The Trauma and Loss Survivor Version
“I know, I get it……Just one more thing infertility ruined.”
This simple yet all – encompassing phrase came from a support group member back when I was TTC (trying to conceive). She lived in the same town where my husband’s restaurant had just finished the construction on its expansion. And I, in the meager 6 weeks between IVF #’s 2 and 3, having just learned that our medical obstacles extended well beyond endometriosis and age, had not been in to see the outcome. Cannon balling my way into what was my most fragile, devastated time, I didn’t want to see people in my husband’s restaurant world. My husband’s business partner had just had his second naturally conceived child, with his wife in her early 40’s nonetheless (OUCH!!), and I, being three years into TTC at that point, was no dummy as to the mindless conversations and questions that swirl around such an event. I felt I couldn’t handle them, would be damned if I was about to expend any energy faking it, and knew full well that staying out of the crime headlines was as noble of a motivation as any (I could already see it – “Insensitive, uninformed fertiles get bludgeoned to death in Long Island bistro. Infertile snaps upon fielding the question ‘When are YOUR babies coming?’ for the 2,179,023rd fucking time).
And so I asked her, “How does it look? Is there a flow between the new unit and the old? I’d go in there, it’s just, I….” I fumbled for words to describe why I couldn’t complete the basic act of witnessing and basking in my husband’s accomplishment. I had been given no understanding or forewarning of PTSD and the logic defying emotions that result from perpetual, gnawing trauma. I simply knew my survival depended on self – protection of which I was in charge and not about to screw up. And, my restaurant involvement was such a far cry from the proactive, can do anything attitude I contributed when he opened his first place. Then I did everything from painting, interior design, branding and scrubbing whatever needed to be scrubbed (which as I recall was painfully plenty).
So it was then she pulled out her well-said truth that so accurately depicts the endless ripple of infertility’s meteoric strike – “Just one more thing infertility ruined”.
Going to the mall, as it turned out, was not much easier. The cries of babies and toddlers would ricochet through the walkways, amplified by the mall’s sound bouncy surfaces, and zing through my nervous system, slicing any hopes I had of a normal shopping experience. In them I would hear the cries of my own pain and feel the reverberation of my children that I could not, for anything, seem to find. I didn’t fare much better on the visual aspect of things. Seems pushing strollers through malls is the quintessential default suburban activity. What it lacks in creativity and ingenuity it makes up for with its sheer mass excess. I would make my way through the mall looking up so as to not be slayed by the continuous waterfall of humans and self – indulgent structures on wheels that more closely resemble rocket ships than they do the strollers of my day.
Even the dressing rooms were nothing short of combat zones. I once got situated in a dressing room only to be “joined” by a mom with, guess what?? a stroller in the room adjacent to me. Oh and that’s not all – it never is as my fellow veterans full well know. Stroller mom came complete with a fitting room attendant who fussed, loudly of course (is it ever done any other way??), over babies. All while a snarkier than thou infertile who desperately needed some new jeans was “finding her breath” in dressing room #5.
Nauseating baby talk infused the space.
“Can a friggen infertile try on some god damn jeans EVER??” I grumbled as I got down to business.
“Oh, Oi remembuh when oi had moine (Long Islandese for “I remember when I had mine”) and “Awen’t they just sweet as poi?” (Aren’t they just sweet as pie) popped carelessly through the air, verbal machetes that they are, as I scrambled to try on the last pair of jeans while considering mooning the fitting room hallway.
I said a silent thank you to Express for making jeans that fit me well, thus cutting down on my “infertile trapped in a dressing room with baby talk” time.
I know at this point some people, especially in this happy – addicted culture, may be thinking “Did she forget she entitled this piece Joy? Infertility Honesty’s a dipshit. I tuned in for the JOY…..”
Cool your heels, partners, I did not forget. But the hard won aspect of it all must have center stage too.
So this is how it would go. I’d bow out of shopping with my husband, order whatever I could online, and tear through the mall, determined to find what I needed in the shortest amount of time spent in a mall by any human ever. I’d often end up with MORE than I needed, strangely, too much of one color, and incomplete outfits. There was something about the excruciating aspect of it all that prompted me to buy what I liked even if I had nothing to match it, buy extra so I didn’t have to come back again, and buy both colors when my usually decisive to a T self couldn’t “holy shit just friggen pick one” amid my internal peril.
Fast forward about two and a half years. My husband and I were headed out shopping – together finally – to update his wardrobe and try to force some cohesion from the disjointed shit show that was my wardrobe. Not a visually sloppy person by nature, he had done ok on his own with his clothes. But between excessive work pressure and my being out of the picture, much of his drab and over worn closet needed the help of a woman’s touch.
And what do you know? We actually had fun wending our way through the mall. I kept him entertained with my nutty facial expressions in the midst of any stroller parades we encountered, and texted him to “come see” when I was trying on a sexy dress I had no intention of buying. And I felt more than good enough to devote time to his shopping again. It seemed the scathing avalanche of “what is” had melted into a more innocent pool of mildly sad goofiness.
I hit my stride after we arrived at Banana Republic, one of his favorite stores. I started pulling shirts, discussing fabrics and colors, and essentially, taking over (something I was pretty good at in my old life). “Here, try this,” I insisted, throwing a few more things on our pile on the way to the dressing room. We came out of there with some of his now favorite new clothes.
But in the store, something interesting happened. I became enveloped in a joy so penetrating, so buoyant, it utterly defied the actual moment. I wasn’t thinking that it had been years since I had been had been able to help my husband pick out clothes, but I was intensely feeling it.
Under more ideal circumstances, my nurturing of him extends beyond the fact he’s my husband. He left home at age 16 at the urging of his parents and still remembers the gutted look on his father’s face as he walked away into the hands of the professional smugglers he paid to get him to the United States. There’s no doubt that on the heels of his rural farm boy childhood he was looking for financial opportunity in the US. But even his remote area of El Salvador was not safe for a boy of 16. The national army recruited boys of that age, the gorillas kidnapped boys as young as 14 and forced them to fight against their own people. My husband’s parents are far from perfect but they loved him fiercely and were willing to give him up for anything that would make his life better. After his three week journey to New York, he wrote a letter to his family telling them he made it (there was no money for a phone call) which likely took another two weeks to arrive. So I am keenly aware when I care for him and spend time with him that he is not just my husband – he is someone else’s sacrifice. And honoring that is not a responsibility I take lightly.
Amid all infertility demanded, it was not a responsibility I could always fulfill, however. Collateral damage that comes from trauma and loss is a bigger deal than most realize. You don’t just lose the thing you lost, you lose all of life as you once knew it.
There is no better model for life’s randomness than infertility. Knowing that no one is guaranteed anything in this life is one of its harsher teachings, rendering all that you do have in front of you as more precious – and fleeting – than it was before. Shopping with my husband wasn’t just the special fun it used to be, I also knew that it had become a gift and a privilege. Not being able to partake added yet another tragic element to my experience. And unfortunately, in those moments when joy starts to eek its way through again, it’s common to think that’s what we “should” have been feeling all along. But it isn’t. That it’s so veiled is a healthy sign, I think. It shows a digestion and a distilling of the unfathomable that occurred, a much more urgent task than the often unrealistic expectations of “being happy” and “feeling good”. A thorough renovation, especially a total gut job, is arduous and takes many twists and turns before one can enjoy their space. Shopping with my husband was just one more thing infertility ruined. I got it back, and more importantly, with a level of comfort for the changed people we are now.
And the feeling lingered as we walked on air to a nearby restaurant. We felt on top of the world as we kept commenting on how much fun that was and chiding ourselves for being the only middle aged couple in the place (between our restaurant owner hours, intercultural marriage and child free not by choice status, the flow of social convention and sameness with our peers seems to keep eluding us….). The exorbitant amount of joy we were lathered with seemed to far exceed the mere act of shopping for some clothes, so I contemplated what else I might be able to extract from that.
I’m not on the hunt for an equalizer – I often think only a fool would search for reconciliation in the face of the loss of their children. Nothing will ever make up for what I lost, I thought, as I sat sipping a sublimely dry Manhattan, but something tells me my experiences from here on out are going to be….shall we say…..dynamic. If so much joy could arise from a simple shopping trip, what else might be lying in wait? For what seemed like the first time, a sliver of me lit up with curiosity as to what is to come next.
So strange that our experience of being denied the creation of life has forced me so much closer to the very pulse of it. Compensatory? Oh Hardly. But I’ll take it.
I’d like to think there are many worthy channels to being more alive. For me, it is not manufacturing gratitude, scolding my anger, bitch slapping my jealousy or placating emotions and attitudes that arise one might label as “negative”. It’s my clumsy, awkward attempts to allow “what is” that have led me down a meaningful path that is right for me. For me, practices that foster being as opposed to behaving are what have maneuvered my way through.
At one point in my journey, I started “feeling my feelings” mostly because there was absolutely nothing else left to do. Infertility started to defy any shred of logic I ever knew after my fourth IUI, and I wasn’t sold on the idea of being held hostage by that which clearly could not be rationalized. Eventually, I committed myself to “feeling my feelings” and refraining from judging them the best I could, as opposed to averting and justifying them, having realized that MO was what was going to keep me whole. However our little shopping extravaganza demonstrated what so many who face grief and trauma whole heartedly and head on come to experience: when you invite your rage and fear and weakness and brokenness and indignation in and treat them like wanted house guests, or at least try, when you allow them a place at your table, a hearty meal and meaningful conversation, or at least try, you inadvertently grow other things besides survival, self – compassion and self – respect. As you stumble through that never ending process, your capacity to feel joy and peace and amazement and gratitude and contentment also expands by leaps and bounds. That it is often jockeying with pain and confusion is no mistake, but more so a necessity of processing that which must be processed in the midst of life’s harsh unfairnesses. Oh, but when it comes, that joy born from your darkest and most debilitated of ashes, when it comes rolling in like an unapologetic summer electrical storm, it is unquestionable. It is that booming voice that says “I survived” “I didn’t screw this up” “I am whole” “I am vibrant” “I am alive”.