Backstory – Infertility and Conception
This article mentions some things that might be upsetting to some readers. Please be willing to read about the following before continuing:
- Medical Health Details
- Women’s Health
- Mental Health
- Childhood sexual abuse (no details).
If you think any of the above might be distressing, don’t continue. If you’re still curious, I’ll be happy to give you a completely condensed version without any potentially upsetting details, just drop me a DM on Twitter.
The Trouble Begins
I’ve had quite extensive troubles with my hormones and my period cycle since I was a teenager and had been told early on that something wasn’t quite right – but hadn’t chosen to fully investigate that as I wasn’t comfortable with physical examinations and had no incentive to push myself into it. B and I had a discussion about kids before we got married and I was honest with him about not really knowing what was up with that. We always said that we’d be happy with each other and didn’t need a family – but would both like one. My period off birth-control was erratic at best and extremely uncomfortable at worst. Think 6 months off followed by 6 weeks on, during which time I would frequently become anemic and too exhausted to even leave the house, coupled with excruciating cramps. Eventually my doctor prescribed a drug which stopped them completely because my body couldn’t handle the flow or duration.
Track all the Things
I started tracking basal temperature and doing ovulation tests every day, buying them by the hundred on Amazon, along with fist fulls of pregnancy tests – just to be sure I wasn’t confusing my heavy periods with miscarriages. The strips almost never changed colour – the simple fact of it was, I wasn’t ovulating on a regular cycle. Two sets of ovulation were tracked in an entire year and after each time, because of course, my period would not have come a month later anyway, I crossed my fingers and peed on a stick and then cried in the bathroom alone when it came back negative. I didn’t tell my husband I was doing this; I didn’t want to bring him into this world of pain. So I let him think I wasn’t too concerned and that we had all the time in the world to start a family.
A Random Autoimmune Appears
I started off with a bunch of blood tests which picked up the fact that I, once again, was anemic, but also an unexpected result, my platelets were incredibly low. So low I was rushed into a consult with a specialist at the hospital. For a while, this sort of overtook my health as I went through a bunch of tests over around 12 months and was finally simply diagnosed with “ITP” – Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. Basically it’s an autoimmune condition where the body destroys perfectly healthy platelets and the doctors don’t know why. It’s the fancy medical way of saying “We know what’s happening, but not why, and we can’t fix it.” This was actually a good result within the context, as it meant the platelets weren’t being destroyed by me having leukemia or any other serious problem. Instead I just had to have regular monitoring, not take certain medications and let them know immediately if I had any bleeding issues.
“Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) is a disorder that can lead to easy or excessive bruising and bleeding. The bleeding results from unusually low levels of platelets — the cells that help blood clot. Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, which is also called immune thrombocytopenia, affects children and adults. Children often develop ITP after a viral infection and usually recover fully without treatment. In adults, the disorder is often long term. If you don’t have signs of bleeding and your platelet count isn’t too low, you may not need any treatment. In rare cases, the number of platelets may be so low that dangerous internal bleeding occurs.” – Mayo Clinic (Source)
This caused a lot of problems in pregnancy, and if you’d like to find out more about ITP, I’ve written about it here.
So, super, I’ve got this autoimmune but it’s not related to my infertility. I went through some other health problems as well; pancreatitis, gallstones and eventually a gallbladder removal and on top of an ever-increasing weight problem, bouts of depression and dealing with having social anxiety, having kids weren’t our main priority. Every time I went into the hospital my anxiety would kick into overdrive, and I started having serious doubts about being able to deal with the medical invasion of giving birth. I had so many issues, both physical and mental at this point that I never felt like I’d be a functioning mother anyway.
Let’s Figure This Out
When we’d been married for around 5 years I went back to the doctor and asked if we could try and figure out what was going on. I knew that natural conception was looking iffy – after all, we’d been off birth control for a long time at this point – but I wanted a diagnosis and to look at our options. I was still hoarding pregnancy tests and checking occasionally and that was really draining me mentally on top of everything else. A simple ultrasound scan actually revealed the result; I had large ovarian cysts on both my ovaries and after that was revealed, a hormonal blood check came back with extremely low progesterone and very high testosterone – the hallmarks of Poly-cystic Ovary Syndrome (aka PCOS). The NHS Page on PCOS contains some really good information if you want to know what the hell that is. It’s actually quite common, but mine was very severe. I was also diagnosed with endometriosis, which had been causing my crippling period pain. There’s an NHS Page on Endometriosis that’s helpful too.
It’s not Looking Good
Just look at it this way – I wasn’t ovulating normally and the doctor didn’t think I would. There is no cure for PCOS. I was told there was “almost no chance” of conceiving naturally and I needed to start seriously thinking about fertility treatment if we wanted a family. We were offered a referral to the specialist at the hospital (yay, another one) and I was told that I’d be a candidate for IVF, having been trying so long, being over 30 and having a diagnosed issue now. She also mentioned I’d have to lose some weight and might have a “few years” of trying different medication first but wanted to get the ball rolling.
Child-Free but a Happy Marriage
It’s now 2014 and we’ve been together since 2006. We’ve grown together and have a thriving business and a rock solid marriage despite our fertility issues. As the years passed and I experienced hospitals and doctors and I thought more and more about what it would take both physically and mentally to endure further tests and treatments, I convinced myself I wasn’t strong enough to do it. This is something I may choose to talk about later on but I haven’t decided yet, I was sexually abused as a child and have avoided gynecological appointments as much as possible because of it, This trauma may have also contributed to my fairly extreme anxiety. The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to go through with it. IVF meant more hospitals, more doctors, invasive procedures, more disappointment and I felt that if I had to go through all of that and still sit in the bathroom crying over a line on a stick I was going to go insane. Our marriage was happiest when I wasn’t stressing about getting pregnant and anxious about medical treatments.
The more I researched, the more I was overwhelmed and I made a decision. I couldn’t do it – it hadn’t happened naturally and I was going to focus on the things I did have and not the things I didn’t. In my darkest hours I thought of it as “giving up” on having a family – but when I look at it from a logical point of view, I still feel I made the right decision. I am so lucky that my husband was supportive of my decision and respected it, essentially giving up his ability to have kids too although we did discuss the possibilities of adoption in the future.
Making the final decision that we would not be having a family lifted a weight off my shoulders. I stopped tracking, I threw out all my ovulation strips and the pregnancy tests. We spent money on travelling and doing all the things we wanted to do together. We focused on the fact we had dual incomes and freedom and would always have each other. The friends we had with kids grew apart and drifted away but we made new friends and moved on. When folks asked – which they frequently did – about being childless, we acted like it was a choice, because I did not want to discuss my intimate health with people (ironic, considering I’m putting it out here for the world now, but at the time, I was raw and embarrassed). I still cried alone from time to time when I thought about it – especially when I saw a newborn post or pregnancy announcement on Facebook – but I tried to focus on the positive things, the family, friends, pets and business I had.
That’s one weird Stomach Bug
We had a 2-week cruise booked in August 2016 and about 2 weeks before we were due to leave I had a nasty stomach bug. It was awful. I was feeling nauseous constantly, I even threw up – which I hadn’t done in a decade and God, the exhaustion. Sheer exhaustion and napping all afternoon. “I must be anemic again,” I muttered to my husband whilst instructing him to head out and buy me some iron tablets. It was a bit weird though because I hadn’t had a period for 7 months at this point which I mentioned. “Maybe you’re pregnant.” He joked and was very clearly joking, but when I think back I wonder did I detect a note of hope in his voice back then? Or am I adding that in the memory after? I snorted and laughed at him too – the rawness had passed by now, we’d been trying to conceive for almost a decade.
My Brain Doesn’t Let Go
But it stuck with me. I couldn’t sleep at all that night because I was thinking what if, what if, what if? I berated myself mentally for being so stupid – but I knew that my anxiety would set in and until I saw that negative line I’d be thinking about it. “Get it out of the way and start packing,” I told myself, so I headed down to Tesco and paid an extortionate amount of money for a single pregnancy test. It was almost routine, peeing on that stick and remembering all those years ago. It didn’t have the same emotion because I felt like I was just going through the motions, confirming the no so that my pedantic brain could focus on something else.
It came back positive. I felt… frustration. The damn test had malfunctioned and I’d already spent a tenner on it. How annoying! I’m not made of money you know! I logged onto Amazon and ordered a pack of 5 for the next day. Thank you, Prime! The next day I repeated the test. It was positive. This was ridiculous! I still hadn’t told my husband anything was up. I repeated the test another three days and they were all positive. My mind is really, really stubborn though. I did finally tell my husband with the caveat “I’m pretty sure it’s just a hormonal imbalance but we need to check it out.” Keeping it on the down low. We went to a family planning clinic and I sat in a waiting room with a lot of awkward people. The nurse seemed surprised when I wanted a pregnancy test, “We mostly deal with STDs, people go to their GP when they’re pregnant.” I explained that my GP didn’t have an appointment for a few weeks and I was going on holiday and I’d had lots of positive pregnancy tests.
You get used to peeing in a jar!
So I duly peed into a jar in the family planning clinic and wandered back into the room. “Yup, you’re definitely pregnant!” She declared. “How can you say it’s definite?” I asked her. “Oh, these are very accurate, the NHS only uses urine tests, but you’ll get an ultrasound when you’re 12 weeks along. When was your last period?” I told her 7 months ago and that I had quite a lot of fertility problems and was pretty sure this was a chemical pregnancy, but all she could do was advise me to book a GP appointment as soon as possible. Fair enough.
By this point I’d been messing around so long I was going on holiday in a few days! I took the letter from the family planning clinic to the GP and was told a midwife would call me in the next 7-10 days to book an appointment. It was a Friday, and I couldn’t even get an emergency GP appointment until Monday but I’d need a referral for an ultrasound or repeat tests over time and I’m thinking this is the most ridiculous thing. I’m not pregnant. I don’t need this hanging over me for weeks or even months whilst we figure this out.
Sometimes Private is Worth it
I start googling and I find a private ultrasound place. For £70 I can get a same-day ultrasound at 6pm on a Friday night – that’s crazy, but exactly what I need. If there’s nothing in there, then I’m not pregnant. I was so sure this was a chemical pregnancy that I went without my husband – he was at work until 6pm and it didn’t seem like he’d need to leave early for nothing. I was so nervous, I drank litre after litre of water and kept needing to get up to pee. The receptionist kept reminding me I needed a full bladder but they were running late, my anxiety had ramped up and I thought I was going to wet myself, so I was going back and forth from the waiting room to the bathroom, chugging water and trying not to throw up or have a panic attack. I bet she thought I was a lunatic. By the time they called me in I was a mess.
They did an abdominal ultrasound and couldn’t find anything. I was pretty matter-of-fact about it at that point I think. My brain was already convinced that was the outcome. I don’t think I could have coped mentally with believing I was pregnant and then the crippling disappointment of once again finding out I wasn’t, so I convinced myself I wasn’t from the start.
“Maybe you’re a little early, I’ll try a transvaginal ultrasound.”
I call it the Condom Wand
I didn’t know what that was but it didn’t sound good. I’m already incredibly anxious about medical examinations and I was in there alone. But I needed to know, I needed to be sure and I needed this closure to move on so I gulped and nodded. It was actually painless, a very thin wand (think finger sized, not penis sized!) draped in a condom (nice!) and slathered in lube is inserted into the vagina and wiggled around a bit. Ladies if you need one, don’t panic – it’s absolutely nothing to worry about and was no discomfort at all. It doesn’t need to go up to the cervix so if you’re like me and struggle with a cervical smear, the ultrasound is much much easier. A bit embarrassing for sure, especially since they needed an extra tech to witness that nothing weird was going on (standard procedure to protect everyone involved), but my bits were appropriately covered once the doo-dah was inserted and everyone was very nice.
“Yup, there it is!” She said, positively beaming at me. “There’s a healthy stem in the right place and a good little heartbeat. Measurements say you’re 6 weeks along, no wonder we couldn’t find it.”