I sit here in Fitzroy Gardens, on a balmy afternoon, breathing in the deep green. When I have felt lost or emotionally and physically barren, I have come here. When I have needed to suck in the oxygen, feel connected to life and living and it’s cycles, I have stopped and sat. Amongst the trees, the weather, the rustling, the air.
Nearly 41 years ago I was born in a room overlooking the gardens. Now I sit and contemplate the decision to give up using my own eggs to reproduce life, after two and a half years of trying through IVF. It was five and a half years ago while in my longest relationship that I decided it was time to try. That relationship ended. A new chance began with IVF. I don’t know what the next steps will be.
This park reminds me of the excitement of my first appointments with Melbourne IVF. The feelings of power and freedom I had at being lucky enough to access this technology. It reminds me of sitting and calming myself before procedures: the egg collections, the embryo transfers and the endoscopy. I have walked through it with mum, and with a friend. I have run through it. But mostly I have sat and just breathed in the life.
The park reminds me of two years ago, after a pregnancy failed, jumping off a train at Jolimont while on my way to work, because I could not control my sorrow. The positive pregnancy test was several days prior. It had been the day before Mother’s Day. I celebrated then with friends and family, who were over the moon. I was a little numb and nervous after four failed attempts, but went along for the ride. The due date was 17 January 2013 – my lucky year! I had spent a whole year going through IVF procedures. Of course I should celebrate. Now was my time.
But the pregnancy ended. First with cramps, then a blood test and the phone call: ‘Your hormone levels have dropped. It’s gone.’ It wasn’t even long enough to be called a miscarriage. Science can sometimes miss the point though. To someone who has spent so many hours, injected so many hormones, spent tens of thousands of dollars and lived in hope for so long, it’s a fucking miscarriage.
Five days later, my sister told me she was pregnant, due just before I had been. Words can’t explain what we both went through in that single moment – except my love for her and, now, my niece is that much stronger for having gone through it. Love can and does grow through the sharing of pain, all the time. And so did an appreciation for life created, by whatever means.
The day I jumped off the train I had been scanning Facebook. Another friend’s pregnancy was announced. It was alongside the daily reports of the progress of other pregnancies. It was too much. I was shaking with the energy it took to hold back tears. I ran into the park, not caring about the stares. It was now 9:30 am and there were mothers with prams, and children playing. I stopped. I sat, defeated. I howled. The park was full of life. Why couldn’t I have some?
That life and care did come, though, in the form of a friend who returned my desperate call. ‘Go home. Call your manager. If you can, tell her what has happened. Take two weeks off. You need to process this.’ I did. Well, I took a week. I will never forget the generosity and support from my manager’s support.
I don’t really know what the bill comes to now. I will soon find out by doing my tax returns. More than half the money I have used has not been mine but has been lovingly donated or loaned. When I began, I thought the measly $12,000 of savings I had would be plenty. ‘It’s really not that expensive,’ I said. ‘There is a one in three chance each attempt will work. I should be pregnant by the end of the year, with money left over.’ Ha! So naive.
The clouds are clearing here. I look up at the cathedral, the other place I have attended, walked past, felt a warm glow from, lit a candle in. It is the glow that comes from hoping that maybe there is some meaning to all of this. Right now I don’t feel this hope is significantly different to the zealous hope we have in science’s ability to create life. And it is zealous.
We, society, science, really don’t understand what goes into the creation of life and it is dangerous to think we do. It is dangerous for every woman and couple who pay for these services and cling desperately to their dreams, while mortgaging their current and often previously rich lives. So much money is now gambled on IVF science that loan sharks are coming in to make profits. The result for too many who attempt IVF is not only failure, but tens of thousands of dollars of debt as well as broken relationships, lost jobs and emotional wreckage.
There are books and articles (see here and here and here and here and here) and documentaries now being produced on the effects of repeated attempts of IVF on the women and couples who go through it. It has been well documented for around fifteen years that the emotional effect is not dissimilar to going through chemotherapy or other severe medical treatments. One researcher, Allyson Bradow, argues that, for some, the symptoms are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder – that is, similar to serious threats to your life or the lives of those around you. She argues that the removal of a major life expectation, such as reproduction, in the course of repeated cycles of hope and disappointment, create the same results as PSTD. Her research is convincing.
How have the giant IVF corporations responded? Well, by fudging figures to start with. The real figure for me at the age that I started? It was actually about 1 in 5 per attempt, not the 1 in 3 I was told. I was also not told that it takes most women two full egg collections rounds, or 6 to 8 (or more) embryo transfer attempts before it works.
If I had known, I would have planned my life and finances differently. I would have made different decisions.
Now at 41 it is little more than 1 in 10. As the specialist I now trust says, ‘Your uterus is great. You can bear a child for decades to come. It is just about the quality of the genetic material in your eggs.’
Time’s a bitch. In each of my last two egg collection attempts we have only fertilised and transferred one egg/embryo. One of these attempts costs $5,000 after Medicare rebate; $10,000 for the two, $20,000 upfront. I was not told the low success rates were likely when I started. And I am politically switched-on, grew up in a health sciences family, am always cynical when it comes to money making enterprises, and ask endless questions. Yet I have found myself constantly surprised by the new facts coming to light.
In this I am not alone. And the consequences are more than the money spent.
In recent weeks I have felt like I have been bulldozed, chopped down, ground into the ground, destroyed. During periods of treatment, the focus on medical procedures and appointments and giant bills, the sometimes twice daily injections, the total focus on your health (I have also spent thousands on acupuncture and naturopathy) … it overwhelms all else.
In her 2013, Miriam Zoll describes going through IVF as like a pregnancy. You are constantly imagining the future child, preparing your life, not to mention eating and sleeping as if you are pregnant. Miriam’s unsuccessful IVF pregnancy was over four years. Many women go through more than this. It is an inconceivably long pregnancy, often with no results.
We don’t yet really know the effects of the hormones. The last failed attempt sent me into a downward emotional spiral that was deeply physical. At one point I thought the only way out would be drugs. I was lucky enough to not be working full time, to be able to rest instead. I know that others do not always cope so well. And, you know, drugs probably would have saved me some pain.
We do also know that while the hormones aren’t likely to create cancer, they may exacerbate cancers that already exist , even tiny, as yet undiscovered cancers. And it pays to remember all the errors medical science have made in the past, especially when there is such an enormous potential for profit, as there is currently in reproductive technologies.
So with the last two failed attempts, and my closest friend and sometimes lover leaving the country, I felt like the life had been sucked out of me. I had no more energy to give. None within me. My faith in science, my hope, my stability, my life plans, my health, all dissolved.
Today, sitting in the park, learning to accept that I will no longer use my own eggs, I feel the life being sucked back into me. The crisp air of the park, the warmth of the late afternoon sun, the chirp of birds over head. Life. It’s a funny thing.
From this end are new beginnings. It’s trite, I know, but no less true for being so. Sitting among the life in this park, thinking of those around me who are alive and who nourish me, I find a gratitude for the privilege of sharing life with those close to me.
I remember my niece. I met her over a year ago. It was after a night of nightmares for her, for my sister, for me, a bizarre and confusing horror story of dreams set off by the knowledge my sister was finally in labour. Yet the next day, holding her in my arms, a calm fell over me. And I fell in love. It was life and love out of pain and fear. Such beautiful life. And not from planning or gambling on science or medication: from a coincidence of happy and unhappy circumstances that my sister and I will now forever partly share.
In all the uncertainties of life, and certainly of IVF, these are the certainties I now know and cherish: that life and love is everywhere, and sometimes you just have to stop, take a seat in a park, the hand of a friend, or the embrace of a little one, to feel it, to know it. And it is this that IVF and science can never provide.