When I go through something, I write about it. I always have done. I’ve kept paper diaries and journals since I was a young child and the pages consisted of “had smiley faces for lunch in school it was good”, through to “*insert emo band lyrics here*” in my teens, an online diary within a community from which I still have close friends today… and then blogging. It’s how I process things and peruse them; I get all my power from connecting with people who have been through something similar. Which is why the last few months have been particularly tough, because despite discussing anxiety here on a regular basis, I went through something I really didn’t feel like I could talk about until it was over.
We had IVF, and it didn’t work.
When we bought and moved into our three bedroomed house in summer last year, we used the front box room as a literal box room. Our house is your typical British 1930s semi, with two big bedrooms and a small one. One of the things we loved about this house is the box room isn’t actually that small; it has a bay window and isn’t too poky like some of them can be. It did a great job of housing our moving boxes for well over a year, as it took us a while to do the necessary work to the loft that meant we could store things up there.
Fast-forward to early Autumn 2018, and finally the loft was insulated and part-boarded. Michael spent one Saturday diligently hauling all of the boxes of CDs and DVDs we couldn’t bear to throw away up into the loft, and gradually our box room became empty for the first time since we moved here.
Walking up to the top of our stairs and turning right towards our bedroom, we were suddenly no longer greeted with Britannia Fleet boxes with BOX ROOM scrawled all over them in green Sharpie, but with a big empty space waiting to be filled. We both joked that it was a bit of a creepy metaphor.
People ask why I haven’t used that room as my home office for Little Brave; why did I choose to cram it into a corner in the dining room? Why don’t we store some of our off-season clothes in there or make it into a fancy dressing room?
Because we thought we would be making it into a nursery by now.
We plan to save up to decorate each room properly as and when they need it, and we optimistically figured there was no point making this room into something and then having to hurriedly re-decorate and reconfigure if we had a baby. Equally, even though the spare back bedroom has the most hideous 90s fitted wardrobes and 60s wallpaper behind it, we decided there’s no point in doing expensive work until one of our future children moves in there and they can choose how they want it. The urgency of having to sort out those boxes and the loft became less and less of an issue as each month went by without a pregnancy announcement. We became accustomed to the supposedly temporary cardboard moving boxes stacked up in neat rows.
The cruellest kick of it all was that around the time the loft was converted and the boxes were put up there, we had just started IVF. A process we were both terrified of and not ready for, because we hadn’t yet even got our heads around the fact that we needed it, but one we knew we were extremely lucky to have available to us funding and postcode wise. I had just started on 10 days of norethisterone, barely making a dent in the huge array of medications we were handed. It all happened so quickly; from tests and appointments to “we can’t find any real reason why this shouldn’t be happening, so the only thing we can offer you is IVF. The process will start in 6 weeks”. We both sat shellshocked on that hot July day, having not even really discussed it as a possibility because we thought it was many more steps away in our journey. We tried to ask for a little time, to wait a while; but with the way funding is offered we were told it would be viewed as if we don’t really want a child and we may not get the funding. So, our decision was made for us.
We were both quietly confident that the IVF would work. We’ve spent most of this year undergoing test after test, and they can’t find all that much wrong with us. There’s no real medical reason for us having not conceived during the last 2 years, but because it has been 2 years we do qualify for IVF.
I felt OK about the idea of injecting myself, because I knew I could do it. I’ve had some really horrid emergency surgeries and health conditions, and I’ve got through them all. Plus, I negotiated that I would get ice cream after every single one! I knew I could do this. We were really lucky that we were some of the first people to be given an epi-pen/insulin style pen to inject with, which made the whole thing a lot less daunting and much easier. I found the needle was so fine I barely felt it, and loading up the doses was easy. I then had to introduce a morning injection, which was a proper syringe and a much bigger needle. That one really hurt as it went in, and burned and stung for ages afterwards because I kept having localised reactions to it. I often cried a little after doing that, because I would then have to get myself off to work with a burning stomach and feeling a little fragile.
I was scared of all the side effects, as I already have some long-term health conditions and tend to feel pretty crummy on a daily basis as it is. I was very worried about how I would manage work and everything else around it, because we didn’t really get to choose the timing of it and it fell during a crucial period of time for my job. As it happened, my workplace has been amazingly supportive during what’s been one of the toughest times of my life, and I’ve ended up having to have a lot of time off because doing a job as energetic and intense as mine just wasn’t viable.
I naively went into it expecting not much more than a bit of bloating and maybe some hot flushes, because I only know one person in real life who has been through this and didn’t have much frame of reference. I had some pretty intense hot flashes during the tablet phase (I still am now, they’re awful, holler to everyone who’s been through the menopause!), and barely slept as I would wake up completely drenched in sweat and freezing cold multiple times a night. I did end up suffering quite badly with pain and bloating throughout the stimulation phase, as it got closer to egg collection I was in constant pain. Everything around my middle was extremely tender and swollen, and even turning around or bending over was enough to make me yelp and wince in pain. You have to act like you’re pregnant the whole way through, so I wasn’t allowed any good painkillers, hot baths or hot water bottles during the latter part of it.
The egg collection went well and they got lots, which is good from an IVF point of view but not great for side effects. Because they got a lot of eggs, I was at high risk of becoming overstimulated and developing a rare and potentially serious complication called OHSS. I was not prepared for the sheer amount of pain I’d be in after egg collection. I was so swollen and sore, and every appointment being poked and prodded was agony. I found myself unable to walk, stand or move well for days after the egg collection and it took a long time for the pain and bloating to subside. I was so anxious before the procedure, the anaesthetist had to give me a shot of what I assume was a benzodiazepine to calm me down before they sedated me; I was shaking so hard my legs were bashing together. I felt completely out of control during the whole journey and I kept crying at appointments… I felt like such a baby! I keep reminding myself I was pumped full of hormones too, which can’t help!
Not long after the retrieval, we had the embryo transfer. I was really anxious again, walking into that very clinical theatre with our gowns and hats on, checking our ID every few minutes to make sure we were the right people. I was all very official and scientific, and we both felt intimidated and overwhelmed by it. All of the staff were lovely and so reassuring, and the procedure has to be this way to prevent mistakes… but we found it hard. The nurses and doctors described me as a rabbit in headlights as I lay there shaking.
After that, I tried to return to normal, but had been told to be extremely vigilant about developing any OHSS symptoms, so I felt like I couldn’t relax. My long-term stomach condition ended up flaring up really badly and at first I wasn’t allowed to take anything to stop it, but in the end I got so bad and I got so dehydrated they had to let me. I managed two days in work before I had to stay off again, shrivelled up and dehydrated on the couch with my mum fetching me rehydration drinks. By this point I had barely slept and had been in pain for weeks.
We were both quietly confident that it would work. Once my stomach had calmed down, we began to get excited. We started to imagine life with a baby, talk about names, pick out colours for the nursery etc. We allowed ourselves to get excited, and now all we had to do was wait until the test day.
But, on Monday evening, 4 days before we were due to test, I started to bleed. It got heavier and heavier and I knew it wasn’t implantation spotting. The pain was so severe it woke me up at night and I was crouched down on the bathroom floor, considering waking Michael up to say I cannot bear this pain any longer. Because I’d been given so much progesterone to make the lining of my womb thick and acceptable for an embryo to implant in, the cramps and pain were akin to what would be experienced during a miscarriage; they were like contractions. I called the hospital in the morning, and they said they couldn’t confirm that it had failed until the test 3 days later… and until that point I still had to pretend to be pregnant and couldn’t take any painkillers or use hot water bottles.
I also couldn’t tell anybody what was going on. Our close friends and immediate family knew we were undergoing IVF, but we didn’t tell anybody the date of the embryo transfer because we wanted to keep one tiny shred of mystery… we felt like the elements of romance and surprise that come with finding out from a pregnancy test, then surprising your loved ones with the news… had been robbed from us. It all felt so calculated and clinical, so we wanted to claw back one tiny element and to be able to surprise our friends and family with good news, if we were to have any. I spent 3 days cooped up at home, in pain, hiding from the lovely decorator who was painting our hall, stairs and landing, and trying to pretend that I was OK. It was really, really tough.
On Thursday morning, I woke up early at 6am because I knew it was the day of the test and I just wanted to solidify the knowledge that it hadn’t worked so that we could move on. Sure enough, the test was negative. We couldn’t get back to sleep, so I ran myself a scalding hot bath because I’d really missed them. Michael and I were are both off work until the end of the week to process, decompress and grieve. We weren’t expecting to be hit with grief, but we have been.
And that is why I’ve barely been in the world for a while. I wanted nothing more than to go onto Instagram and talk freely about the hell I was going through, or to tell my friends and family… but this was something I didn’t want to be questioned on and I definitely didn’t (and still don’t) want to hear platitudes. If one more person tells me to “just relax” or that I’m still young (I’m 32, I’m not that young in terms of fertility) or that a night with their kids will put me off for life… I’ll scream.
And so, here we are. We both want a break from it all, because it’s been incredibly stressful for both of us. We are going to put it on the back burner until at least after Christmas and think about it all again in the new year. I’ve barely been able to do much on Little Brave, I’ve barely been in my ‘real’ job and we’ve been totally out of routine… so once the dust settles, I’ll be back in work next week and I’m very much looking forward to some normality. I worried a lot about barely being in and letting everyone down, particularly because I don’t look ‘sick’… but my body and mind have been through hell and back. I’ve been poked, prodded, anaesthetised, operated on, pumped full of hormones and right now, it all feels like it was for nothing. (It wasn’t, I know it wasn’t, but that’s how I feel right now so I’m gonna let it be there).
I found during this journey that there was nothing much on the internet that I could resonate with. Most other blogs or forums were full of excited women who found every injection to be a step closer to their dream… and that just wasn’t my reality. A lot of English blogs were mainly talking about how grateful they were to have the opportunity, because obviously it’s a big thing to have funded by our ever-fragile NHS… and it is almost as if people are scared to talk about how tough it is because of that. I am under no illusions that we were incredibly lucky to be offered it (and to be offered it quickly), partly because we are both the right age, fit & healthy, the right BMI etc… and partly because of a cruel postcode lottery that means we get 2 goes but someone in the next county could get 0. I too have hesitated for a long time about writing this for fear of sounding ungrateful. For us, it came quickly and out of the blue like a train in the night. We weren’t ready, and we did it because we felt like it was our only option, even though we were terrified. We’re dealing with guilt over that, thinking that maybe our reticence contributed to the negative result. I’ve hesitated over writing that because as much as I’ve done to challenge the stigma of talking about mental health, and as much as I have managed to normalise that for myself… I felt the stigma weighing heavy upon this topic. I don’t want people to look at me with the pitying head tilt, or to feel awkward around me because I’ve overshared. I don’t want people feel like they can’t tell me their own gloriously happy baby news. My pain doesn’t mean I can’t feel overjoyed for the people I love the most.
We don’t know what the future holds for us. The people around us are on their second and thirds babies, and we’re rapidly approaching our mid and late thirties respectively. We both wanted to be thinking about our second child now. We both wanted our parents to get lots of time with their grandchildren. This failed IVF has thrown up real questions of “what if this will never happen for us?” but we are not ready to cross that bridge yet.
I’ve worried a lot about what people will think about me after reading this, and I’m not sure why. Will they tut and shake their heads at me for sharing something so intimate and private? Will they think I’m seeking attention? Will they feel awkward around me when they bump into me in a work corridor or in Tesco? I don’t know. All I know is, for as long as I’ve been able to, I’ve written about things to help me process them, so I’m not about to stop now. I also feel pretty shy about talking about all this kind of stuff too, I always have done – I’m the kind of person who blushes a lot and can’t bear to talk about such private things.
So here we are. It’s the weekend, and the Giants are in Liverpool. I’m finally starting to feel a little more myself as the hormones leave my body (except for these hot flashes, they’re awful!) so we are planning to go and see them. We’ve ordered supplements and walnuts and blueberries, and we’re going to continue with our alcohol intake cut right down. We continue to pour all of our love into our little dog, Bonnie. We joke about being able to sleep at night for a little while longer, I joke about being off the hook from morning sickness over Christmas, and we put all of our efforts into doing our house up. We carry on.
Ultimately, this isn’t the end of our journey. I feel so lucky to be on it with the most amazing man, who supports me through every step and made sure I was never alone for any part of it. We communicate almost constantly, so we’re always on the same page. I’m choosing to focus on that now and to celebrate the fact that we are such a good team, and that will see us through. And, he bought me an awesome pair of Adidas I-5923s for being brave (because we kept singing the song Phoebe sings to her embryos on Friends, so he bought me some Adidas instead).
We go again.