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Infertile at 29: What it’s like succeeding at everything but IVF

“Nobody comes to the all-night pharmacy for fun,” I mutter to the guy fidgeting ahead of me in line. It’s after midnight. It’s raining. There’s a cab waiting for me outside. I’m 250 miles from home, due to give a keynote address to 4,000 people in a scant few hours, and the progesterone that I’m supposed to be injecting into my butt each evening with a wickedly long needle is back in New York. Did I mention the cab’s meter is running?

I never expected to be here. Not just at the all-night pharmacy, but battling infertility at barely 30 years old. I met my husband at 19 and published my first book at 25, but this is the one area of my life where being precocious – not to mention impatient – is not an asset.

Ironically, when we first “took out the goalie” two years ago, I wasn’t sure that I was quite ready for motherhood. We had great friends, exciting jobs, a cute one-bedroom loft apartment in Brooklyn, party invites every weekend. But my husband, five years older, had what I can only describe as a premonition. “We’ve been so lucky up ’til now,” he whispered to me one night in bed. “I just think we should get started, because this might be different.”

He couldn’t have been more right. Soon after I went off the pill, my periods disappeared, and my face flared up with acne. I sought out an acupuncturist specializing in fertility and was referred to a reproductive endocrinologist for testing. After taking my history, he gave me my first ultrasound.

What that means for fertility patients is that they take a cold metal probe that looks like something you could buy at an adult store, stick it inside you, and suddenly you can see your internal organs on a grainy little screen.

My ovaries, the first time I saw them, didn’t look so good. They showed a distinct pattern of black dots, like beads on a string. It couldn’t have been clearer – I had polycystic ovarian syndrome, PCOS, a hormonal disorder that interferes with ovulation and that affects between 4% and 10% of all women. Over the next several months, I would get very, very comfortable with what fertility patients call the “dildocam.”

As if that weren’t enough, further testing showed that I also had a blocked fallopian tube, probably due to scarring from an undetected infection at some point. The combination of factors led the doctor to recommend skipping all other treatments and going straight to in vitro fertilization – the last resort, the Hail Mary, the most invasive, expensive, and drastic fertility intervention of them all. I had trouble with this idea, so I found another, highly rated specialist. She recommended the same thing.

There aren’t many resources out there to prepare you to undergo IVF at the age of 29. There are no books. I didn’t have a lot of friends who had gone through something similar. In fact, the ordeal threatened to put a strain on all my relationships. For my unmarried girlfriends who wanted a family eventually, I was a cautionary tale – the Ghost of Your Uterine Future. And among my married friends, everywhere I looked, suddenly, were pregnant bellies. One of my close friends got pregnant in her first month of trying, another on her honeymoon, and another before her wedding. I was happy for them, but I desperately wanted to join them, and in at least one case that made it hard for me to be around them.

It was hard to be around my husband, too. I was mad at him in the beginning. It just didn’t seem fair that there was this thing we both wanted so much, but only one of us had to go through all this unpleasantness to get it – and then, if we were very lucky, I would get to be the one to carry the baby for nine months and give birth and breastfeed, too. Sometimes I thought, irrationally, that if I’d never met him, the love of my life, I’d be a Sex and the City-like single girl, chasing my career, blissfully unaware – for at least a few more years – of the wintry frozen branches of my ovaries.

All the work it takes to become fertile – eating well, getting sleep, taking vitamins, exercising, meditating, doing yoga – leaves little time for chasing a career. My second book came out in April 2010, after we’d been trying to conceive for a year, and for 7 months, I was on the road between 10 and 20 days each month promoting it. I was also writing full time for a magazine.

I’d read about women who quit their jobs or went part time to deal with infertility, but usually they were several years older. My work engages and inspires me, and I’m just getting started. Besides, disappearing into work was an escape from the sadness of infertility, a space where I could be my old self: Competent. Energetic. Whole.

And to be honest, I find it excruciating to slow down. “You’re a machine” is a phrase I’ve often heard from editors. I don’t exactly take it as a compliment.

So we scheduled the first round of IVF for over the holidays, when I had a rare six weeks on the ground between trips. That meant schlepping a cosmetics case full of hormones and syringes to Europe, where I was to speak at a few conferences in November. The doctor’s office wrote me a note, like a child’s permission slip, so I could get the needles through security on the flight.

But we weren’t going to get out of this in one shot. Like a lot of younger women and those with PCOS, my body overreacted to all the IVF hormones. My blood estrogen shot up to 40 times the normal range. My cycle had to be canceled, the embryos – 32, a huge number – frozen for later use, and I was sick on the couch for a week in December. My ovaries swelled from all the hormones and started leaking fluid until I had a 6-months-pregnant bloated belly – a sad irony called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome.

Maybe it was this further blow of disappointment, maybe it was the downtime, maybe it’s just time, but somewhere in there, my attitude toward this experience shifted. I realized that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. Not perfectly, not all the time, but on good days, I can appreciate the cosmic irony: My body is confronting me with exactly the lessons I most need, the ones I most don’t want to hear. I am not in control. I need to rest, learn patience, take better care of myself. I had to quit running – literally – cut out caffeine, and take life at a slower pace. There’s an important difference between accomplishing everything I have to do and doing everything I possibly can. Instead of going, doing, creating, the key to success in this area lies in being receptive and open.

As my husband and I started to talk more about what we’re going through, I’ve also discovered a great gift in allowing myself to be vulnerable, something that didn’t always come easily before. My parents, my in-laws, friends, sister, relatives, have all shown incredible compassion and concern. They make me grateful every day. My husband, once I figured out how to talk about what I needed in a non-accusatory way, has been such a tender caretaker, even as he’s sheltering his own pain. I’m more in love with him than I’ve ever been and more confident in our future together, no matter what happens.

In February, we had our first frozen embryo transplant. I canceled some travel dates and made my trip to the all-night pharmacy, but it was not to be. I got the bad news on a plane sitting on the runway, surrounded by crying infants. We have enough of our own embryos to try at least two more times, and enough money to try IVF again after that, if we have to. I’ve rearranged my work schedule so I can work from home more often and I’m working on saying no to invitations.

Infertility is the mirror image of mourning. One starts with a death, the other ends with a birth. At some point, I pray, I’ll make it all the way to the glorious beginning of new life and new love.

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