**Note: I first wrote this in December. It’s taken until now for me to have the courage to publish it. I am going to be fairly ruthless with comment moderation, and I make absolutely no apologies for that.**
When you commence fertility treatments, they will hand you a brochure. It will have a smiling woman on it – possibly holding a baby – and there will be a short, meaningless phrase about hope and something alluding to conception. It will say that it is designed to help you through the process of Assisted Reproduction and let you know what to expect. It will purport to contain information about what to do if during your treatments you are confused or need help.
It is a lie.
A well-meaning lie, but a lie all the same. You will turn to it in times of desperation and despair, and it will offer up nothing useful. You will clutch it in your hands, crinkling the pages you will probably cover in tears, searching in vain for something that will help you get through this. It will tell you what to do if a needle breaks. It will tell you what to do when you run out of the drugs you must keep pumping in to your bruised and swollen belly, but what it will never tell you is what to do if you run out of hope: what to do when your heart keeps breaking well after you think there is nothing left to break.
At the moment, my husband and I are on a break from trying following the end of a very long (unsuccessful) cycle of Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) designed to get my ovaries to release one or two eggs to give us the best chance of conceiving. I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), which affects many women, in many different ways. In my case, it makes it hard for me to maintain my weight, and my hormone levels are affected to the point where it appears I don’t ovulate without help. We tried less invasive tablet-based medications, but they weren’t successful, so we’ve moved on to a drug called Puregon. It’s administered by the patient, every night at the same time, using a device that looks something like the pens diabetics use. It’s relatively painless, except when you get a blunt needle. You have blood tests about every two days, at the crack of seven am, and you get your results phoned to you between two and four o’clock same day. You hope that your “numbers” go up (Your progesterone increases to the point where an ultrasound is needed to check whether your follicles have developed enough to release an egg), and they’ll eventually tell you to “trigger” ovulation with another – scarier – injection, and “Timed Intercourse” commences (Or as my lovely IVF nurse puts it “A very busy weekend”), and you lurch into what is commonly known as the Two Week Wait, to see if you’ve been successful, or if you’re jumping back on the merry-go-round. That’s about half a step shy of full blown IVF, so the stakes are growing higher every time the next step up fails.
Essentially, I kept stabbing myself until they told me to stop, squirted blood at them every two days and then went and had lots of sex with my husband. I also peed on a lot of expensive sticks.
I learnt one thing very quickly. It doesn’t matter how well-researched you are. It doesn’t matter how well-prepared you are. It is going to suck and you are going to hate it. Reducing it to the medical components helps for a time. Focusing on the outcome itself helps for a time. Jocularity helps for a time (I’d been twittering about this under the hashtags #babbyquest and #stabbyquest).
But eventually, you will break. Everyone breaks. If the US is looking for a new torture method (sorry, enhanced interrogation technique), I’ve got one right here.
I broke towards the end of this cycle. Day 28, my Calendar says. I had been on injections for 27 days, when most people are on them for between 10-14 days. I had just had another “Your numbers are not rising” phone call and I was exhausted. I was hormonal. I was desolate.
I was in hell.
I talked to my father, he of the perfectly timed “Are you okay with that?” and I broke. I sobbed. I heaved. I told him my deepest, darkest fears. That I had no hope left, and I was desperately afraid that’s why it wasn’t working: That my negativity was hurting our chances, because a lot of the time I struggled to be positive. That every bad result made me feel so awfully guilty for putting my husband through this, that I was tired of everything being so hard.
Nobody wants to be the weak one, croons Tim Freedman. We all want to go from strength to strength. I wanted to be strong. I was not. People have told me I handled the negative outcome really well. And I suppose I did. Because handling the hope was so much harder. It’s a slippery, liquid thing, and it slips through your fingers like water. Droplets might stick to your fingers, and that actually makes it harder. If you are without hope, you can deal with that. When the answer is No, at least it’s an answer. Maybe is not an answer. And that’s why it’s so hard. You toss to-and-fro between grief and joy, but each time it’s harder to feel anything other than desolation.
Some moments I still feel like that. But I do know those moments will pass, and I will keep going. It doesn’t make those moments hurt any less. It doesn’t make them any shorter. It doesn’t make them any less likely, or any easier to endure. But they do end. If nothing else, you will eventually fall into a broken, miserable sleep. Things don’t seem brighter in the morning, but you just might be too tired to be sad.
I keep writing “The worst thing is” and coming up with another worst thing. They’re all worst things. There’s very little good here in the land of Maybe. There are moments of joy, but it’s in spite of what you’re going through, not because of it. My husband was already awesome. We already knew how deeply we were committed to starting a family. We’d already had tough medical appointments we could laugh through that brought us closer together. The result may be worth it, but this journey?
Let’s be honest. This journey is freaking awful. It’s painful, it’s messy, it’s undignified and quite frankly I am sick to death of my Ovaries, Uterus, and associated LadyParts being the focus of so much medical attention, hope and hatred.
Probably the hardest thing to cope with though, is the waiting: Waiting for results, waiting for appointments. Waiting for your body to have enough rest so you can try once more. Waiting to see if it has worked, waiting for the nurses to call back and tell you what to do when it hasn’t. Waiting for hope to flicker and die so you can pick yourself up and start again.
I cannot prepare you, if your own road to parenthood involves a fight. I cannot tell you it will be okay, because there will be so many, many times when it will not be okay. I cannot give you advice, because you need to find your own way through this.
I could keep telling you how bloody awful it is, and you might eventually understand me. But when your own time comes, you will find some of the bits I hate easy and some of the bits I found easy the equivalent of a spot of waterboarding between your rack session and the part where they stick bamboo under your fingernails. Everyone is different. I can tell you, though, that regardless of the professionalism of the Clinic staff, the sheer amount of science behind all this, it boils down to hope, and playing the numbers. One in four. Fifty percent. Whatever your chances are, they are not, nor will they ever be, one hundred percent.
I can tell you that we’re going to keep fighting. You probably will too. I can tell you that we don’t fight alone. Those of us who fight for the chance to be parents quietly cross our fingers for each other. We giggle about torturing our uncomfortable families with detailed descriptions of the menstrual cycle of an infertile woman, and trying to dance around saying “Now we just have lots of sex and see if anything sticks around” to good-natured fathers and brothers without making either party blush. We are an army of hope. We are the few, the bloated, the hormonal.
One day, Medical Science willing, we will be parents.