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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Thanks, Infertility

Updated at bottom:

Not to kick off the first week of the first Happiness Challenge with a downer of a post, but...I don't know--perhaps by giving the issue words it takes away some of its power? Allows happiness and sunlight and butterflies to come swooping through, enveloping my whole world in a Broadway musical of a day? One where I am wearing mustard yellow pants?

I'm talking about flimsiness.

I want my happiness to have the tenacity of a South American dictator, only folding to an overpowering military coup. South American dictators ignore the groans of the commoners and South American Dictatorship Happiness ignores those small disappointments that don't really matter in the long run (um...did I just imply that the groans of the commoners don't matter?). I'm not talking about health crises or loss. Those small disappointments are the things that make you believe that you are having a shitty day: the fight with your friend, the setbacks at work, the phone calls never returned, the ideas that were snubbed.

Until you have stability in your happiness, those small disappointments have a way of blowing the house down. And when you have actual disappoints that pass over into the tragedy zone--failed IVF cycles, pregnancy loss, inability to continue treatments--it feels like you're trying to erect a house in the middle of a hurricane. It's going to get blown over. At the end of the day, is happiness a material that can withstand a storm of emotions?

How to circumvent? I'm not really sure. I'm really struggling with this as I read this book. I'll have a day where I'll feel a certain sense of peace and I'll think to myself that I'm on the right road. I'm letting go of my stranglehold on control and I'm enjoying being here in this moment rather than always thinking about what will happen next. I am not worrying about things outside my control. Okay, I really am, but I'm trying to talk myself into not making those things the focus of my day. I can bring myself to unprecedented anxiety levels if I allow myself to run with some ideas. I can cry now or I can cry now AND later. And I am choosing to be happy until that point in which I am not.

And at the same time, shitty words from a friend or a remembrance of how things often go wrong bring down the small pieces of house I've managed to erect. Tal Ben Shahar quotes a famous study in the book from Seligman about learned helplessness. You probably have heard of this study if you've ever taken a psychology 101 course. Three groups of dogs are all given shocks. The first group can turn off the mechanism delivering the shocks by touching a panel. The second group are given shocks repeatedly and there is nothing they can do about it. The third group receives no shocks. Later on, the three groups are put into small boxes where they can easily escape. They receive shocks again. The first and the third groups jump out to stop the pain. The second group resign themselves to the shocks and remained in the box, unable to imagine that they have any power.

Infertile women often fall into that second group of dogs. We're beta bitches; dogs tied to the results of a blood test or a long awaited referral.

After so many cycles of not receiving that elusive positive, after so many treatments that end with a negative, after so many losses, we don't enter with enough hope. Sure, we say we have hope and part of us does have hope because we know of too many stories where something unexpectedly works. But why is it that even after we receive that elusive second line, we rarely let go and feel complete blissful elation? We know too much, certainly. But I think it's also a bit of learned helplessness. We know that with our given track record, there is a good chance that it will all go to shit. So we allow ourselves to focus on that anxiety and focus on that sadness. And we skip over the few moments of happiness we could have grabbed before it went to shit. Or, even worse, we miss out on feeling happiness when it actually is the real deal.

I know I'm guilty of this. I was still hiding my one successful pregnancy until I was five months along. I never believed it would work out. And even having had it work out once, I still carry pessimism. It feels like you're protecting your heart by focusing on what could happen. You're steeling yourself for that flood.

But loss or failure? When the worst comes, whatever form it takes? It's like a tsunami. There is nothing you can do to prepare except build your house inland. And even then, it can be taken by an earthquake. It can be taken by a tornado. There is no amount of prep work that can get you through life without experiencing any pain. Just because you cried beforehand doesn't mean that you won't cry again when it actually occurs.

We're so scared to celebrate. We're so scared to buy things or tell people or have that shower or make plans. But disassembling a crib will not be the action that takes you down if the worst were to occur. That worst moment will take you down even if you never purchased a single baby item. Even if you hadn't dreamed up a name.

And if you have done those things and enjoyed them as you did them, you will at least have that. You will at least have those happy moments even though you also have the sad ones. You can't do anything to keep the sad moments at bay, but to also keep the happy ones at bay due to fear or a belief that it will protect you in the future? It is much easier to write than to put into practice. And it's not that I've had much success with this mindset. I am guilty of mourning before there is a reason to mourn. But I'm trying to put into words what I want to do--even if I haven't had success yet.

How do you shore up happiness? You grab as much as you can take. You don't hold off until the storm clears to start building. You need a house now. These are the conditions you're dealt. You can either gather as many bricks as possible and use them as you build your house, even knowing that your hard work may come toppling down with the next gust of wind. Or you can sit there and watch other people build. You won't have the frustration of having your hard work dismantled. But you also won't have the house in the end.

Maybe this is just an extension of the thought that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Is it better to have been happy and lost that happiness than to never feel that peace at all?

Now get building, will you? You are being pelted and knocked around and your heart is lodged by all of this rain. But maybe you can get a few walls up. And maybe seeing them will help you to remember that you can do it--you can build it--even if they are knocked down and you're set back from time to time.


A clarification. Or more thoughts. If I ever do get pregnant, I don't think I'll stare at that line and say, "knowledge be damned! I am bringing home a baby in nine months." I don't think I'll race to create a registry or start washing and folding onesies. My fear is in my constant premourning. I think I spend so much time being upset before something happens, holding the happy moments at bay because I think it will make sad moments easier, that I miss out on having both the happiness and the sadness. I simply only have the sadness.

It is possible to have a happy pregnancy that is not a giddy, ignorant pregnancy. We all know too much. Even if it is not our own history, we know the histories of other stirrup queens. We know what could happen. It's all your point of reference. Someone who has never had a pregnancy loss doesn't think much about pregnancy loss any more than someone who has never been assaulted thinks about violence as they're walking down a calm street. Your point of reference can do one of two things. It can prepare your mind for the possibility. Or it can frighten your mind into immobility.

Thinking through both the comments and today's post on Serenity Now (who is living and breathing this right now), I wrote: "I think what I wrote yesterday is this idea that I mourn before anything bad happens. It makes me miss out on good moments. And it doesn't make loss any easier. Not having to talk about it because you didn't tell anyone, of course that's easier than having people constantly ask about a m/c. But holding happiness at bay with the belief that it will make sadness easier later on? I think sadness will still be terrible later on. Albeit having missed out on the joy too.

I was reading an A.M. Homes book last night and there was a fantastic line: "does bracing oneself against something offer any protection?"

All of this is to say that you need to do what you need to do to get through this. If you were looking for permission to feel joy, I think it's a good thing. I think it's a healthy thing. I think there's a difference between eating a diet only of candy and then being shocked by the consequences and eating a balanced diet with some cake thrown in too, even though you know later on as you stare at the scale and feel unhappy about your weight that you wouldn't have wanted to forgo the cake and live a cakeless life. If that analogy makes any sense whatsoever."


Dianne/Flutter said...

BRAVO! Love this post. Absolutely love it!

Schatzi said...

Well said! It is true that I steel myself against (what I always assume will be) another failure. But when I am able to be "in the moment", I gain much happiness from the small pleasures or successes that do come my way.

serenity said...

I think it all comes down to your definition of happiness. Regardless of whatever issue it is, infertility, pregnancy loss - life is full of good and bad. The Yin and the Yang.

I guess I've always seen happiness as the Yang and sadness as the Yin. Somewhere in between, there's balance. And the trick to coping with stress (be it negative - a BFN, a miscarriage, or positive - a pregnancy after 2.5 years of IF, a new house, etc) is finding the balance between the happy and the fear.

Because, really, it gets exhausting to ride the rollercoaster - from hope and despair and back again.

So yes - I agree. There is a danger in focusing on just sadness. It's no way to live life; it robs you of enjoyment of things which should make you happy in the moment.

However, IMO... it's also dangerous to focus only on the happy. At least for me, anyway. I need to have a balanced view - a sort of "live in the moment, be cautiously optimistic" position - in order to cope well.

Because if it all goes to shit, the memory of how blissfully and ignorantly happy I was is almost harder for me to bear than the loss itself.

You have to have both. Happiness and fear. Sadness and joy. It's all about seeing and accepting both, and understanding both.

I'm rambling now. So I'll stop. :)

Fertilize Me said...

excellent excellent -and exacly how i feel about my upcoming IUI's as I am happy to be able to try them and sad that I am having to try them.. They could work, they could not .. I am trying to be balanced and rational to help me move through life more grounded. Does any of that make sense? I agree with serenity to the T. Nicely discussed

Deb said...



Wow, just Wow!

I can't gather any intelligible thoughts on this right now.

Karaoke Diva said...

Thanks, Mel. I really need this post right now.

Artblog said...

I so agree with Serenity when she says "Because if it all goes to shit, the memory of how blissfully and ignorantly happy I was is almost harder for me to bear than the loss itself."...

When I lost Gabrielle, I had spent those six months with so much hope and good expectation, the loss was not only traumatic but emotionally frightening. It made the mourning period harder to get through.

Its easy to advise newly pregnant after loss, mother to be's to keep the faith and enjoy the moment, its the first thing I would say too, but in reality, I know keeping a slight distance is better than being all airy fairy about the expected good outcome because the knockdown (should it come) is a real bastard to cope with. It can literally terrify and shock to death. That's how I felt when they told me at the 21 week scan.

I've lost too many to not be slightly cautious, even more than slightly cautious, I'd feel like a fool, if this all ended tomorrow, having spent the last 9 weeks buying pregnancy clothes or even, heaven forbid, baby clothes, already!!!

Each to their own, of course, but my own wouldn't dare expect anything but the unexpected.

Artblog said...

Having said all that, it's important for me to add that I take immense pleasure in the fact that I managed to get knocked up at all!

However, that's as far as the joy goes, for the moment, because I'm absolutely positive that although I remain almost depressingly guarded and pessimistic about the outcome, when that glorious day comes when I'm finally able to give birth, all negativity will be forgotten to be replaced by instant "home building" filled with love, gratitude and divine emotional elation.

chicklet said...

Wow, very nice post. Particularly about the dogs - we are SOOOOOO those dogs. Jesus.

Kristen said...

Awesome post, as usual, my dear Mel!

I found that with my second loss, I was very guarded. Yes, I spread the news that we were expecting but deep down, I knew it could end as it did the first time. I desperately wanted to have a different outcome but I kept myself from enjoying it. I bought a pregnancy journal but never could write it in. It remains blank and is now sitting in my office on a bookshelf gathering dust.

I didn't expect it to happen but at the same time, I couldn't allow myself to feel the joy. I felt like I should try and prepare myself for the worst. And, well, I realize that no matter what, there is nothing I can do to prepare for loss. It is just instinctual for me to want to protect myself from further despair.

And to answer the ultimate question, I always thought it was better to have loved and lost. But now after losing two babies, I feel differently. I would much rather have never suffered through the pain seeing them and watching them leave my body than if they had never been there. At least then I wouldn't know what I was missing.

Kim said...

I am seriously in love with your writing ability!

I am sometimes the builder who continues no matter what but other times I just say "The hell with it! Let the storm blow everything away." It depends what kind of setback I have just faced. I would love to be the constant builder, never bending because of the weather but it's so damn hard.

And regards to the hope ("Sure, we say we have hope") I struggle with the idea that I either talk myself into having hope or that hope talks me into thinking something good is going to happen. Make any sense? The chicken or the egg debate....

SarahSews said...

Mel, I feel like you wrote this for me today. So thank you.

Despite all the years of sadness and tears, when those two lines showed up I was happy. Shocked, but happy. And I reveled in it for days and days, sure that it was finally our turn. A trip to the ER didn't even sway me.

It wasn't until this morning, when the doc said the betas were dropping that I gave in and let it go. In the meantime I had two weeks of being pregnant, happy as a little clam that we might have made a baby. I'll take that over relentless hopelessness, the years and years of negatives, any day.

bonniekay said...

OK, I know before I write this that it's going to contradict itself, but here goes.

On the one day I was pregnant, we went to our Unitarian church and the minister preached on hope. He said much of what you're saying here, Mel. That depriving ourselves of the highs doesn't protect us from the lows. It just deprives us of the highs. It makes a lot of sense to me.

On the other hand, I'm very glad that I lost the pregnancy so early, if I was going to lose it. My partner lost one weeks and weeks later than that, and it was much more devastating.

And I'm glad that I've not been pregnant again since then, if they would have been losses. I'd much rather not get pregnant than miscarry.

So I agree with many of the comments here and maybe with you yourself, Mel. It makes a lot of sense to me that we should enjoy what happiness comes our way as much as we can, and not be afraid to hope. But given the choice (as if!), I'd much rather not hope than hope and be crushed. I'd much rather avoid the highs AND the lows, I guess.

On the other other hand (?), if I really meant that I'd stop trying to get pregnant.

I am working on enjoying the highs and keeping my fear of the lows at bay.

Ally said...

This is an amazing post. Thank you for so beautifully articulating what I can't say myself.

I find myself full of hope for getting pregnant and then I try and squash it as soon as possible for fear of jinxing the future (magical thinking, if you will) and for fear of the pain when I get another BFN.

I also find myself future-tripping about what may happen if I am to get pregnant. It's difficult for me to breathe, live in the moment, and let tomorrow unroll as it should. Balancing the joy and the terror, the hope and the fear has not been easy for me in my IF life.

Tuesday said...

That was very inspiring.

After trying so hard and then losing the first one, now we're pacing and nervous and not telling anyone about this second one... though you do make an awesome point and I think I will be announcing it shortly to the rest of the world (not my infertility blog) because we ARE happy and we ARE loving this no matter what the result.

Holding to old habits, though, I'll be waiting until next week for the ultrasound to confirm what I know is correct.

Bea said...

Much better to love and lose. Every time.

But the thing with happiness is not so much holding it deliberately at bay, it's the getting kicked so often you stop believing you have something to be happy about. Positive pregnancy test? Yeah, and what's so great about that? Seems like a big mountain of impending doom. I mean, what else could it possibly lead to?

It's not that I'm trying to protect myself *in case* there's a storm, it's like there's a disaster warning out already, but I just can't quite hear what type it's going to be.


r_is_moody said...

Mel, that was beautifully written, and at just the time I needed it.

I have told myself many times that when I do get pg I will enjoy every moment of it. I have not control over the outcome so why not have some happiness as long as I can. But this seems to get harder and harder the more losses.

With my loss in April I was sure that the first two were just bad luck and this one would stick. But again my house came crashing down.

My desire is with my upcoming cycles and possible pg I will have hope and I will soak in everyday that I get to be pg. But I know it is going to be so hard.

nancy said...

It's one of those posts that I will have to think about before I can even begin to come up with my answer. I have already used up all my own brain cells on my own post today.

I'll get back to you on this one.

serenity said...

And yes, I agree with the comment. Many times we mourn before there's something to mourn. I've second-guessed decisions that I haven't even made yet.

It's only human to try and protect yourself from hurt. And with infertility, you KNOW how much can go wrong. And you've been hurting for so long, that you learn to expect bad news.

So yes, I totally agree with you when you talk about trying to actively focus on the joy too, to not push it away because of the fear. Somehow both joy and fear can coexist. I KNOW that there's got to be a place of balance in between them, where I acknowledge both but am not captive to it.

How can I get there? THAT I'm not so sure about. Fodder for later posts, I suppose...

Samantha said...

All of us suffering from infertility have been on the wrong side of the statistics. We can't get pregnant, we've had losses, these are not what the majority of women have to face. It's easy to get despondent and not consider the other side of the statistics, how things could go right.

I agree with you, that holding hope at bay doesn't make the disappointment any less devestating, but I do also think it's important to go into situations with a real understanding of the risks. I just had my transfer for a FET. I know that with my clinic, these things work out 25% of the time. That's not a great success rate. 3/4 of the time they fail. But one in four chances is something, and it's more than I had before. At the same time, I'm certainly not considering this a done deal. Will I be disappointed if it doesn't work? Of course! Will I be shocked and surprised? No.

nancy said...

This sentance really caught me. "Even if it is not our own history, we know the histories of other stirrup queens." And this is exactly how I'll feel if I ever do get the second line again. I ~will~ be happy, that is certain. And I'll even share it early. But I'll NEVER expect a baby due to what I know others have gone through. Even at 39 weeks pregnant, I know I'm not guarenteed the baby. But I will hope for it. And even plan on it. I simply won't resign myself to it.

Vee said...

Thank you Mel for writing what I have never been able to.

Perfectly written, as always.

Pamela Jeanne said...

This was so me this week. Living in the moment, content and then "a remembrance of how things often go wrong bring down the small pieces of house I've managed to erect."

Thank, YOU, for reminding me that I'm not alone in feeling this way. Sending you some love, Mel, and wishing you happiness.

Julia said...

I am having a tough time with the whole happiness/positive psychology movement. Mostly, I think, because people use it to tell me to "focus on the good" or somesuch. I am sure that if I ever get pregnant again, I will have a chorus of well-meaning people telling me to concentrate on feeling good about this pregnancy. But that won't make the baby live. And being terrified won't make the baby die. Except that that is exactly what is implied, whether the people who say it mean to or not. And having people tell me how I should feel won't do anything but upset me.