wrong, and now it seemed I couldn’t even have a miscarriage right. Then, a few days before my 21st birthday, the pregnancy test came up negative. A huge weight lifted from me, followed by waves of emotion that hit me hard. I didn’t give myself time to grieve, because I didn’t know that’s what I needed to do. In my eyes, everyone else needed me to be OK so I forced myself to at least appear to be. If I pretended, I hoped to wake up one day and somehow be OK and not have to deal.

There are days that I don’t think about what happened at all and feel exactly like pre-pregnancy Alana. On other days, I dwell at rock bottom. Five months on, I’m realizing that being a beaver dam of emotion gets you nowhere. What happened was physically and emotionally traumatic; I have to just feel my sadness. Denial only created a brick wall that I eventually hit, and the only way to get through it is to accept each individual brick. In the process, I’ve found that I’m less alone than the silence around early pregnancy and miscarriage makes it seem. Not only do the people around me support me, but there are people globally sharing my exact thought process. There’s a community, just a click away, of people crying my same tears. Having a miscarriage shattered my once hard exterior, but, along with grief, the loss has left me with a better understanding of myself and the will to face my emotions. ♦

Alana Howarth-Lees first appeared on Rookie as part of Friend Crush. She is now 21 and enjoys acting, sit-down showers, tomfoolery, being an aunt, and most types of chicken. You can find her on Instagram.