The author at the end of her junior year of high school, not long after she was sexually assaulted. (Photo: Courtesy of Dina Zirlott)
My story is one that some already know, but for the sake of those who might not, and in light of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade, it is best summarized by these three sentences: I was raped when I was 17 years old. I was forced to give birth to a baby when I was 18 years old. My baby died when I was 19 years old.
I wrote my first essay for HuffPost in 2019 regarding my rape at the hands of a trusted friend, how it led to a crisis pregnancy and ultimately, the birth of my daughter, Zoe. I detailed the consequences of being denied an abortion later in pregnancy after discovering she had a fatal neural tube defect called hydranencephaly, and how this meant I was forced to give birth to her and then spend a year watching her slowly die in front of me.
At the time, then-President Donald Trump had been broadcasting misinformation that conflated comfort care for infants born with lethal fetal anomalies with abortion care. As a person who had been denied the latter, and who struggled to provide palliative care that could ease the symptoms of my child’s rapidly deteriorating quality of life, I wanted to provide an authentic perspective on how these choices are as deeply personal as the circumstances that instigate them.
I wrote another piece for HuffPost three months later when Alabama passed H.B. 314 — a six-week abortion ban with no rape and incest exceptions. In that essay, I condemned the politics that reduce our bodies to pieces of rhetoric and ignore our actual lived experiences.
These essays were shared across media platforms and resulted in my being interviewed for various programming, both nationally and internationally. I’ve never regretted it ― not even when my story began to circulate in my local southern Alabama community, and former schoolmates, friends, even family, took to social media with disparaging remarks and invalidations.
I have always struggled with asserting myself. I try to predict what people want from me in order to avoid any confrontation, but here, I found the vitriol slipping easily from my mind. I suppose that’s a rather bleak silver lining to having already lived through one of the worst possible things that can happen to a person ― anything less than total annihilation is manageable.
The author at 11 years old playing dress-up, performing in her first voice recital and preparing to try out for sixth-grade cheerleading. (Photo: Courtesy of Dina Zirlott)
It is strange though, to bare the story of Zoe’s life over and over these past few years. There were entire months after she died when I couldn’t even speak my daughter’s name. Evoking her memory and all that came with it would throw open those doors, and what was on the other side would fall out and crush me underneath its vast weight. There was too much pain and not enough of me to hold it back ― too much rage and grief to even begin to figure out how to live with it.
For a long time, I didn’t want to live with it. Sometimes I still don’t. I look out into my future, and all of the past stays clinging to me. I sit here now and begin to write this all down for the hundredth time ― now in the shadow of the Court’s insane and barbaric’s decision ― and hate myself a little bit for trying to affix some purpose or meaning to what happened to me and Zoe. All these years of searching, and I have yet to find any context so significant that it would soften the cruelty of being robbed of dignity, autonomy and sexual agency.
I know the architecture of a life that has been marred by the consequences of forced birth. I know the shame and the indignity of that hospital bed and what it leaves you with after. It has been 16 years, but I can still hear myself begging my mother, my doctor, not to make me do this ― please don’t make me do this. Forced birth was tantamount to the rape I experienced; in some ways, the violation of it went deeper.
The birth wasn’t easy. I quickly became preeclamptic ― my blood pressure surging to dangerously high readings. Alarms began to chime around me. All I could do was lie there and shake and breathe and breathe and breathe. At one point, a nurse or a doctor, I’m not sure which, warned that I was going into shock.
I think my mother must have asked what that meant ― what was happening to me ― because I heard some distant explanation about seizures and stroke and hemorrhage. It sounded like death. I yearned for the simplicity of it, to let my life fade away so I could stop being a thing that thinks and feels, that could understand what was happening to me. Perhaps one moment of pain, and then a great slur of nothingness. In that capacity, Zoe and I were much alike ― both of our bodies sustaining a shadow of a life, heart stuttering and blood pumping, unable to escape the suffering ahead of us.
Forced birth was tantamount to the rape I experienced; in some ways, the violation of it went deeper.
My body was resistant to any pain medication, including the anesthesiologist’s efforts at administering an epidural. My legs had no feeling, but everywhere else, there was pain. I remember the conversation with the doctor prior to being induced, tears rolling down my cheeks, and how I said, “I don’t want to feel anything. I don’t want to know.”
It wasn’t because I was afraid to hurt ― pain didn’t mean much to me anymore ― but being chained to this birth through involuntary labor repulsed me. I needed to disappear, to be outside of myself ― to be in the air, or the tick of the clock, or the cracks in the plaster. Anywhere but the bed, with the thin hospital gown covering my bare body and the monitors strapped onto me and the IV pumping, and the sort of hurting that demands your presence.
I was surrounded by strangers, everyone watching it happen, just a bunch of powerless people spectating at the assault of an even more powerless teenage girl. Except this time, the perpetrator was my own body as the Pitocin contracted my muscles and forced me along a path I never wanted. I was terrified, humiliated — and in those moments, there was no difference between the table in the kitchen where a boy pushed me down and raped me, and the hospital bed where I gave birth against my will.
I want you to know that I’ve never forgiven my body for that betrayal. Even now, there are times I can’t stand to lay my own hands on my body, to wash myself or remove my clothes from my skin. I have to sleep in bras because the feeling of a T-shirt moving against my chest reminds me too much of being naked underneath a hospital gown. My body still doesn’t feel like my own, and I hate my body for it.
I knew the girl that entered the labor room would not be the same one who left. Zoe was born, and time began to tear through her life, taking with it the person I might have been. Experiences and possibilities and the future I’d worked for, they all died there in that room, on that bed.
The author after a 10th-grade cheerleader competition. (Photo: Courtesy of Dina Zirlott)
I quit high school as a result of post-traumatic stress, unplanned parenthood and fear of my abuser. I’d struggled to fit in with my peers to begin with, but now the gap between us was impossibly great. I was able to get into my local college with a GED, but just when I would muster some resolve to live, the depression and anxiety would tear me back down to size. I was exhausted from frequent hospital stays.
Zoe’s inability to sleep coupled with the constant risk that she might aspirate or suffer a fatal seizure at any moment kept me too hypervigilant to achieve genuine rest. I struggled to be close to anyone, afraid of who they might know. Who they might tell. I didn’t know how to relate to anyone as Dina anymore ― she was gone, and I was what took her place.
I was still a teenager, though. I was desperate for people to look at me and see something worthy of their time. There had to have been things that were special about the Dina that came before the one who had taken up residence in her place, but I’d forgotten what any of it was. All I was good at anymore was being afraid or numb or needy.
There was this impotent rage over everything I’d lost ― not only my personhood, but smaller things, too, like my senior year. Taking graduation portraits, as my sister had done. Walking across the stage. Shopping for dormitory furniture. Hating or loving or being indifferent to a college roommate. I wanted to attend Troy University, try out for their vocal ensemble, go to a party and have new experiences with new people, find freedom from the strict custody schedule of divorced parents.
I remember having a revolving door of ambitions: to become a journalist, maybe go into politics, become an ambassador, a psychologist, an English professor, a screenwriter. I had been on the precipice of becoming. These things meant something to me. I couldn’t arbitrate with any logic how something I spent years working toward could be so casually destroyed.
Zoe was born, and those possibilities were extinguished. Studying nursing seemed the only practical option. I had a child to take care of for however long she lived, and the best way I could mitigate her suffering was to learn more about how to treat it. But then Zoe died. Then I had nothing.
The author's daughter, Zoe, not long after her first birthday. (Photo: Courtesy of Dina Zirlott)
I unenrolled from college not long after. I couldn’t keep up with my classes. I slept even less than I had before. I was messy and desperate to find any escape from my reality. I tried to keep a job, but a couple of months in, I would quit or stop showing up for a shift when I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I struggled to work around men ― I was afraid to say no to them. I was afraid to have one in a position of power over me.
I got married when I was 20, and of course there was love, but I think he knew ― must have known ― that part of it was about escape. For all my quiet dysfunction, he loved me back and stayed in spite of it. We had three children because it seemed like the natural progression of events, and I threw myself into motherhood. I crushed down at the grief and unaddressed traumas and tried to forget that I ever had dreams of my own. I made it past the first birth of our daughter, whose red hair and big blue eyes reminded me so much of Zoe, but with our second daughter, I broke.
There was too much. Too much stacked on top of too much, all of it bearing down. The pressure of being the primary caretaker, the never-ending chores, the isolation of it, the disparities between myself and my husband, the total lack of anything I could identify as truly my own ― the grief and repressed memories fissured open.
I still don’t know if I can truly convey the violence of forced birth and how it sets off a chain reaction that will echo into every fragment of a life.
It’s hard to remember much of that time. The depression robbed me of most of my memories of our second daughter’s first year of life. Yet another thing to add to the mass of guilt ― I can recall planning how I was going to end my life, but I don’t remember my daughter’s first steps.
There will be no conclusion to this grief, not ever ― it’s important you understand that. It is the foundation on which everything else was built, and it is the price I paid to try and survive this. My feelings don’t work right anymore. Grief has changed the shape of my love. It stretches in ways it should not. It keeps me on the other side of it. No matter how hard I try to shield it from my children, I know, inevitably, my trauma will touch their lives too.
I wonder what my daughters will make of me when, as adults, they perform the autopsy of their childhoods to uncover the reasons behind the people they’ve become. I wonder if I will be the antagonist of their story ― the mother, strangely distant and present all at once ― or if they will give me grace and understand the deeply flawed, wounded core of a mother who tried and who, despite everything, loved them fiercely.
I am trying. But sometimes, it feels like my grief is what composes the bones of this house and traps everyone within it.
The author's three daughters, who were all born after Zoe. (Photo: Courtesy of Dina Zirlott)
A few days ago, my youngest was in the back seat. She asked me, “Are you strong, mommy?”
She was wondering whether or not I could lift up our 50-pound pitbull to put in her lap, but I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about my weakness and my discontent, and how earlier I had been sobbing while cleaning the goddamn toilet next to the bleach and the grout brush with those stupid rubber gloves.
Crouching there, the thought had suddenly crept in: This is me now. This is mine: the piss on the grout, the laundry on the table, the roast in the crockpot, and the ghost of some girl I haul around whose aspirations I still feel like phantom limbs. I’m what was born from all the mutilated bits left behind. No matter how much distance I try to put between us, I keep coming back, and every time, she’s still there ― laid bare on that hospital bed. Right where I left her. I want so badly to put her at peace because that girl, that child, she’s suffered enough. But I can’t.
Instead, I have to stand here and listen to pundits and judges and politicians debating the essential question as to whether or not I have the right to privacy and autonomy over what happens within my body. It never fucking stops. How am I ever meant to come to terms with the person I have become as a result of being dispossessed of the very rights they are trying to debate away?
I used to be so consumed with the scope of the other traumas involved in my experience that I was afraid to be selfish, to ask people to care about my loss of identity ― to ask for some part of it back. Until recently, I didn’t have the language to even engage in recovery from my rape and the total lack of agency I had in the resultant birth, two separate sexual violations. I still don’t know if I can truly convey the violence of forced birth and how it sets off a chain reaction that will echo into every fragment of a life.
So, to those Supreme Court justices who just overturned Roe, I say: Tell me how to do it ― tell me how to reconcile ownership to this body that has been overtaken so many times. Would you choose this for your own children? How can you sleep, knowing your hand has assigned this fate to anyone? How is deliberately condemning thousands of families to the type of generational trauma born of forced pregnancy and birth an acceptable price to pay? Make no mistake, you are paying in our blood. How does it not preoccupy you every single moment?
Answer me. These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m a human ― I’m the one with fingernails and a heartbeat. I’m the one with experiences and feelings and a reality fixed with limitations that I must constantly navigate. These aren’t things you can simply regulate into nonexistence and expect those realities to bend and fit into some fool’s paradise.
I know the infinitely more likely truth is that you already know this and simply do not care.
To those Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe, I say: Tell me how to do it ― tell me how to reconcile ownership to this body that has been overtaken so many times. Would you choose this for your own children? How can you sleep, knowing your hand assigned this fate to anyone?
I realize these words will likely never make it to their intended recipients, and even then, I am little more than another pound of flesh against an extensive anti-abortion agenda that predates my own birth.
Perhaps it is best that to you, I am nothing. I am not a famous writer or journalist, there is no credentialing to my name and no lobbying firm or organization to represent me. I am no one of any consequence in the world. It is because of this fact that I would encourage you to read these words and consider, for one terrible moment, the future you have so carelessly executed by depriving us of agency over our own reproduction.
People like me will comprise a huge percentage of those most affected now that Roe has been overturned. My lack of a résumé is testament enough to the opportunities and possibilities that I was divested of as a result of forced birth and forced parenting. We are a paycheck-to-paycheck family. I’m only qualified for minimum wage work. We get behind on the house note when the kids fall sick and we need to spend money on the co-pay and medicine. I’m unable to afford the mental health care to treat the PTSD left behind from the first compulsory birth, and you would obligate me to another?
My experiences and how I feel about them are not a matter of opinion. You can not take my life and draw different conclusions from it ― just as you cannot take a person’s desire to abort an unwanted pregnancy and reduce their motives to some nebulous inconvenience.
No amount of diminishing language or fear tactics or subjugation will give you ownership over us. To me, you are little more than just another perpetrator of sexual violence ― unremarkable in every way, yet capable of such atrocities. This is all I have to give you — not donations or power or paid-off debts in exchange for sympathetic adjudicature.
My words are the only real thing still my own. I refuse to believe they are of no value.
Dina Zirlott is a 34-year-old stay-at-home parent. She lives in Mobile, Alabama, with her husband, three daughters and five dogs. In her spare time, she likes to bake and decorate cakes with a highly questionable degree of expertise and taste.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.