This blog addresses various emotional aspects of experiencing infertility. It is written by a clinical psychologist who specializes in infertility counseling. Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your journey!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When you and your body are on the "outs": negative body feelings and infertility

Infertility is, at its base, a medical condition. Whatever the cause, there is some part or parts of your body that aren't functioning as intended. Not only is this difficult from a pragmatic perspective, it is also difficult from a psychological one. Suddenly, you and your body are at odds--you want it to do something, and it can't or won't! Of course, your body is actually you--and it's probably trying as hard as it can--so this can cause a psychological dilemma. While this psychological dilemma is present in many illnesses, it can be especially intense during infertility treatment because reproduction is such a primal and important emotional issue. It's important to think about these feelings because being angry, frustrated, and disappointed with your physical self all the time is not a fun way to live.

Trust me, I know this from personal experience. My rocky relationship with my ovaries started to go sour during my early attempts at treatment, and took a very sharp downward turn during my first IVF cycle. Despite all the medication, despite all the positive imagery I conjured, and despite all my mental cajoling, it soon became clear--my ovaries were slackers. I remember one of the IVF nurses yelling at me in frustration, saying, "You are only 32. You should have five follicles up and down on each side. What is the problem with your ovaries?" As if I knew, and as if I could somehow convince them to act differently. Later, I was at a restaurant ordering dinner, when a poor unsuspecting waiter, trying to be mindful of my dietary requirements, asked me, "Are eggs a problem?" My eyes welled up with tears as I told him that yes, indeed, eggs were a HUGE problem. I don't remember much of the rest of that evening, perhaps because after the waiter fled in horror, I was served a generous amount of free martinis by the manager of the restaurant. Now, I wouldn't really recommend martinis as a long term coping strategy, but my point is that I (and to some extent the IVF treatment staff) started viewing my internal organs as a huge impediment to my happiness.

Plus, if you are female, your infertility related anti-body feelings can join force with your more general anti-body feelings. There are so many industries that exploit our negative self-images; our bodies are presented as things that need to be changed--perfumed, covered with makeup, botoxed, and made smaller.
Combine this with infertility, and its pretty easy to build up quite a bit of self-loathing.

Self-loathing is pretty bad just on it's own, but when you are going through a stressful time (like infertility treatment), it can make it harder for you to cope. In a prior blog post, I discussed the common tendency of people to blame themselves for their infertility. Body based-self loathing plus karmic self-loathing can lead to depression and other sorts of chronic unhappiness.

So, if you are finding yourself at odds with your physical self, what can you do to heal the rift?

1. Acknowledge your feelings

I think the first step is to try to figure out exactly how you feel about your body during the infertility treatment process. If you are finding yourself feeling grouchy and tense with yourself all the time and don't know why, one root cause may be your feelings about your reproductive system. Don't expect your feelings to be rational or even make sense. Just acknowledging them can provide some element of relief.

2. Try to develop empathy with your body

If you had a sick friend who couldn't get out of bed, you wouldn't go over to their house and yell at them to get up and run a marathon, right? Well, many times that's exactly what we are expecting our bodies to do during infertility treatment. And if our bodies were good at this stuff, we wouldn't be in treatment in the first place. Even though you feel and look like the picture of health, you most likely have some medical condition or disease causing your problems. Keeping this in mind can help you move from a point of conflict to a point of empathy with your body.

3. Focus on what your body CAN do.

A few months after the "restaurant" incident, I went to the optometrist for my yearly checkup. I was surprised when, while examining my eyes,he told me that I had beautiful retinas and foveas. Apparently they were perfect, just like a teenager's. Learning from the last experience, I suppressed my urge to say that it was odd my eyes looked so young as I had the ovaries of a 50 year old. It was a small thing, but it made me feel a little better about my body. Okay, so good retinas and foveas may not be much, but seeing is important--my body wasn't failing me at everything. I started thinking about all the good things it could do--carry stuff, walk and hike, laugh, and eat ice cream. Remembering all the good things your body has done for you lately can help you come to terms with what it hasn't been able to do for you.

If you are finding yourself at odds with your physical sum or parts, remember, although this is an understandable response,it isn't conducive to long-term happiness. Developing some empathy for your body, and recognizing it's strengths, may help you resolve this issue for the long-term.


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