Trigger warning: This article discusses abortion, surgical trauma and family loss.
Polina Pak is an artist whose recent series ‘She lent me her pyjama bottoms’ explores the objects and spaces we find comfort, healing, and meaning in when going through an abortion. Polina is based in London, but was in her hometown of Khabarovsk, Russia when we spoke, having returned home after losing her Dad to Covid-19. Despite the offer to postpone our conversation, Polina met me with an incredible honesty and openness as we discussed our experiences of abortion and loss, and how her art work has been a source of healing for other women, as well as for herself. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, one in a series of talks with different creatives, as we discuss the role of mental health within our creative disciplines. I would also like to note that this is a pro-choice space; we believe in a person’s right to safe and affordable abortion care and the legalisation of abortion worldwide.
Orlanda: Shall we start with what your experience of abortion was like if you're comfortable talking us through that?
Polina: Yeah, of course. I was 22 at the time and in a happy and loving long term relationship. I didn't plan for the pregnancy to happen, I'd always thought that I would‘ve chosen to keep the baby no matter what my situation but at the time I was struggling with a lot of anxiety. I wasn't in a healthy place and I felt that it would’ve been incredibly unfair to bring someone into the world when I was not ready to have a family. Luckily, I had a very supportive partner who was there for me but what was quite difficult was that I had to wait for a while for my abortion. They couldn't see the embryo on the ultrasound and I kept having to come back week after week. By that point I'd been through a whole rollercoaster of denial but also a sense of unity as my body started changing. Which allowed me to bond with my femininity. I'm quite a petite person but feeling the growth of a life made me connect with my body in a whole different light. Even though this is quite an intense experience, I'm really grateful for my pregnancy. I had a medical abortion and was home when the actual miscarriage happened. During my recovery I was encountering so many things that I had not read in all those booklets they give you. For example, I started losing my hair because my hormonal levels were all over the place. My eating habits changed, I'd get more panic attacks, which was something no one had prepared me for. It prompted me to start looking outside of what's available online and in hospitals. I started trying to find people I could relate to and realised that there is a real lack of conversation around the subject of abortion which felt invalidating in many ways.
Orlanda: Thank you for sharing that firstly, there's so much of that that resonates with me and when you were sharing your experience I was feeling a sort of excitement at the similarities between us, which really just illustrates how rare it is to have this kind of open dialogue. One of the things that stuck out is I also had to wait a little while from the point of knowing I was pregnant before being able to have the abortion. And I've had a similar experience of being at the time in a loving relationship but was struggling with depression and was having serious anxiety attacks as well, and I knew that I was not fit or able to carry a child let alone raise one. I'd had a medical abortion too, which had gone wrong so the pregnancy had been terminated but what they call the remaining ‘product', essentially the baby, was still in my womb. After over a month of constant bleeding I had to have surgery to clear that out and had a huge panic attack coming out of the operating room, my fingers and toes seized up and all of my limbs began to contort. I didn't know that that could be connected to a panic attack so I was obviously incredibly distressed. For me, before I could go through the emotional process I first had to digest the trauma around the medical experience and I only really started to engage with that process of grief around the time of my first natural period after the surgery. Your project feels like it focuses a lot on that process as opposed to the experience itself, do you feel like that was the most significant period for you?
Polina: In some ways it really was and I relate so much to what you said about your first period. I started to add meaning to all my new firsts after my abortion as well. I mean, it's not as big but for example the little things like having a bath for the first time, because you cannot take baths for a while, that suddenly was such a massive step in recovering and grieving also. I remember sitting down in the tub for the first time and just welling up because it was just something so different and because my memories around bathing were forever changed at that point. As a coping mechanism, I began to look around and find comfort and meaning in the little things. Those were the things I wanted to eternalise in my work. Every experience of abortion is very difficult in many different ways and I just wanted to express how sorry I am that you had to go through both a very physically and emotionally invasive journey.
Orlanda: Thank you, I appreciate that. For me, my creative outlet of healing has been having these conversations, it’s given me power and control after feeling like the shame that I was experiencing was part of the society I was in and not from my own experience. Flipping that on its head and taking control of my own narrative was a hugely healing experience. As it continues to be now, my way of navigating a patriarchal world was to adopt a lot of masculine traits or ways of being and since connecting to my body and being more aware of what my body can do, I've completely shifted how I see myself and how I navigate the world. I'm at the very beginning of that process though, engaging with myself as a woman kind of for the first time.
Polina: Yes, I really resonate with that. My practice became my way of processing my grief. Listening to other experiences led me to want to explore the gentler, slower, quieter aspects of life as a way of healing. If you’re grieving, society expects you to be ready and be functioning within a specific timeframe, but everyone processes things differently. As you know, I recently lost my dad, and I found that this experience is in a way similar - the grief is similar. For the first week or two people are incredibly gentle around you and then gradually everyone returns back to their normal, while you’re not ready to live on. I really hope we can see a change in that, we need to see people become more inclusive of sorrow, of depression, of grief. We need to create more space for sitting with these emotions.
Orlanda: Completely and thank you for sharing that within this space. As a society we seem to have this pressure to be happy at all times. We see it even in the language we use if someone says they're having a bad day, usually our first response is what can we do to make it better as opposed to saying, okay, let's sit with those feelings, let's be in our grief. I certainly know that having lost my dad as well when I was 10 (so we're 15 years on now) that cycle of grief means that lots of things fade with time, and you are comfortable living in that space, but lots of things just come up and hit you at random points too. And I can sometimes shame myself for feeling something as raw as if it was yesterday when it's something that has happened so long ago, as if I should be over that by now. Thinking on that and the polarising views surrounding abortion, a lot of your work uses both your own imagery and experiences but you've also pulled and shared from lots of other women too, myself included (this is how we met). How did you find that process of gathering material and having those conversations with other people?
Polina: At first I was very careful of approaching others, I wanted to be very mindful of people's boundaries and of what stage they were at, whether they were still heavily grieving, whether they were still hurting. But I found that in general, people were really happy to share their stories, it made them feel connected and heard. I felt the same way, it was incredibly supportive to be able to approach these women and I will always be grateful for how open they have been with me, for the trust they've put in me and my work. Once I received the imagery I had the power to change their narrative, I had the power to reinterpret it in my own way and I don’t take that lightly. I always intended to depict their story so that it would feel authentic to their experience. To me, the moments that I treasured the most, in this project were hearing back from these women. They could relate to my work, and for some, it was like letting go. Seeing their stories, their experiences, being put in paintings made them feel as though it was a way of honouring what they'd been through. Knowing that each one of us, in some way, holds the ability to help someone process something as important and as big as this really humbled me.
Orlanda: I think that really talks to the power of creativity. And obviously this series is looking in very broad terms at creativity and mental health and your work is a perfect example of how both you personally can process your own experiences through your creative practice, but also that you're able to envelop other people in that healing space, which is an incredibly powerful tool and really just goes to show how significant creativity can be in spaces around mental health.
Text: Orlanda James