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Monday, February 11, 2008

Alice in Wandingland

Or how is a camping trip like infertility?

Back when I was a camp counselor, I went on the camping trip from hell. A child began vomiting while we were on the bus going to the camp site. We thought it was motion sickness, but when it wasn't stopping long after we had reached the camp site, another counselor and myself hitchhiked with the boy to the nearest hospital. It took three hours for his parents to drive out to West Virginia. We were planning on only having the head counselor stay with him, but the boy asked if I could stay too. So I did all the things a Mommy would do: I stroked his head until he fell asleep, I didn't become too squeamish about being covered in vomit, I worried.

The vomiting boy was just the tip of the iceberg. We returned to the site to find out that a child who couldn't swim had gone out wading in the river and panicked, tripping and falling face down in the water while he tried to scramble out. I spent my first half hour back at the site holding this crying child (what's a little snot when your shirt is already coated with dried vomit?). It rained while we were hiking one day, filling the food tent with water and swelling the hamburger buns into waterlogged pancakes. An electrical storm broke out while we were canoeing and we had to pull to the bank and walk back to the site with the kids--through two miles of wild cow manure. In the rain.

Someone was filming us exiting the bus when we returned a few days later to the day camp. On the video tape, you see the first kid get off the bus and shout, "it was awful!" The next kid appears on the screen staring mournfully at the camera before disappearing off-screen. Then you see me. I hop down the steps beaming and say, "this was the best trip I've ever been on. The best. Ever!"

I couldn't really describe this experience to anyone except the facts: "I went to the hospital with the boy" was easy enough to say. But I couldn't convey what it felt like to know that for three hours, I essentially mothered that boy. I could tell people that we exited the river and walked through cow manure, but I couldn't really convey how it felt to turn around in my canoe and lock eyes with another counselor and know from my head nod that I was temporarily parenting these kids. Bringing them to safety. Despite the fact that I was about to make them walk through poop.

It's not every trip you take, but sometimes there are hours, days, maybe weeks where your mind is still back in that life changing experience but you know that you'll never be able to bring someone else there with you in the figurative sense. It's the Wonderland Phenomenon that Alice experienced when she returned home and it's the Wandingland Phenomenon experienced by those undergoing treatments or pursing adoption.

It's that sensation that comes when the experience you are having is forever separating you from everyone else in your world. You'll return from the experience, but you'll be changed and that change cannot be explained to anyone who did not experience it with you.

Which is what happened to poor Alice.

When she returns from Wonderland, she tells her sister about the White Rabbit and the March Hare and the trial over the tarts. After Alice runs off to tea, her sister continues to sit under the tree, trying to place herself inside the story:
So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality--the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds--the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep- bells, and the Queen's shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy--and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all thy other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard--while the lowing of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle's heavy sobs.

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.
The reality is that with so many experiences, if you haven't been to the place or met the people, you can't truly understand. You can hear the story, but you can't feel the intensity of the moment or the connection. Even Alice's sister admits that the moment she opens her eyes, she'll be out of Wonderland, while Alice will forever carry the memory of that dream (or was it a dream?) with her. I think this is true for many many crises in life as well as emotionally-intense events.

Infertility, of course, is the ultimate example of the Wandingland Phenomenon. Treatments are like falling into a different land where everyone speaks a different language of abbreviations and holds an obsession over numbers. Though I haven't adopted, I'm fairly certain that the adoption world has a similar feel of a Wonderland experience especially when you return home with your child and you can't explain to anyone the enormous feelings you are holding in your heart from the trip. And on the other end of the spectrum, how can another person ever understand what you went through in regards to loss?

Going through treatments made me feel like I was leading two lives--this normal surface one that everyone saw and the secret one down the rabbit hole where my RE was the White Rabbit and my sonographer was the March Hare and the insurance people were like the White Queen chanting, "jam tomorrow and jam yesterday--but never jam today."

It didn't help that my clinic had an office on the campus where I worked in the summer. Every once in a while, when I didn't have time to make it to the main office for blood work, I would walk past the student union where I ate lunch and turn the corner and be facing the building that held the clinic. How trippy is that? I would drop in for blood work, race back to my building to lecture about the Amish for an hour and a half, slip into the hallway to hear my test results and then jump into another hour and a half discussion on etymology.

Unlike trips to distant places that remain distant, going through infertility is like walking through life with Wandingland in a fifth dimension that only you can see. It's like a sci fi movie where the protagonist can see through the looking glass into Wandingland on every surface, but everyone else is clueless about this other land. And the worst part is that you can't really explain anything about Wandingland and have a person who is firmly in the real world understand the depth of those experiences.

Infertility is this bizarre adventure that is mostly terrifying and partly empowering. And like all travel, trying to conceive or adopt is not a state where you live permanently. Which means you "come home." While coming home means that you're on the road to resolving childlessness and perhaps infertility, you return changed. You can never explain the White Rabbit or the Red Queen to anyone and have them understand exactly how it felt to meet them and you sure as hell can't really explain what was running through your head each time you waited to be wanded. Who can understand except someone who was there why a moment was so incredibly poignant since these experiences defy words?

If infertility feels like a giant trip, it is because you put your life on hold when you're down the rabbit hole. You can't help it no matter how hard you try to wrest back control of your cycle, you need to take that into consideration when making plans. You end up in this land that you really didn't want to visit. But along the way, you meet these other people on the journey. And you find yourself writing these long posts about finding this community because you're so grateful to have someone else to talk to about what you're seeing and feeling. Even though the whole time, you're longing for home, you also know that once this trip ends, you'll return home and find that you can't put the experience into words. At least not words that anyone else will be able to use to understand the depth of the emotions. Sad doesn't really capture the despair of a failed cycle. Regret doesn't really capture the anger that accompanies a late diagnosis. Even ecstasy can't really capture the feeling of seeing two lines after you've waited so long to see them.

In time, the Wandingland Phenomenon fades a bit. I'm sure Alice felt this strange sensation of discordance when she tried to explain Wonderland to everyone else and was met with glazed expressions and a bunch of head nods. She probably went through a period of frustration. While she didn't want everyone she loved to go through the fear she felt when falling down into the rabbit hole and not knowing how she'd get out, there is a human need to connect with other people. Feeling that wall between those who have been to Wandingland and those who have not can be painful.

Finally, I'm sure Alice got to a space where she could look back at Wonderland, accept that she had this adventure that changed her, and know that others would get there after her and she'd be there to talk about the White Rabbit when they returned.

And my apologies that Wandingland so blatantly draws its name from treatments even if I'm trying to speak about loss and adoption too. But's just too good. Wonderland. Wandingland. Popping my head out of the rabbit hole.


Elizabeth said...

awesome post. Love the caption :-)

JJ said...

I think a lot of us relate to the Alice in Wonderland (er, Wandingland) theory as a whole during this whole journey--hell, my first post was titled "into the rabbit hole" You brought a lot of head nods as I read through this awesome post!

Michell said...

more head nodding. I agree completely.

Fertilize Me said...

Here Here Great Job!

Meghan said...

Fantastic post. And very timely for me. So many of my family seem to think that now that we've gotten our 2 lines, that our infertility is gone, that I still don't think about watching the sun rise at the clinic, etc, etc. You're so right, no one but a fellow visitor to Wandingland could ever understand

Jess said...

LOL at that pic!!!!

Jackie said...

a fascinating and gorgeous post. I hadn't thought of it quite like that but now I can't see how I didn't! Thanks for that insight.

MoMo said...

This is such a great post!! I can totally relate!!

Lori said...

And you know what they say.

"One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small"

Or was it shots? Or homestudies?

Samantha said...

I love the analogy!

littleangelkisses said...

I just cannot agree more. I too nodded my head as I read. The thing is that even when you return home, you are changed....

Julia said...

It's a good analogy except, I think, when it comes to bereaved parents. A year in I don't think I will ever fully return from the rabbit hole. I think I will always live partly there, and one of the things that really concerns me looking forward is that people would expect me to return once we have a subsequent living child. I am not looking forward to explaining, time and time again, that it doesn't work like that. At least not for me.

kml said...

Wow this was an amazing post. Such a neat way to describe the feelings and trials we go through. *nods head in agreement*

Bea said...

A very good way to describe it. And also nicely photoshopped.

I wonder if people will expect me to be "back to the old B" when all this is over? I wonder what they'll think when it doesn't happen?


Ms. Infertile said...

Thanks for this great post. I completely agree and was nodding along through the enitre post too.

Rachael said...

What you're describing is what in Theology/Religious Experience is known as a rite of passage. Religious rites take a person from one stage in life to another, through a stage of liminality, and the person is rarely unchanged at the end. Think of engagement - once you and Josh decided you were getting married you ceased to be 'Melissa, single girl' and became 'Melissa, engaged to Josh'. That was your stage of liminality. The wedding was your end stage, when you became 'Melissa, wife of Josh'. You're changed by the end of the rite. Or think of Jewish death rituals - the stage of liminality is the funeral and sitting shiva, and by the end life has changed, because someone has died. Liminality can be a bitch of a place to be in. I know from my own experience of engagement - 4.5 years! It's a bitch especially if you can't see an end point which, sadly, not a lot of us can with any certainty in this game.

Vacant Uterus said...

Mel, this post made me cry, especially: "Regret doesn't really capture the anger that accompanies a late diagnosis." Oh, yes.

I didn't know what to do before Wandingland. And now I'm not alone. That means everything.


xavier2001 said...

Wow, this post really spoke to me, maybe b/c I was a camp counselor in my youth as well :). I think I am in that frustrated place now, yes, I have "overcome" infertilty and am so grateful for my children, but I still feel like an infertile. People expect me just to go on now like none of the infertility or miscarriage ever happened, and it's hard for me because it still weighs on my mind.

Great analogy!

loribeth said...

OK, now I have Jefferson Airplane running through my head (especially after Lori's comment). ; ) What a great analogy! And what a long strange trip it's been, too....

KatieM said...

I was smiling and nodding while reading this post; laughing at the irony that this is exactly how I feel lately and although my rabbit hole is different than your rabbit hole or anyone else's rabbit hole....we all understand the feeling of falling in the hole to begin with.

Then I got this image of a field full of holes with groundhogs popping out of them, and it made me laugh some more (in a funny, ha ha sort of way)