What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
4 Days Into Treatment Cycle — I started taking progesterone this week to get ready for the real treatments. Four days in, I have had two migraines, for a total of three this week. I expect this pattern to continue every other day as long as I take the progesterone. I am so unaccustomed to processing the hormones that most women produce every month.
19 Days Into Treatment Cycle — Today I am grateful for feeling better than yesterday, for an easy visit at the doctor’s office and starting on injections. I am grateful for a productive afternoon and good cuddle time with my kid. For two relaxing baths (in one day!), which are so essential these days when I’m not feeling well. I am so grateful for the doctor’s OK to exercise, and hoping I will feel like it as soon as tomorrow.
21 Days Into Treatment Cycle — I’ve been taking 225 units of Gonal-f since Monday. I see the doctor again tomorrow for an ultrasound. I had migraines yesterday and today, and I’m too tired and back-achey to be very active. The kid and I are a little stir crazy, but we will have some activity going to the doctor and shopping tomorrow. It’s very mundane, but I feel the need to keep things super simple as we execute this plan.
I recently spent the months after my 40th birthday trying to defeat polycystic ovary syndrome again to conceive a second child. It took 30 days of pills, shots, ultrasounds, and migraines before I even ovulated that cycle. And since I ovulated, I consider it a successful cycle. Years of drugs and alternative treatments failed to produce even that small success.
Going through fertility treatments can consume all aspects of a woman’s life. Imagine two or three trips to the doctor every week, permanent bruises from blood tests, pills, inspections, and injections. At any given moment you could be nauseated or having hot flashes. Your emotions are jerked all up and down the spectrum by high doses of hormones and the constant positive and negative feedback of test results. Cramps make it hard to sleep, and nightmares make it harder.
You may endure just a few weeks of intense treatment, or it may go on for years.
When I started a new treatment cycle three years ago (the one that led to conceiving my daughter), I swore it would be my last attempt. Seven years of trying had failed and gutted me many times. I buckled down for one last try, no matter the cost, stress, or assault on my mental health.
I told my boss I would be undergoing this medical process that required frequent doctor’s visits (and coming in late), but otherwise I had no story to tell the people I spent my days with, to explain why I was such a train wreck.
During this most recent attempt, I didn’t have to act normal for coworkers or explain absences. I just had to take care of myself and the simple daily needs of a 2-year-old. (My husband takes care of himself.)
I knew from experience what to expect — the fatigue, pains, and stress. I formed a strategy to keep myself feeling as well as possible when the process inevitably became overwhelming.
You might think, “Ugh this is so basic; who can’t think of ways to take care of themselves?”
I couldn’t. Not in the thick of it, when my mental and physical energy were both sapped, and the tremendous pressure was exposing all my weaknesses and fears. What I needed was a list and daily reminders to take these simple steps when I started feeling overwhelmed by the process.
Here are the things that helped me get through the rough days:
Take a walk.
With some treatments, fertility doctors discourage vigorous exercise because of the risk of ovarian torsion. However, most doctors allow for light walking throughout treatments.
How can it help? Walking can reduce stress, increase energy, and help clear the mind. My doctor okayed continuing normal activities, but acknowledged it could get uncomfortable. He wasn’t kidding. Some days I felt like I was having all the PMS from years of missed periods at once. I couldn’t get comfortable on the couch, much less moving around. Still, when I could break away for a little walk, it was the best medicine for my mood.
Hormones, stress, doctor’s appointments — they can all cause fatigue. It’s okay to make sleep a priority during this time. Everyone tells new moms to sleep when the baby sleeps, but I bet most at-home parents have given up the practice by the time their kid is a toddler. By that point it’s way more satisfying to pick up toys and watch something that is not about the alphabet in a clean living room while you drink a cup of coffee that’s still hot.
But when the fertility treatments ramped up, my daughter’s daily “quiet” time turned into my nap time. For women who work, I advocate napping through lunch breaks and creative use of bathroom breaks.
Limit the demands you make on yourself to core survival/happiness tasks. I had to sacrifice coffee dates with friends and trips to the gym because I never knew more than a day in advance if I would have a doctor’s appointment or be dead on my feet. I gave up idealistic goals for how little television my child should watch each day. I figured if I could give her a sibling, that would surely make up for a few months with fewer trips to the park.
I cut back on writing and running, and it was hard to give them up temporarily. I told myself I would have the rest of my life to run and write, but my personal deadline for pregnancy was very close.
Watch something stupid.
You know how Brooks Ayers was trying to convince everyone in the OC that he had cancer, and Vicki Gunvalson desperately supported him beyond all reason so she wouldn’t look like the fool? And how everyone else was yelling and pointing fingers, between clips of their post-taping analyses of the whole boondoggle? That was my Xanadu. And when that mess ran out, I switched to an old season of Beverly Hills’ most glamorous housewives slurring and erupting.
I don’t think it’s possible to dwell on your own discomfort while six women yell at each other on TV for an hour.
I do not know how or if this really works. Let’s just say I don’t not believe it can be helpful during fertility treatments. For that matter, I do not know how the medications prescribed by my doctor work, but I pay special heed to the ones that do.
I know that the two times I had acupuncture treatments, my test results went from iffy to great at the next fertility appointment. At the very least, it was two hours I spent in a forced napping position in a quiet room while everything else in my life was so hectic.
Not knowing how much my friends and family would want to hear about the details of my reproductive system, I started a semi-secret blog documenting the process back in 2013. I shared it with my inner circle knowing they could read or avoid it when they chose to.
When I started the process again this year, that log was so valuable in preparing me for what to expect. This time, I documented the process privately (like the few entries above) as a way to sort my thoughts and keep things in perspective. I also expect my children to one day develop a healthy interest in their pre-life stories and come begging, “Mommy, mommy, tell us more about that time you went to the doctor and got a big shot!”
Tell a friend.
Going through fertility treatments can be so lonely. There are a number of reasons a woman may choose to keep the whole business private. You could easily find yourself in the midst of a monumental life change, but unable to speak about it with most of the people around you. I always had my husband and a few close girl friends there to listen.
I highly recommend choosing one friend who will listen patiently and supportively through the daily anxieties and mood fluctuations. Choose someone you trust with your heart because it can be a demanding time between friends. And if you get a chance to be that trusted listener to a friend going through fertility treatments, all you have to do is listen when she wants to talk and offer distraction when she doesn’t.
While fertility treatments can be harrowing, they can also be exciting. The many times fertility treatments ended in disappointment, I faced the decision to stop or try again. When it worked, I felt triumph for a minute before setting off on a whole new path of anxieties and discomforts. This same list of self-care reminders is helping me get through the aftermath, too.