Dear friends – a belated happy new year to you all. There has been radio silence here for a few of weeks as I have been on holiday and have given myself a break from All Things Social Media. It has been good to give my brain a bit of space but it is really nice to be back writing and connecting.
A bit of a longer post this time and, as it about fertility treatment, some of you may feel it’s not relevant to your experience. I’m aware that, whilst IVF/ICSI is part of my story, not all people who are childless through circumstance have gone down the fertility treatment route. Nevertheless I hope you will find something in the post that is interesting and/or thought provoking.
IVF Turns Forty
This is IVF’s 40th year and there has been much in the media celebrating this fact – and quite rightly so. I am truly thankful to have been born in an age when we were able to take advantage of such a wonderful and pioneering process – and IVF has given so many people the family they hoped for. The technology that brought that first IVF baby, Louise Brown, into the world has developed and advanced in leaps and bounds over these 40 years – which is marvellous. But I do think that it an often be seen as a panacea – that the notion that ‘science can fix this’ might lead to complacency. In my thirties I heard many women saying, ‘Well, if I haven’t had a baby by 35, there’s always IVF.’ Despite all the medical advances, the reality is that behind the headlines of those miracle live births lie the majority of stories – those that end with the consultant’s advice not to continue or the patients’ heart-breaking (and almost inconceivable) decision to end treatment.
Towards the end of last year, the Independent newspaper ran a feature on IVF at forty and asked for stories from both sides of the experience. I agreed to write a short piece about our journey through the fertility ‘jungle’. What amazed me was that it was the first time I had thought about ‘What does IVF mean to me’. What also surprised me was the level of anger I still felt about my and my husband’s experience. Equally, as I started to think about our ‘fertility story’, episodes came to mind that were moments of absolute elation and truly heart-warming hopefulness. Also, I was reminded of the often-bizarre nature of the whole process – a process and experience that is difficult to describe and almost impossible for others to relate to.
Telling our own story of IVF
Last year I read a poem by Antony Dunn that perfectly conveyed the emotion and the ‘out-of-body’ nature of fertility treatment. I was so moved by the poem that I contacted him to tell him and he very kindly gave me permission to re-print the poem, in full here. (I am also putting a review of his wonderful collection on the Idiem page).
We found a moment’s break between champagne
and seating-plan to bolt into the dark
and dusty mop-cupboard we’d clocked before
and though it had no lock you turned your back
then lifted up your dress and suffered me
to thumb your nicest pants aside and pop
the needle through your skin and push it in.
And this is what I’m thinking of up here:
the Best Man, dazzled, running out of speech,
rooting for the groom and bride, the fruiting
of their marriage bed. I can not make you
out among the guests. You’ve been gone too long,
all undone in a too-bright cubicle.
Gentlemen and Ladies, raise your glasses.
If you are back and standing at the back,
your glass high, I can guess the tenderness
with which you lift the brittle thing and watch
its little bubbles making themselves out
of nothing, climbing the strings of themselves,
bursting infinitesimally and
becoming, nothing after nothing, air.
From Take This One to Bed by Antony Dunn (Valley Press, October 2016), reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
This moving and honest poem really spoke to me. Fitting fertility treatment around our life, finding places to inject hormones in a bit of privacy (and hygiene), feeling the bruising of the injections under my clothes as we attended weddings, christenings or naming ceremonies, conception taking place outside of us, leaving behind embryos at the clinic – the very ‘stuff of us’ abandoned to their own devices – I found it then, and still find the thought of it, all overwhelming.
Despite the many hopeful and heart-warming moments, our very last encounter with the treatment process and the fertility clinic was negative, leaving us feeling abandoned and grief-stricken. And that is where the anger comes from. It seems that for years our whole memory was tainted by the final cycle due, not so much its sad outcome, but to the overwhelming feelings and emotions we were left to deal with alone.
‘Memory Pain’ and Abandonment
In his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses the difference between ‘actual pain’ and ‘memory pain’. The whole description of his studies and data in his chapter called ‘The Two Selves’ is too lengthy for this post but, with apologies to Mr Kahneman for my rather unscientific paraphrasing, the gist of his argument is that after an unpleasant experience, our perception of the unpleasantness or pain is greatly influenced by the end point of that experience. So, it’s like having a great holiday then the whole experience being ‘ruined’ by a terrible journey home. Overall the holiday might have been amazing (no actual pain) but the end point – the journey home – has left us feeling let down and angry (memory pain). And, whilst our fertility treatment was no holiday on a tropical isle, this ‘memory pain’ phenomenon is exactly what happened to us – it is a phenomenon that clinics would do well to take note of.
Once our fertility treatment ended I really struggled with my sense of abandonment. After I miscarried, I imagined my name being wiped off the white board at the fertility clinic along with the words, ‘positive test’. It felt like the names that remained written up were the ‘chosen ones’ and I had failed – we would never graduate into the hallowed halls of ‘live birth’. At our final consultation a few weeks later, I felt desperate. I welcomed the consultant’s honesty and his telling us that we shouldn’t proceed with more treatment felt surprisingly like a huge relief. I remember thinking, ‘Now I can get on with my life.’ But to be told in so many words that I wasn’t a ‘good bet’ left me feeling like the treatment’s failure was all my fault and that I was a ‘less than’ woman. If I had to draw a picture of us in that waiting room, the image of me would be of a pile of pixels being gathered up by my husband and one sympathetic embryologist. I quite literally fell apart emotionally.
What I needed then was for someone to recognise, acknowledge and bloody well name the grief I was feeling. That’s all. Not rocket science.
It’s wonderful to see now that emotional wellbeing is taken seriously for IVF clients and given the weight of importance it deserves during and after (no matter how long after) the fertility treatment process. Provision of counselling is now widely offered and taken up. Nothing beats a chance to talk and to be heard in a space that is solely yours. Whilst, of course, it would have been wonderful to have had a lasting positive memory of our fertility treatment I can say with certainty it was my ‘memory pain’ that finally led me to my career in counselling, writing and writing for wellbeing. In fact, it is the very loss of our dream of a family that opened up a different and fulfilling path to a new life with experiences I may never have had and friendships I may never have forged had the treatment been successful. Whilst I couldn’t see it at the time, IVF’s failed present had created a positive and fulfilling future.
So here and now I want to say: I wish that it had turned out differently. I wish IVF had delivered the child we so wanted. But, and even though this is a cliché, the process taught us so much about ourselves as individuals and as a couple. Given a time machine I would do it all again and – here’s the important thing I realise now – I wouldn’t change anything. I have no regrets – I wouldn’t drink less coffee, do more yoga, have sex on the South Downs on ‘Old Man of Wilmington’, be more mindful or eat more fruit or have ‘just one more IVF cycle’. Yes, my memory of the process is tainted by its final moments but by writing about my experience, telling the story I could see what came before and after: hope…and enough love to get us through and to bring us here to the life I/we have.