Stephen and I ‘properly’ met when we were 22, young and carefree, living our best lives. Coincidentally we both attended the same college and all of our friends hung out together, but we decided to basically ignore each other for a few years. What’s the saying again, “Treat them mean, keep them keen”?! (Ha!) Our relationship moved quite quickly and before we knew it, we had brought our first flat together and had opened a joint bank account all within a year from the first time we had actually spoken to one another!
Next thing we knew, everyone was asking us when we were going to marry, settle down and have kids. I was completely caught off guard! We were still young and just financially committed to each other for 25 years! It all seemed like plenty of adult commitments to us at that point.
Then one April morning when we we’re 27, Stephen got down on one knee and proposed! When he looked up, he found I was hysterically laughing, I think from nerves but also shock, of course I said ‘yes’! He was my ride or die.
Sadly, the next few years became fairly traumatic, for the entire family. I had never considered how I processed stress. It was 2008 and mental health or general wellbeing was not widely discussed. I genuinely always considered myself to be laid back and a ‘go with the flow’ kind of girl. Planning a wedding was not something I had prepared for, which sounds ridiculous. I think I wanted to please everyone, and it became all consuming. From my first dress fitting to my wedding day, I had lost three dress sizes in weight. I focused all the stress into losing weight and if I am totally honest, I became quite competitive with myself.
Before I knew it, I had spiralled. I had an eating disorder. We married in February 2009 and I continued to lose weight. By that Christmas Stephen and my family held an intervention. I weighed less than 6 stone and was experiencing multiple health issues. As I write this, I immediately feel pain, for my family and what I put them through. My father, a tough northerner, cried. I will never forget that moment. At the time I was angry, in denial and felt truly betrayed by those I loved. I think about that day a lot. They saved my life. I spent the best part of two years in treatment and there were definitely choices I made I am not proud of, but Stephen stood by me through it all.
In 2010 we started trying for a baby, once my cycles had returned, were regular and I had put on a healthy amount of weight (and I felt like myself again). It wasn’t a decision taken lightly. After a while when it clearly was not working, we booked a doctor’s appointment to discuss our options. I remember the GP advising us that to qualify for a referral for further testing we had to be trying for two years and provide evidence of ovulation charts, back then I took my temperature, as a rise will usually indicate ovulation. Month after month of disappointment, not being able to bring a baby into the world, to a loving family, was heart-breaking. I always blamed myself. What if I never had an eating disorder? Maybe I’d be pregnant now or have already had a baby. This was my fault.
Eventually we got referred in 2012, where we underwent a variety of testing and were diagnosed with unexplained infertility. We were stunned. How do you process a diagnosis that basically doesn’t exist?! It was so difficult coming to terms that trying to conceive a baby would not come easy to us, something that seemed so natural and normal to those around me, suddenly became a huge struggle, maybe was even impossible, and there was no medical reason why. I found that I continued to blame myself, whilst trying to protect Stephen in the process. The consultant prescribed Clomid for six months, which meant a further six months of heartbreak. During the next few years, we suffered several miscarriages (which I think about every day) and had no viable pregnancy.
In 2015 we decided to undergo IVF privately. Medical interventions for infertility have been around since before I was born. Naively we did think it was a one hit wonder, one round and boom, we’d have a baby in our arms! Sadly, instead, it became the new F word for us. Fear, failure and frustration. Little did we know it would not be until April 2018 we would finally get to hold our rainbow babies.
I think back to the many times we sat in a room with a consultant trying to put into words the feeling of failure, finding some more belief in the unknown, trust and confidence in not only science and the team of medical professionals that surrounded us but also my own body, that I felt had let us down so many times because of how I had treated it. That it was my fault.
Looking back at our six cycles of IVF over three years, all of them different in so many ways and thinking, with every negative result or failure we had to take a positive from the situation. It was our way of dealing with what was going on and managing our feelings. Unable to change the previous outcome.
After the failed cycles we would go on an adventure, we didn’t want our lives to stop and we knew we would regroup and chat about the ‘what next’ while we relaxed and enjoyed sometime together, just the two of us. The number of times we’d say, “no more IVF!”, but I always knew I was never quite ready to step away.
In 2016 going into my third cycle, I read about an Instagram IVF/trying to conceive community. I joined and put a profile together. What a community of amazing men and women going through a similar ride! The interactions, advice, chats and general support really helped us through the everyday battles of infertility. Some of these people have become the most amazing real-life friends, who I am lucky to have around me.
I remember our last cycle like it was yesterday, even though as I write this it was over three years ago. I had become a pro with injections by cycle six, no longer needing Stephen to help, that left in cycle one. No longer making sure I was home to inject, that left in cycle two. I would now inject wherever I was at the time needed. Work, restaurants, bars, concerts, in the car, on a plane, a boat, the list is endless. But the nerves, the nerves going into our 5th egg collection were unreal, hoping the difference this time would be a viable pregnancy.
The one thing I looked forward to with every egg collection was sedation, as strange as that sounds! It’s madness! You are under for such a short period of time, but I always felt so well rested once I woke up. Plus, the free brunch my clinic provided once back to the room was well worth it. They would come in once I had eaten and rested and give me an update on the egg count. I’d literally feel sick to my stomach with nerves waiting to hear. Unbelievably the last collection was our most successful. 17 eggs!! Mind blown.
I knew what was coming next, the same that followed my last cycle OHSS (ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome). I had to prepare myself as I knew it would be worse this time.
I was in a lot of pain and very sick with OHSS and suffering from a chest infection. I spent the next five days after the collection in bed or on the sofa. Stephen was there every step of the way, making sure I was ok. The worry a transfer wouldn’t happen felt very real. Constantly wondering if the embryos would make it to day five.
I remember getting the call, we had one, day five blastocyst. I have never felt so happy. Off we went for transfer, a process that began to feel very normal. Once we arrived, we were told they would transfer the blastocyst and another embryo that was a day behind. Basically, for good luck. I freaked out. I sat up and told everyone into the room to stop. Stephen looked at me like a crazy person. We have always had two embryos transferred and I suddenly wondered if that contributed to the failure.
The consultant reassured us that was not the case and if the concern is of twins the percentage is so low it’s not worth thinking about, which I laughed off. Two embryos were transferred.
We then waited. I say we; I mean Stephen. I waited all of four days to test. I didn’t tell him. There was a faint line. I prepared myself for a chemical pregnancy, having been in that situation before and dealing with those emotions, so I could concentrate on Stephen and what he needed when the time came. That is how I worked. As it would be my fault it failed. I also prepared myself for lots more testing and went to the pharmacy and brought all the tests. The early testers, thinking to myself: “Take all of my money Mr Pharmacy man!”
Next day. Who am I kidding! That same day in the afternoon, I tested again. I am a serial tester. Still a faint line. Decided it was too early to send to friends for their opinion. My friends who have been through the last three cycles with us. Hoping it will be a good outcome as much as us. Day five, progression, sent photo to friends – answer was inconclusive. Day six more progression. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Day seven an even stronger line. Day eight, I had to come clean to Stephen. I woke early and said shall we test today, obviously he agreed. Once I took the test I was gobsmacked, the test line was darker than the control line. I confessed to Stephen that I had been testing from day four and he laughed. He knew I wouldn’t be able to help myself.
I took a test every day up until we went for our six-week scan at the clinic. I needed to know it was still a good line. One thing I learned when going through treatment for my eating disorder is not to ignore the stress. Find a coping mechanism that works for me at that time. This worked for me. On every cycle. Sat waiting, I felt sick and was shaking like a leaf, Stephen holding my hand. Praying we’d see a heartbeat. Little did we know that two heartbeats would appear. It was the first time I had cried in a long time. Neither of us could believe what we were seeing.
It would be easy to say the rest is history, but the anxiety was real. Having lost pregnancies before I knew the risks and by the time our 12-week scan came around with the NHS I had already paid and been for 6 private scans. It was expensive but I needed reassurance. We both did. I think I could have started my own sonograph business; it would have been a lot cheaper!
I took the pregnancy one day at a time. I didn’t enjoy it and found that difficult to process but it was the first time in nearly 9 years my eating disorder was no longer my priority, which sounds ludicrous, but these babies were my priority, they were my everything, my world. Keeping them safe and healthy. The first 20 weeks felt like years. I was aiming for 27 weeks. Praying they would be ok. Unbeknown to me that our two little monkeys were going to stay put and I’d be extremely lucky and welcome them at 37 weeks with no special care required.
I look back at my 28-year-old self and wish I could have told her “everything will be ok”. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. There were times I wanted to give up on everything. Times I wondered if I was strong enough to get through the next day and times when I thought my heart just couldn’t break again.
I finally learnt to forgive myself and be proud of my own strength, my ability to keep moving forward despite the setbacks and the heartbreak. Most of all to be proud of my body, whatever shape it is and for the person I have become today.
Here we are now, with our two small humans. We did it!!
- Sarah, Mom of Oli & Seb, IVF Warrior - London, England