Disassociation. Easily a top choice for describing my coping mechanism before age 30, and one that I can flawlessly slip back into like a favorite pair of sweatpants. Fear, emotional invalidation, and the authoritarian rule in my childhood home left little room for being present over perfect. Don’t get me wrong; there was love in my family. Just not a lot of the kind I needed. So I went looking elsewhere.
At 15, I stood awkwardly tall at 5 feet, 11 inches with Casper-like skin and mousy brown hair. A people-pleasing, uncoordinated cheerleader desperate for attention, I fell hard and fast for a boy a few years older than me. It was a rapid kind of love. One that, at the time, I hoped would be a forever kind of love.
I found myself pregnant just shy of my sophomore year in high school, and I had a decision to make that would catapult me into adulthood before I could legally obtain a driver’s license. I was scared out of my mind. Was my father going to kill me? What would happen to my boyfriend? What do I do with the life growing inside me?
My mom told me she would support whatever decision I made. And she did. Early one morning, and before my father knew anything, we drove into the parking garage of an abortion clinic in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, passing a flock of angry protestors with signs and photos of dismembered fetuses. The doctor told me I was four to five weeks along. On my way out, I made an appointment for the procedure. It was on the books.
But I couldn’t quite shake the overwhelming instinct that I couldn’t go through with it.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a mother. And my body was telling me it was ready to birth a child at 16, even though my heart, mind, and life were ill-prepared for that experience. In a church parking lot, my mother and I sat and made a phone call I will never regret. The life growing inside me deserved more. And that more, for me, was choosing adoption.
Although I knew I made the right decision, after placing my child into the loving arms of her new parents, my heart needed extra protection, so I shielded it. Kind of like when the military began up-armoring all of its vehicles in an attempt to prevent catastrophic damage to its precious cargo after 9/11.
When the Twin Towers fell, I had just returned from basic training and was a freshman undergrad. There were few options available to pay for my education, but I was determined to be the first in my family to go to college. And I wanted my birth daughter to be proud of me. My father told me a four-year degree was a waste of money. I was going anyway, and the Army National Guard provided the vehicle for me to do so. One weekend a month, two weeks a year for six years, and my college would be paid in full.
In between classes, I dutifully participated in my monthly Army obligation, waiting for leadership to give the orders that it was my turn to go to war —a citizen-soldier, excited and terrified of what I’d gotten myself into. It’s an incredible and complex thing, the human body. Readying for battle before the mind can comprehend how it got there and how it will survive in the middle of chaos.
But I’d found love again, in the midst of history and English classes and cultivating my newest skillset of being a military broadcast journalist. He was a Marine stationed a thousand or so miles away from me. We’d met online before online dating was a thing. Again, I fell hard and fast. This time, I was certain, would be it. We got engaged a month before he headed to Iraq for the invasion and broke it off shortly after he returned a different person and as I was signing out a SAPI plate and M-16 rifle for my own deployment. We couldn’t quite let go of each other, though. The last straw for our relationship was a Dear Jane email I found in my inbox three-quarters of the way through my deployment. It was over. I buried my heart in the desert sand.
Less than a month later, I was sitting in the back of a Stryker vehicle conducting reconnaissance at the Mosul Public Safety Academy grounds. I looked to my left and saw, through the vehicle’s indoor video monitor, a cloud-shaped fire ball. I felt the pressure wave throw me backward in a matter of seconds. Debris, smoke, and flames came roaring inside, and our air gunner fell into his seat. Rules of engagement at the time were to drive through an explosion. Yelling, confusion, and chaos ensued as we drove to safety. I didn’t know it at the time, but I sustained a traumatic brain injury from the impact. And one of the young non-commissioned officers had the audacity to blame the entire situation on me, since I was the only female in the convoy. “You’re bad juju,” he said. I reacted the only way acceptable at the time, simply laughing out loud and shaking it off, thinking what a jackass this guy was.
Several years and another deployment later, I was back home and trying to move on. Sex was something I could control and provided a temporary outlet when everything around me was spinning. With unprocessed trauma and a lingering void in my heart, I tried rekindling a former flame. He was a Marine too. One night I was in his bed when suddenly fear set in; he was stronger than me and drunk. I had been drinking too, but I said no. Several times. But he was too strong and already an angry man—I didn’t want to make anything worse. I checked out. Finally, he stopped, rolled over, and passed out. I got up and hoped one of his roommates would see me in the hallway so I could fall to the floor and get some help. What I got was a urinary tract infection and another wound I’d stuff away behind all that reinforced steel around my heart.
A month later, working on a project for the Wisconsin National Guard, I was paired with a soldier named Andy who was far more talented on the computer than I would ever be. And he made me laugh. Hard. And he was cute. But I was done with men, or so I thought. Andy was different. He was patient when it mattered most and he saw in me what I had desperately been searching to find about myself. It took me a long time to believe I was worthy of the love I had been dreaming about since I was a little girl, and now he was standing right in front of me giving it willingly. It didn’t matter to Andy that I had a mess of mental health issues strapped to me like my M-16 in a combat zone. He loved me anyway.
About a year after we were married, I made the decision, with Andy’s support, to meet with my ex-fiancé and gain the closure I thought I needed. I wanted to be free from the pain I believed had started with him. But a flood of tangled emotions abruptly confronted me as I finally sat across from my former love who wanted to kiss me. I learned later that I did what I had always done in intense moments like this: I checked out. And this time, checking out meant kissing him back.
The emotional carnage left after that encounter was too much for me to handle. I’d hurt the one person I cared about most in the world—the one thing I never wanted to do. When I told Andy what happened, he took off my wedding ring and stormed out of our home. I suffered a panic attack that landed me at the VA hospital with a heart rate of 163. I spent the night on the inpatient mental health floor, violently sick to my stomach and wondering how I got there and what I had just done.
My mother and a dear friend rushed to be by my side. I really wanted Andy there, but I understood that he wanted nothing to do with me at the time.
“I don’t want to be back here in five years going through this again with you,” I remember my friend telling me. “You have to decide if you want to be married and then do it.”
At my mother’s house where I was recovering after my hospital stay, Andy showed up and offered me one of the greatest gifts: forgiveness. He said that we would work through everything together, but that I needed to get help and, most importantly, forgive myself too.
Instead of wearing layers of armor always waiting for that next metaphorical car bomb to go off, I now needed to make my own rules of engagement and travel this journey completely exposed. No up-armored Humvee to lessen the blow in the driver’s seat of my life.
The only way for me to do that was through therapy. I’d been to counseling sessions before but never anything structured and with a strict requirement to confront all of my pain.
For the next four years, I did two rounds of cognitive processing therapy, and it saved me. I had never felt so raw and vulnerable in my entire life. But my heart, my marriage, and my future were worth it to me. Between all the tears, fear, mental effort, and anxiety through weekly therapy sessions, Andy and I finally were in a place to take the next step for our lives together. We wanted to have a baby.
After a year of trying with no success, we heard the words I’d dreaded most in the world: “You have diminished ovarian reserve,” the fertility expert said. She delivered the mother of all bombs to me—my body’s inability to carry a child despite everything I had done to get to this moment. She told us it wasn’t impossible, but conceiving came with extreme risk and would require reproductive assistance.
I felt betrayed, sad, and scared. Was this because my window of fertility took place before my sweet 16th birthday? Was it hereditary? Was it repeated complex trauma, or the constant barrage of burn pits in Iraq that made my eggs now hazardous material? There was no rhyme or reason from what the doctor could tell me. No evidence that could scientifically satiate my need for answers.
It would have been easy for me to add some of that armor back around my heart. But I’d worked hard to reverse those instincts. Although grief and loss never fully go away, therapy taught me I could lessen the emotional load and carry it with me more effectively. There was no other option for me at this point. Get back in the driver’s seat, Sara. And I did exactly that.
“I’m really scared to tell you something, and I’m paralyzed by what you’ll say in return,” I said to the adoption social worker. She held Andy’s and my fate of becoming parents in her hands. I readied myself for battle while simultaneously sharing my darkest truths. “I’ve had a really difficult past, and I’m worried all of that will disqualify me and us from having a baby.”
Without hesitation, and with sincere compassion, the gray-haired, stout, and bespectacled woman leaned forward clasping her hands together on my dining room table and said to me, “My role isn’t about judging you based on what happened to you. I want to know how you cope and use your strengths to move forward throughout life.” She followed her gentle words by asking how I had dealt with being a birth mother at 16, going to war at 21, and coming home to start a new life. I tiptoed through explaining that during each of those periods, I had chosen to place layers of armor around my heart to steel myself against all the pain.
But now I was finally in a place where I chose to be vulnerable in spite of not knowing what the outcome would be. That decision alone was a victory for me, and I held onto hope that my baby was coming.
Not long after that conversation, a seven pound, four ounce bundled sack of sugar was placed in my arms, and in less than the second it takes for the audible click of a camera’s shutter, I fell in love.
Days went by and I’d slowly lowered the need to shield myself from more pain, all in effort to make room for the little boy lying on my chest, breathing magical sounds that soothed my soul. When the adoption finalization day came upon us, layers upon layers of armor fell to the floor like the ease of removing my flak vest after a long mission.
I wouldn’t trade any part of my life. It has all brought me to where I am today. And every day isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. But I’m a birth mom to a now beautiful young woman and close with her wonderful parents, a wife to an amazing and strong man, and a mama to my incredible and joyous son. That forever kind of love is more beautiful than I imagined. And now it’s mine.