It's National Infertility Awareness Week, which is a great thing. Despite much progress, there is still work to be done to help the general public understand that infertility is a medical illness and deserves to be treated as such. Like other illnesses, it should be covered by health insurance. In addition, raising public awareness that infertility is not a result of one's feelings ("Just relax!) or one's choices ("Maybe you should have started sooner!") would be extremely helpful to those experiencing infertility now or in the future.
Still, I can't help but be struck with the irony that although the general public needs increased awareness of infertility issues, those personally struggling with it are usually all too aware of their infertility. Indeed, one of the hardest things about infertility is that it can completely take over your life--psychologically, cognitively, and practically. In this post, I'll discuss some of the psychological implications that arise when infertility is the major focus of your life, and offer some strategies about how to cope with this vexing problem.
During my first IVF cycle, I was overwhelmed by the incessant nature of treatment. Not only was I worried and anxious all the time, but the sheer physical tasks of giving myself several shots a day, and of getting to all my early morning appointments to a clinic an hour away, exhausted me. It was very difficult to fit in, much less concentrate on, that pesky job I had at the time. I don't think I spoke to my husband or friends of much else other than infertility, IVF, and how much Chicago traffic can suck (trust me--a lot). I remember joking that I had turned into an "infertilibot" and was no longer an actual person. Unfortunately, I don't think my experience was in any way unique. Almost all of the clients I have worked with have felt similarly during their cycles, especially the during first one--because everything is new, it take more mental energy to understand and process the experience.
Many times, clients have asked me how to prevent their infertility treatment from taking over their life. My stock answer is invariably disappointing, because to be honest, I think that to some extent, infertility treatment taking over your life is inevitable. Having it as your nearly sole focus is the "cost of doing business" in this situation. No matter how you look at it, the treatment it complicated, and it requires a great deal of careful attention to make sure you are giving yourself all the correct medications at the correct times. Further, it takes time and effort to follow all of your bloodwork and ultrasound results so that you can understand the treatment decisions that are made. In addition to being complicated, infertility treatment takes up a lot of time. There are frequent injections, appointments, and phone calls. So even without any emotions thrown in the mix, you have all the makings of a difficult and stressful time.
Of course, it's very rare to not have a lot of feelings about infertility treatment--so you have the added task of managing your emotions. To make it more difficult, these emotions are usually involve sensitive issues such as self-esteem, social comparison, and feelings about your body. With no extra shots or appointments, managing your emotions about these issues would be more than enough for one person--but in infertility treatment, you must manage both the practical and emotional considerations.
Although I paint a rather dire picture of the infertility "lifestyle", there are a few things you can do to make things a bit easier on yourself. By having realistic expectations, working to prevent your self-esteem from being damaged, and using distraction, you can make this situation more comfortable.
Have realistic expectations
Given the requirements of infertility treatment, in order to do it well, it must be a large focus of your energy. That's why I think it is important to be realistic about what you can expect from yourself during treatment. It's unfair to expect yourself to sail through IVF without stress, fatigue, and the occasional meltdown. Many times, I have seen clients beoome quite upset with themselves during a cycle because they can't perform to their normal level of excellence at work or at home. This only makes an already difficult situation worse. Recognizing that you can only
do so much takes the pressure off of you. I often tell clients that their infertility treatment, because of the importance of having children in their lives, has to be their central focus. All other activities are lower down on the priority level. That doesn't mean that you should stop showing up for work, or that you should let the dishes pile up for weeks, but it does mean that you may need to just do the bare minimum to get by for a short period--knowing you will catch up when it's over.
Protect your self-esteem
Infertility treatment can be very hard on self-esteem, as I've discussed at length in a few other blog posts. That's why I believe it's important, especially during an active treatment cycle, to have the following mantra: "It's a medical illness, and not a commentary on me as a person or future parent." I found myself needing to repeat this to myself over and over during my many treatment adventures. For instance, if you get a disappointing result, it can start to feel like you've "failed", even though you followed all the instructions, went to all the appointments, and did everything you could to ensure success. Keeping in mind that infertility treatment, at it's core, involves medical issues that we often can't control, can be comforting in these situations.
Distraction is your friend
Sometimes, the only way to get your mind off of infertility during treatment is to provide yourself with frequent mental "mini-vacations", whether they take the form of going to the movies, reading books, or fun activities with your partner or friends. It's important to remember that because you are preoccupied, it will be more difficult to distract yourself than normal. That's why you need really, really good distractions--things that are special treats, and things that you absolutely love. Although such distractions can be short-lived (because you have to do that next round of shots at 8 pm, for example) they can be emotionally replenishing. Additionally, they give you something to look forward to, and help pass the time until the cycle is over.
Although being in infertility treatment is difficult and can be all-consuming, if you must continue in treatment, it does get easier. As someone who has actually lost count of the number of IVF transfers I've done--is it 8 or is it 9?--I can say with confidence that the coping skills you develop during the first cycles definitely help you out in later ones. As long as you set realistic expectations for yourself and your cycle, you will survive it. Infertility treatment doesn't last forever, and before long, you will be able to focus on other things.