I am no stranger to mental health problems. I have had depression with anxiety on and off for 13 years and I write this post with the hope of highlighting the often unspoken mental health problems that can accompany Infertility. It wasn’t easy to write and I debated with myself about its appropriateness for several days before making it public. But what could be more appropriate than the truth. I am not trying to seek attention or sympathy from my audience, if I can encourage just one person to feel less alone and to speak out and seek help then I have suceeded. This post is REAL and comes with trigger warnings regarding suicidal thoughts and self harm. Although some of it maybe hard hitting, it happened to me. I am still here, coming out the other side. And so can you.
My first bout of clinical depression was triggered by a long term (6 year) relationship ending when I was 25. It was very sudden, without any warning and under circumstances completely beyond my control. I struggled to come to terms with the feelings of abandonment, humiliation, betrayal, fear and shock. This lack of control has remained a trigger for me throughout my mental health journey. I moved back in with my parents because I needed to be looked after during what I now view as a complete breakdown. My Dad and I used to run together locally and on a day when I was feeling particularly low, I broke down on one of our runs. There was a lorry coming towards us and an overwhelming desire came over me to jump out in front of the lorry. I just didn’t want to feel the unrelenting internal pain of depression anymore, I wanted to feel physical pain, to make it a reality and for everyone to see the pain I was feeling inside. It was then that I realised I needed help. I confessed all to my Dad on a teary walk home and my parents ensured that I got to the GP to get some help via antidepressants and CBT. To cut an incredibly long and painful story short it took me 2 long years to get my life back together to a point where I could work and start enjoying life again. I worked out ways to manage and live with my depression and anxiety and other than a few short term relapses, I coped. Exercise was a big factor in my recovery alongside the amazing support of my parents. I took part in a charity trek to Peru for The Mental Health Foundation, which gave me a goal to work towards. The depression was always there though, snapping at my heels, waiting for me to succumb. I tried to keep my life as stress free as possible and although this was never easy for me, it certainly helped to keep my mental health in check and give me back that vital sense of control.
Eventually, I started dating and met my wonderful now husband, Wayne. We had an amazing, fun time together dating over several months before moving in together a year later. I was open about my health problems and he was always very supportive and great at keeping me calm. He is very relaxed and chilled out and I liked that a bit of that rubbed off on me. These were some of the happiest months I can recall before my chronic health problems began leaving me bedbound for almost a year. Although I obviously felt low during this period, I managed to stay afloat and not sink into the deep depths of depression again. At the end of that year, we took a family holiday to Turkey and it was then that Wayne proposed on the beach, early in the morning. We couldn’t have been happier and despite my illness he still wanted to marry me, warts and all! His patience throughout everything we have endured really is a blessing.
We started trying to conceive (TTC) a year after we married and followed all the usual tips of working out ovulation dates, fertile periods and going for it (!) but nothing happened except the continual heartbreaking disappointment of seeing negative pregnancy tests month after month. My GP referred us to see a Fertility specialist and after several tests, scans and precious time passing we were told we would need IVF to conceive. This was obviously a shock and we took time to process this and see my chronic illness specialists to ask their opinions on the effects it would have on my health before deciding to go ahead with IVF a year later. The form filling, pre IVF testing and letters from my chronic illness specialists all took time and before we knew it 3 years had passed since we started TTC. Any IVFers out there will know that waiting is a skill you will learn during this process, although not necessarily patiently! I gradually came off the medications that were unsafe in pregnancy as recommended by my doctor including my antidepressants because I wanted to give my eggs as much chance as possible to be healthy.
Finally by January 2018, we were ready to start. I remember being so full of hope over the Christmas period, we were delighted that we were being given the opportunity to have a baby of our own and we talked about how it could be the last Christmas together without having a child and how different it would be in years to come. As much as we told ourselves not to get too hopeful, it is impossible not to imagine the life that you so desperately dream of lying ahead of you. We were excited about our first round and couldn’t wait to get started. The injections, raging hormones, ultrasound scans, follicle counts and the continual building of our hopes and dreams ensued. We were firmly in the ‘Hope Zone’! Egg collection came and we retrieved 4 eggs but of those 4 only 1 made it to a day 3 transfer. We were devastated we had no embryos to freeze to give us more chances and all our hopes were placed on the little embryo inside me. The emotional rollercoaster of the Two Week Wait (TWW) was extremely tough. I googled every tiny little cramp, twinge, ear twitch or leg cramp on a daily, sometimes hourly basis to see if it was a pregnancy symptom but the cruel truth is the progesterone suppositories imitate pregnancy, so I was experiencing all the symptoms of pregnancy without knowing if I was pregnant. A complete mindf***k! Staying sane during this time is pretty tricky stuff, even without mental health problems. We were beyond devastated to receive a negative pregnancy test at the end of the 2 weeks. Without any bleeding we thought it maybe positive but the pesky progesterone was doing its job of keeping my lining intact for the embryo to snuggle into and as soon as I stopped it, I bled. We grieved for our lost embryos, our hopes and dreams of our child in our minds and our one shot this cycle being over. We now knew what ‘trying again’ meant. We cried and cried and cried until there were no tears left. It honestly felt like someone had died. We were reassured by our consultant this reaction was normal and that ‘it seldom works first time.’ We had our follow up appointment with the clinic where we swiftly returned to the ‘Hope Zone’ after being reassured with a new protocol and different drugs to try. This time it was going to work! We took a break for 3 months, we went on holiday to Turkey and took time to process everything and look forward. We were ok, we had another chance and we chose to start our second round in July.
Looking back, maybe there were warning signs I ignored or didn’t listen to or maybe I wasn’t even aware that were happening at the time. I was on a merry-go-round and I kept going because I was so desperate for a child of our own. I wasn’t sleeping well, I was getting 4-5 hours a night and I used adrenaline to push through but with chronic illness and depression, that eventually comes with a price. Interestingly, on our holiday week in Turkey when I finally relaxed I slept like a log all week but as soon as we were back in the UK, the insomnia returned.
Nevertheless, we pursued with round 2 in July. I felt differently this time, I had lost that nervous, naive excitement of the first round and it was replaced with an urge to get it over with and know the outcome. Everything felt like a chore, the injections, the scans, the continual waiting, the travelling to appointments. But I wanted our baby so desperately and if that is what I had to do to get it, then so be it. Egg collection felt more stressful this time. I woke up in theatre and heard the doctor say ‘stop the bleeding’ and the anaesthetist quickly placed the mask back on my face. When I came round I burst into tears, I remembered waking and feeling quite traumatised but I was reassured it was only a minor bleed and we had 5 eggs – one more than last time. 4 eggs fertilised over night and we were told to prepare for a day 5 embryo transfer with hopefully our chance to get some embryos in the freezer. However on day 2 we got the call to say only 2 of our embryos had survived the night and to get to the clinic ASAP for a transfer. We had been cocky, we were not ready, we were in bed having a well deserved lie in. We had a massive rush to get ready and again the adrenaline surged to push us through. We got showered, drove an hour and a half to the clinic and stopped at my acupuncturist en route. Luckily, we made it to the clinic by the skin of our teeth and we had both embryos put back followed by a post transfer acupuncture session and an hour an a half trip home, carrying our precious embryo cargo before we crashed out on the sofa. We had done it, we had 2 embryos safely back inside and this time it was going to work! Knowing we had 2 on board increased our chances and we even casually entertained the idea of twins. We were firmly back in the ‘Hope Zone’.
Our second TWW was filled with exhaustion for me and I was off sick from work. I had crashed, my chronic illnesses had relapsed and I couldn’t function. This TWW felt longer, I was at home, without distractions, counting the hours until test day, accompanied by the unrelenting rollercoaster of emotions and anxiety. One minute I thought it had worked, the next I hadn’t. Part of me wanted to test early so I could just know and put an end to it all, but the other part didn’t because I wanted to remain in the ‘Hope Zone’ for as long as possible. The small possibility of being pregnant was better than knowing I wasn’t. When test day eventually came, I didn’t want to test, I knew all too well what could be coming. We were devastated again to learn of our negative. All those hopes, dreams, plans, weeks of preparations, injections and scans smashed to the ground in two lousy minutes. It really did feel like the end of the world. The grief poured from us again, but this time it felt different. Initially, my reaction was ‘I want to go again, do another round’, I was so desperate for a child, life didn’t seem possible without trying again. After a few more grief filled days, we started to wonder if we could actually go through this pain all over again.
By this time my crash had completely taken over, my body was unhappy, my mind was unhappy, I was in turmoil. My GP signed me off again due to my chronic illness flare up and 2 weeks turned to a month. The next time I called, I spoke to a different GP who suggested that my mental health problems could be involved in my crash, lack of energy, hopelessness and complete exhaustion. Once the penny dropped it now seemed obvious, the lack of control I felt over our situation had tipped me over the edge and the depression was back. I was heavy, it was an effort to lift a limb and took so much energy to complete the smallest of tasks such as brushing my teeth. Taking a shower seemed a huge mountain to climb, even talking was hard. Alongside this I became numb, almost devoid of feelings altogether, I felt nothing, except emptiness, hollow and incapable of thought. I stayed in bed and stared blankly into space. I just didn’t want to do anything, I couldn’t do anything, the hopelessness overwhelmed me. The tears had stopped, I wasn’t even capable of crying anymore. My body had shut itself down as a form of self protection. The horror of depression was back.
My GP prescribed me a different antidepressant that was safer in pregnancy, so that I could remain on it if we were to undertake anymore IVF in the future, which made perfect sense. Little did I know at this point that things were about to get a whole lot worse. After a couple of weeks on the new medication I didn’t feel much better so my dose was increased. A couple more weeks after that I hit an all time low that I never thought possible. I woke in the night to thoughts of suicide and the word suicide going over and over in my head. I started to think and plan how I could do it, my thoughts became obsessed with tablets and how many I would need to end up in hospital and thoughts of knives and sharp objects I could harm myself with such as tweezers and razors and where I could find them in the house. I didn’t wake my husband and tell him because I didn’t want anyone to know, I was ashamed that I wanted to do it and I was ashamed of how real it felt. The next morning by about 10am something made me realise I had to tell someone. I don’t know what it was, perhaps my previous experience with mental health problems, or my gut instinct but I knew I needed to because I was so very afraid of what I might do. I told my husband and we cuddled and cried together. My parents (who had supported me through depression before) came over and after more tears we came up with a plan to get an emergency GP appointment the next day (a Monday). After making a plan, I felt a bit better but the thoughts did not go away, they kept going round and round in my head, I was so frightened of myself and what I might do. I took a shower and the desire to harm myself became too much and I pushed my razor into my skin. I wanted to make visible the pain that was going on inside me, to take back some control. Fortunately, the razor was too blunt to cut but it did leave an indentation for hours later which was still there when I saw the GP. She was very concerned and put my reaction down to the new antidepressants, ironically a medication that was supposed to help my mental health had sent me down to depths I had never reached before. I had had a very rare reaction to them. She took me off the new antidepressants and put me back onto the ones I was used to, to stabilise my mental health. At this point, having a baby no longer mattered, we had to do what was best for my mental health and get me to a stable, safe place. The GP hesitated over calling the Mental Health crisis team but once established that I would have someone with me 24/7 and all knives sharp objects hidden she relented. I was relieved to find out that it was the medication causing these awful feelings but saddened also to think that others had to live with these irrepressible thoughts all the time. The terrible thing was I couldn’t just stop the medication straight away, I had to reduce the dose down gradually over 2 weeks, so the bad thoughts continued. It took 6 long, frightening weeks to get rid of those thoughts altogether and then a further 6 weeks of being back on my usual antidepressant for my mental health to improve. Those first 6 weeks were scary, I was haunted by suicidal thoughts and thoughts of harming myself. My brain automatically looked for objects I could use and even if I saw a sharp object on TV I looked at it in a different way, how I could use it. I was so afraid of what might happen, what I might do. I was not left alone during that period, I was always with someone, my husband took time off work to look after me and when he couldn’t be there my parents were there. It was an impossible and traumatic time for us all.
We took it minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day and by January I was feeling more like my old self and I was able to trust myself to be on my own again and start to build up some physical and mental strength. It wasn’t easy but I am progressing slowly and steadily towards better health. I am well enough now (almost exactly a year from that last transfer) to be back at work on a very slow phased return. It has been brilliant to be back out in the world again, mixing with people and trying to get back into normal life. My mental and physical health is not back to where it was prior to IVF but I am seeing small improvements every week. With regards to our infertility struggle, we are still very much in limbo. I am awaiting some much needed counselling with a local charity that specialises in pregnancy and related losses such as infertility and IVF. We have come to the decision that we have reached the end of our IVF journey and that we simply cannot take the risk of coming off my antidepressants or any of my other chronic illness medication again. For now, we are focussing on improving my physical and mental health as much as possible and enjoying time together again. We are facing a future of being childless, not by choice, which brings another aspect of grief and loss. I’m not sure how we will come to terms with this but I do know that after everything that we have been through this past year, we have a combined strength that neither of us knew existed and we will keep fighting and together we will be ok.
If you have any comments or questions please feel free to contact me (Instagram is @chronic_mumma_in_waiting). I am always here and open to discussion but am not a medical expert. Please contact your GP for medical advice or if you are at Crisis point and you don’t have anyone to talk to.