pregnancy

"I blamed myself." In 2020, while on set for Neighbours, Sharon Johal miscarried.

This post deals with miscarriage and might be triggering for some readers.

While each of us experience trauma differently, last year was one of the most horrific years of loneliness and despair I have personally experienced in my life.

In order to survive, I have drawn upon the strength of my womanhood, a strength I never knew the bounds of until now. 

My husband and I have been married for three years, a milestone we were unable to celebrate in lockdown, along with many more, but that’s okay. We feel grateful to have each other. We are one of those annoying couples who have enjoyed spending more time together (silver lining), but there’s no doubt we’ve been tested. 

During the first lockdown, at what could be described as the “start” of COVID in Australia, our anxieties were at their highest. My husband was working longer hours than ever, albeit from home. Having worked for the same accounting firm for 15+ years in a senior position under partnership, he had direct lines of communication with the bosses.

"We will be fine!" "We won’t be letting anyone go!" "Accountants will be busier than ever," they told him. 

Cue a last minute Zoom meeting invitation, and his boss reading out a redundancy letter to him, effective immediately, with no conversation, justification or even eye contact.

He was completely blindsided. 

My workplace was also stood down at the time and, to be honest, I thought being in the “volatile” industry of acting, that my job was soon to be lost too. 

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So there we were, both not working and considering whether we needed to pack up our lives in Melbourne and go back to Adelaide to live with our parents. 

Unbelievably, the production team at Neighbours were able to convince the Victorian government that we were essential, and with a Covid-safe approved plan, we were able to continue shooting. It was a scary and uncertain time, the rules changed daily, and it felt like we were on high alert - at work, in the community and at home. 

We were inundated with restrictions and rules that we were required to sign off on, Covid tested weekly, required to wear masks every second of the day (except when filming), safety supervisors monitoring our every move, lanyards with chips tracking our movements.

I was working longer and harder than ever with the biggest storyline of the year culminating in a lust-based affair with my co-star Tim Robards, and had to work through the creative and logistical pressures of actually “acting it out” on screen, socially distanced and without touching at all.

Sharon and former co-star Tim Robards. Image: Supplied.

Then everything changed, when border closures were introduced and Tim was required to stay in NSW with his heavily pregnant wife. My scene partner was literally replaced overnight when Don Hany stepped in.

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It was exactly at this time that I found out I was pregnant. 

It wasn’t expected. My workplace was difficult to endure at the best of times - I was subjected to bullying behaviour and racially charged experiences that made it toxic and problematic. Issues which have since been the topic of news around the world, after a number of other actors have come forward publicly alleging similar incidents. 

Understandably I didn’t want that energy to transfer to our baby-to-be, so my husband and I had initially planned to try for a baby once I finished up on the show, in December 2020. 

Of course, life rarely goes to plan. As evidenced by, well, now.

After the initial shock, we took test after test almost not believing our luck, scared but incredibly grateful it happened for us.

It was a beautiful secret we kept to ourselves, and we realised the timing was actually perfect, because it meant I would finish up on the job before I was too visibly pregnant, with time to rest and nurture myself until the arrival of the baby. 

My husband eventually secured another job, and for the first time in years, we were so happy and secure in our future. We already had our dream puppy, and our family was going to be complete! We went from feeling our lowest to our most joyous in a matter of weeks. 

I started growing in size physically, and I distinctly remember my breasts had jumped about three sizes, a side-effect I was bullied for online by viewers - they hurt so badly. I was constantly exhausted and sick for the first couple of months, and looking back, it was all a daze. 

I was working the longest and hardest days I ever had on Neighbours, undertaking extremely challenging work under not-so-great conditions, but it all felt okay because I knew we had something magical to look forward to on the other side.

As every week passed, we started getting more and more excited. Initially cautious, we agreed not to say a word until three and a bit months in, when our doctor said it was unlikely the baby would suffer any complications. 

We started thinking about the future, purchasing items for the baby and planning for key dates ahead. 

Every scan we had went better than the one before, the doctors were happy with my health and the health of the baby and all was on track. Because we were in lockdown and the borders were shut, we prepared surprise packages for our families in Adelaide, ready to open when we FaceTimed them with the happy news. 

Sharon and her husband. Image: Supplied.

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On the 13th week, I had been feeling relatively healthy but had developed a cough over the past week that didn’t allow me to sleep. I knew it wasn’t Covid as I was being tested every week at work, but I had to weigh up going to the doctors in person and risking contraction.

On top of that, I was getting up for work at 4.30am every day, finishing late, and new restrictions had been placed in our workplace to disallow leaving the premises for any given reason, even to go home and rest on a six hour break.

As my job involved being in front of the camera, I was unable to “work from home” and I felt I couldn’t take a sick day, as we were already dealing with other cast and crew unable to attend out of safety concerns regarding COVID-19, pushing us further and further behind schedule. It was a huge imposition on the production to take any time off in a culture where it wasn’t encouraged. 

It was a Friday, and I hadn't slept.

I had been at work since 6am and I was in the last scene, shooting in my character’s café. During the scene, I remember feeling sharp cramping pain in my stomach and back and thinking it was unusual given I hadn’t experienced that sort of period pain for months now. 

Then I felt that other feeling, the one every woman knows - when your period arrives unexpectedly and you freak out hoping it hasn’t leaked onto your clothes. 

Once our director called “cut” I ran into the set kitchen at the back of set and checked my underwear. There was blood.

I got out of costume and into my own clothes and quickly packed up to go home. I didn’t call my husband as I usually would because I didn’t want to stress him out in case it was nothing. 

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Instead, I called my best friend, the only person I told about the pregnancy, who herself was going through her third round of IVF at the time.

She reassured me that it could be implantation bleeding, and that she knew of people that had bled the whole way through their pregnancies. This was the first time I’d conceived, and admittedly I had not researched out of fear, so I was completely unaware of what was happening to me. 

When I went home, I was still cramping and unable to take any pain relief out of fear of compromising the pregnancy. I then told my husband what I was experiencing, and he reassured me it would all be okay but that we should call my doctor. She was unavailable, so we ended up speaking to one we’d never met. 

This doctor, unfortunately, had no bedside manner whatsoever, and declared within the first few seconds that I was indeed having a miscarriage. 

I burst into tears on the phone. I think the doctor realised his error and suggested I go to emergency at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital - not to save this baby, but to ensure that any toxicity in this miscarriage wouldn’t jeopardise future pregnancies. 

I pleaded with my husband, “just make it okay”, “make the baby okay” and begged him not to go to hospital. I was in extreme denial.

He packed my overnight bag anyway and guided me into the car. When we arrived at hospital, my husband basically carried me in, the pain was so severe.

At the front desk we were greeted with a somewhat cold receptionist who said that it was unlikely I could see a doctor that day - and that if I wanted to try my luck and wait, my husband would have to leave because of Covid. 

I was shocked. I then asked her, if I was to receive bad news, if he would be able to come in for that part. She said no. 

I wanted to leave, too scared to go through it alone, but my husband convinced me to stay. He waited in the car alone outside the hospital for about six hours, thinking the worst.

I also sat alone - but in the waiting room for what felt like an eternity - alone with my thoughts. I saw pregnant women happily come and go, overhearing their good news, and hoped that would be me too. 

Once I finally got in, the tests ensued. Blood tests, ultrasounds, and cervical examinations from different nurses, unidentifiable with their masks and unable to provide me any reassurance. The bleeding continued. 

A doctor came in after a long wait and said that everything looked fine, my cervix hadn’t dilated, and my water had not broken. She performed an ultrasound, we saw the baby and she said it looked fine. 

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I FaceTimed my husband with the happy news and he cried with relief, as did I. 

I left feeling a huge sense of relief, and a little silly for thinking the worst. We went home, and I was so tired I decided to lay on the couch. About 30 minutes later, our puppy started barking incessantly in my face, which was incredibly unusual. He became manic. 

Then I felt a gush of water down there and ran to the bathroom. What followed was horrific, tragic and traumatising. 

I was cramping from what seemed like all sides of my body, my back was aching and every couple of minutes my body would completely seize up, I experienced unparalleled, excruciating pain in my abdomen and then immediately thereafter I would pass what could only be described as some form of human tissue. 

I begged for the pain to stop. I was screaming and crying all at once, and my poor husband and puppy were at a loss as to what was happening to me.

I refused to take any pain relief in case it would hurt the baby, and these “contractions” continued for what seemed like hours. My husband held my hand and every time I passed tissue I showed him, asking him if it was the baby. I had no idea what was happening to me. Once the “contractions” were done I collapsed in a heap on the floor and passed out from sheer exhaustion.

I woke the next day in a daze. I didn’t know why I was on the couch and had no recollection of the night before. When it started coming back to me I just kept telling myself none of it was real, praying that it was a bad dream. 

That it wasn’t a miscarriage, just a heavy period - anything not to face the pit in my stomach of dread and despair. 

My husband and I were two lost souls staring at each other that day. We hardly spoke. I just kept crying and crying and when I couldn’t cry anymore, somehow more tears started flowing. It was like an endless well. 

We called the doctor that had treated me in emergency the night before and explained what had happened, and she suggested we come in to confirm either way.

We went together and I begged for my husband to come in with me, but the lady at the front desk still said no. All I could see were pregnant women around me. I wanted to be one of them. 

I was called in and it was a different doctor. I explained everything to her. I was shaking uncontrollably. She took one look at the ultrasound, paused for a minute, and said the words I didn’t want to hear: “I don’t see anything here at all”. It was gone. The baby was gone. The dream was over, just like that. I went numb and quiet.  

Then I went into auto-pilot mode and thanked the doctor, signed a form and left. I met my husband outside and couldn’t speak. I wanted to hug him but I was too grief stricken. We both knew. He held my hand and we walked to the car and went home in silence. We hardly spoke that night. What was there to say? 

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The following day, and still in lockdown, we made the dreaded FaceTime calls to our parents in Adelaide. 

My parents were devastated, and all I can remember is my dad crying. It was gut-wrenching. I think that was the hardest thing, our nearest and dearest unable to support us, hug us, sit with us in silence, helpless from afar. 

The days following were a blur except for all the babies I saw and heard. Everywhere, it’s all I saw. None of them were mine. It was heartbreaking.

Listen to this bonus episode of No Filter, where Mia Freedman explores how to deal with the grief of miscarriage. Post continues after audio.

Whenever I had a moment alone, in the car or in the bathroom, I was in tears. We didn’t tell anyone else, apart from my best friend. It just didn’t feel right. There was nothing they could do. It was done. And it was just sad news. 

I was back at work on the Monday. I hid in toilets around the building so I could cry in silence without anyone noticing. I persevered in silence and kept to myself. I was alone. I asked the director for a minute and ran behind the set crying into myself, quickly fixing my makeup and getting back out there and just getting the job done so I could jump in the car and cry some more. Watching that scene brings me straight back to the pain I was going through, I can’t do it.

I even remember once being on set after filming scenes where another character on the show suffered a miscarriage. The dark sadness overcame me then too, taking me back into that grief. 

So many times I sat outside our home in the car to regroup myself so my husband didn’t feel worse than he already did for something that was not in our control. 

Like many women before me, and perhaps as women generally do, I went through a vicious and incredibly cruel cycle of blaming myself. I kept telling myself I was working too hard, I wasn’t sleeping, I was dealing with extraordinary work stress, I wasn’t eating the right things, I couldn’t negate the negativity in my life... and I should’ve done more. 

The list went on. Why did this happen to us? To me? What had I done to deserve this trauma?

I’d spent my life being healthy  - why couldn’t my body take it? Why did the baby die so late into the pregnancy after the “safe” date and not earlier? Why did I get so invested? Maybe I jinxed it by not being overly excited about it at the beginning? What if I never have a child? The negative thinking just went on and on. 

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Worse than this, I kept imagining what our life would be had this not happened. Fantasising about the life that should’ve been, the baby we would’ve had, what they would’ve looked like, what they would grow up to be.

Sharon, her husband and their puppy. Image: Supplied.

The doctors told me it wasn’t my fault, that it was “just one of those things” and I couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. I asked them if stress could cause it. They said no. I still think they lied. 

I wanted to meet the baby so badly, and say sorry - sorry that I couldn’t nurture a safe space for them to grow. To say sorry that mummy couldn’t protect you. And that I hoped we could meet once again.  

I wanted to tell them that I would always hold a deep place in my heart for them, reserved only for them, that could never be replaced or forgotten. That I loved them. 

Perhaps it is a coincidence that this happened to us in our most challenging year of existence. In our loneliest year to date when we were most isolated, and at a problematic workplace. 

Of course, there are many that are experiencing pain in immeasurable ways right now, however it is not my intention to compare pain. Pain is pain. People are suffering. Everywhere. Alone. I’m just one of them. 

What this experience has shown or taught us is yet to reveal itself. Strength? Resilience? Our fragility? Potentially. 

I’ll never be sure. 

It still hurts. The pain of miscarriage is real, raw, and defining. I had no idea whatsoever that it is as common as one in four pregnancies. As a smart woman, how was I so naive? So ill-prepared? Of course, I blamed myself again, for not seeing this coming. 

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Then there’s the stuff no one tells you. Like having to make sure there’s no “baby” left inside of you, and all the exams and follow-up appointments you have to attend, and how sterile that process is.

How you need to wait before you try to conceive again. How your hormones don’t adjust straight away. How the weight stays on. How your boobs get stretch marks from the size jump back to pre-pregnancy and they are never the same, even though you didn’t have a baby to show for it. How your period changes and it hurts more. How you cannot donate blood for nine months post-miscarriage yet they keep calling you to. How lumps can develop in your breasts from the sudden hormone drop that can develop into cancer. How pregnant friends don’t know how to be around you even though you couldn’t be happier for them. 

I realise that maybe, in the same way, I felt uncomfortable and tortured talking about it. Other women have likely felt the same way, in isolation, so it’s important that I’m here, as painful and private as it is, sharing this with you. I want to preach what I have not been able to practice. I want you to take on what I could not. I want you to know that it is not your fault, there is nothing wrong with you and it is okay to feel like shit. Because it is absolutely shit. Let’s talk about how f**king shit it is. For everyone involved. My husband is still traumatised. It’s been months and we can’t even fathom the thought of trying for another baby. 

Let’s take away the shame and normalise the conversations, the tears, the pain, the sadness, the physical recovery, the mental recovery, the time it takes and the way it changes you forever, all of it. 

It’s okay to feel the pain for as long as it takes to grieve and despite what people, including doctors, tell you, it’s okay to NOT “jump back on the horse”. Because like any death, you may never stop grieving, and that’s okay too. 

Let’s replace the shame with empathy and love. Not only for other women, but ourselves too. 

Let’s give ourselves that permission. And I’ll try to give myself that too. When I’m ready. And no sooner.

If this has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the Sands Australia 24-hour support line on 1300 072 637. 

Sharon Johal is an actor, lawyer and presenter. She also hosts her own podcast “The Real Ones” where she interviews people of interest who have overcome challenge and adversity with a view to inspire.

Feature image: Supplied/Mamamia.