I gasp when she says it, barely looking up from her plate.
“I think we’re doing another IVF cycle,” she says, and my stomach drops. How can she seriously consider another one after all they’ve been through? I stop eating and look at her, and she looks back down. “Really? Do you have something new to try?” I ask with fake enthusiasm.
It’s deja vu all over again.
How do you support a friend who's addicted to the one thing that keeps breaking her heart?
An IVF development is a Siren song to my friend. It calls her from the darkness and ignites a new glimmer of hope. A test, a strategy, or a promising study beckons her back with cautious optimism. So far, they always end the same.
One positive test after another, one exciting heartbeat on the ultrasound, and then one moment of spotting that turns into a flood. With every drop she bleeds, her spirit drains away.
All of the wonder becomes despair, and excitement turns to doom. Loss. Failure. “I’m fine,” she says. “We’re fine. It is what it is.”
I understand why she does it. I am a mother of three children that came easily to me, and I’m eternally grateful. Without my family I would long for the missing piece, just like she does. I see her desperation to become a mother, in any way that it might happen. IVF, embryo adoption, classical adoption…they’ve traveled all the paths to parenthood, all of which have ended without a healthy baby.
The fertility team says it’s bad luck and statistics, and eventually one will stick if they just keep trying. So they keep trying.
I don’t know if she can see herself the way I see her. She’s translucent now, hollow. When those first two lines appeared on the stick she was excited and terrified, like many new mothers-to-be, and then shocked and perplexed when it suddenly was no longer. Just like that. That’s how miscarriage is, everything is totally fine until it simply isn’t fine anymore. No warning, and no explanation.
The doctors told her miscarriage was normal and to keep going, so they did. In no time at all there were two lines on yet another stick. And then there weren’t. And then two lines again. But like the others before, the bleeding came and no amount of hope, prayer, or medication stopped it.
According to the IVF algorithm success calculator, they had an excellent chance of conceiving but the embryos were few and far between. Genetic testing showed that many were abnormal. Still, they implanted the healthy ones one at a time. Each time they had success, and then each one ended in a loss.
We call it a pregnancy loss, but she calls it a failure.
She’s failing at fertility, she says. She bears the responsibility for every loss until she’s proven otherwise. She jokes that this is some conspiracy from God to shame her for her flaws. Instead of feeling grief, she feels blame. And shame. And guilt.
We didn’t get many eggs. Failure.
Our embryos aren’t developing on time. Failure.
Only one of them is genetically normal. Failure.
It’s painful to watch her erode, her miscarriages corrosive to her happiness. The light in her eyes has dimmed, and when she’s there she’s still missing. She’s a shell of herself, like paper mache. She nods and smiles and jokes, but behind it you can see the shadow of her infertility, sitting there like a heavy-handed chaperone, reminding her every moment of her failings.
With every treatment cycle, we mounted a campaign of positivity to cheer her on. Surely, this time will be the one. We waited with bated breath, praying that no bleeding would come and we would get to the delivery room. And then we all grieved each loss, feeling the weight of them drag her down.
“Hello, I’m Mrs. Infertility.” That’s how she sees herself now; the other details have vanished. No accomplishment supersedes the epic failure of losing a baby. And nothing will ever surpass losing seven.
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When she tells me they are going to try again, I feel the pit of doom in my gut. I imagine it’s how someone feels when their friend returns to an abusive lover. They try to convince you that this time will be different, will be better. She details it for me, willing me to see the positives and embrace her plan, but all I can see is how each cycle, each let-down, and each eventual loss has emptied her of herself.
I know she feels a constant need to fill the void.
I plaster on a smile and ask her to tell me more, mentally noting the calendar dates. Here it comes: the schedules, the diet, the rigorous self-care routines, the shots, the IV infusions, and the ultrasound wands up her stirrup-spread legs.
I heard in a movie “It’s the hope that kills you.”
As long as there is another option, another possibility, she will go back and try again. I think she’s become addicted to her abuser, potentially. Full of self-loathing and self-doubt, she thinks she deserves this punishment. She thinks her husband deserves her to keep trying until she can present him with the biological child he’s always wanted.
But he grieves her disappearance as he grieves the lost babies, quietly, holding her hand as she walks back to the clinic, just one more time.
Dr. Erin Attaway is a Doctor of Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine and Co-Founder of The Fertility Resort.