No one tells of IVF’s mental toll
The physical hurdles of conceiving either naturally or by IVF left author Jodi Panayotov unprepared for the emotional toll
IKNEW there was something wrong with me when I began frantically pulling everything out of the rubbish bin for the third time. Or should I say something else wrong with me — I already knew I had endometriosis, hyperthyroidism and that my hormones were out of whack (all under the infertility umbrella of afflictions), but this? It felt like something in my brain had gone into overdrive and was compelling me to do previously unimaginable things obsessively and repetitively.
How did it get to the point where I was on my knees rifling through salad scraps like a hungry street person? Except instead of food I was looking for one of a dozen discarded pregnancy tests, just in case a second line had shown up in the hour since I’d shoved it to the bottom of the bin in disgust.
This condition, like an obsessive disorder, had snuck up on me in the year since my first miscarriage and had become more pronounced in the year since my second miscarriage. My husband and I had been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a few years, and at some point recently it had taken over our lives and, in particular, mine.
At the time of the rubbish incident I was on herbs to correct my various reproductive ailments. This had involved the taking of my temperature every morning and charting it, which may have been useful for my herbalist but was doing my head in. I’d taken to setting the alarm so I could get an accurate reading by taking it at the same time every morning.
A temperature too high and I’d failed to ovulate, a temperature too low and I wasn’t pregnant. With shaking hands I’d reach for the thermometer, and depending on the reading of my basal temperature, I’d either leap out of bed happy or retreat under the covers. I became Linda Evangelista-esque, in that a number dictated whether I got out of bed or not — although for her there was a dollar sign in front of the number, while my number had a small elevated circle after it.
As for the temperature chart, I’d taken to studying it instead of the papers throughout breakfast, analysing the little peaks and troughs as if it were a stock market graph. Did they mean I was ovulating or was I perhaps, oh God please, pregnant? And my mood would swing in peaks and troughs accordingly.
I realised how dependent on the temperature-taking and charting I’d become when on one weekend my husband and I went away to the mountains. As we were half-way to our destination I remembered I’d left the thermometer and chart by the bedside.
‘‘ We have to go back!’’ I screamed. There was no way I could face a weekend without it. It was as if my very existence now depended on that thermometer, it so dictated my days and moods that I wouldn’t know what to feel without it.
At dusk we finally arrived at our destination, a villa tucked away in the mountains. The next morning was one of the mornings I wanted to stay in bed like Linda, but breakfast was included, so I dragged myself out to face a sumptuous buffet. At first it looked very inviting, laden with fresh and home-made produce. Then, as I moved along with my plate, the items started to turn into something else before my eyes. The plump dried figs became shrivelled ovaries, the berry jam endometriotic clots and the poached eggs blighted ova. I knew then that I needed help, but I wasn’t sure whether to call a gynaecologist or a psychiatrist.
As it happened I ended up seeing both. After that weekend I called my gynaecologist in Sydney and booked an appointment for IVF. I really didn’t trust things to be left in my own hands any more, not when I was capable of turning a breakfast buffet into a dysfunctional reproductive system. And through a friend I found a 90-year-old one-legged psychiatrist who had more empathy for how my fertility problems were affecting my life than anyone in the medical fraternity.
The medical fraternity are all, ‘‘ swallow this, have another blood test, take this, try this’’, but they seem completely oblivious to the emotional side of what you’re going through. For instance, not once in any medical report do they say, ‘‘ There are many side effects to infertility beyond the physical ones.
‘‘ Some common ones are: Homicidal thoughts towards pregnant women, homicidal urges towards people who mistreat their children, temperature charting obsession, repetitive pregnancy test taking to the point where you consider taking shares in the company which manufactured them, extreme mood swings, and bursting into tears at someone else’s pregnancy news — for example, Liz Hurley’s.’’
‘‘ And the less common: When foodstuffs remind you of faulty reproductive organs.’’
If I thought IVF would be the answer to both my reproductive issues and my mental issues, I was very mistaken. Yes, it produced a baby, but it took ages to recover from the emotional toll. On the one hand IVF took the onus from me and placed it in the hands of a medical team, but on the other hand I had to play a far greater role in it than I had with my herbs.
Everyone knows IVF involves injections, but what I didn’t realise was that there would be a plethora of blood tests that left my inner arms looking like those of a junkie, and these were carried out at obscure hours in the morning. Sometimes these were paired with internal ultrasounds, after which I’d spend until mid-afternoon obsessively awaiting the results and whether we would continue the next day. It was like doing an exam every day that you had no way of studying for.
I’d thought my mental state was pretty ragged until I started the IVF drugs. To put them in perspective, I seriously believe that one day, the line ‘‘ my client was under the influence of Lucrin and Puregon when she killed him, Your Honour’’ will be a valid defence in a trial. It’s like PMT tripled. And coming on the tail of the years of trying to conceive stress, it can be a force to be reckoned with. When I was on those drugs, I think that for the first time in his life my husband was scared of me.
The day I got the positive pregnancy result from the IVF clinic, it was like being let out of prison — a mental prison that I’d been in for the past three years. But I was on parole until after the scans that showed a viable pregnancy. Suddenly I didn’t know what to do with myself. I put the thermometer away, the charts, tipped out the herbs and thought, ‘‘ what now?’’. It was as if I had to invent a new life for myself, which I did, although I had some scares during pregnancy which had me back in a state of high anxiety for a while.
Now when I look back on the diary I kept during the infertility years, which I’ve since turned into a book, it’s not the procedures, the drugs, the temperatures that predominate, but the insanity which accompanied them all.
Friends who’ve read the book are taken by utter surprise and say they had no idea what had been going on. Yes, they knew of the herbs, the IVF and so on, but they had no idea what was going on with me. It wasn’t as if I was going to ring them and say, ‘‘ can you believe it, I’ve just spent an hour trawling through my rubbish and the pregnancy test still says negative’’, or ‘‘ I really think that figs look like ovaries, don’t you?’’.
You see, when people speak of infertility, nobody mentions that it has an insanity clause. InVitroFertilityGoddess by Jodi Panayotov is published by Blink Press at $24.95
A different journey: Jodie Panyotov, pictured with her child, says infertility can take the sufferer to the verge of insanity