A doctor finally gets it right
I have two major biochemical imbalances that caused chronic and sometimes suicidal depression between the ages of 17 – 29. They were finally diagnosed and pretty well treated by the Pfeiffer Health Research Institute via a prescribed nutrient therapy program. While I should normally get re-tested every year or two, for me, this was just one more thing that got pushed to the side during fertility treatments and the subsequent loss of our children.
I think most if not all of us have situations where our infertility collides with challenges and crisis we faced prior. Those experiences can be internal, or more external, as it was when I was driving to my first Pfeiffer appointment in four years about a month ago. I was pondering how I was going to explain the infertility/childlessness trauma/PTSD amid grief symptoms amid symptoms of my biochemical imbalances with a dash of peri-menopause thrown in while marinating in that all too familiar not knowing if I was going to be seen, heard and taken seriously.
I arrived at the appointment, sat with the doctor and somehow managed to do just that when she asked what had been going on and how I had been doing in the past 4 years. Used to having to justify my experiences, I was in full – on explaining mode. She inquired about my symptoms. I told her I didn’t have trouble with depression anymore, except for maybe a low grade depression that’s common in some phases of grief. I mentioned that it might be hard for me to pinpoint my biochemically caused symptoms as grief’s symptoms are so overtly physical. I noticed she nodded with a knowing acceptance instead of disconnecting or giving me that quizzical look of privilege to which I’ve become so accustomed.
I told her I had been having trouble though with anxiety and panic attacks. I “informed” her that PTSD is normal for women who have had to endure repeated failed fertility treatments.
And then the strangest and most wondrous thing happened.
She told me she was so sorry I didn’t get the outcome I had worked so hard for. She then validated my IVF trauma, telling me that many of her patients go through treatments and she knows, she is sure they are traumatized.
I tried to grasp that I was actually in the presence of someone who understood my experience on multiple levels, from mental illness to infertility grief. I naturally faltered as this, like, never happens.
She went on. She stressed that I have a fairly extreme biochemical pre-disposal to PTSD and its symptoms. (This I knew, but it’s good to hear it from someone who knows every once in a while). And that, combined with the infertility, multiple treatments and no result creates a perfect storm for panic disorders.
She supported my occasional use of Xanax, saying that just having it with me can make me feel safer (so true) and that it’s important to take it when needed as panic attacks can land you in the hospital. And that with some tweaking of my program, maybe I eventually won’t need it at all.
Part of me had, unfortunately, felt like a failure for taking Xanax. The wiser part of me would remind myself that a) I’m traumatized and grieving the loss of my children in a fertile world that doesn’t even know it’s wielding a weapon in its every day speech and actions and b) I’ve got a brain that lacks the proper chemistry to deal with anxiety at a 7,8, or 9 (on a scale of 1 to 10), so in situations where I’m stressed above a 5 or 6 my brain will vault right into fight or flight. Take the damn Xanax!!
Throughout my fertility treatments and grief, I’ve had an intense drive to keep myself physically, as well as emotionally, safe. This conversation validated that. It was not my imagination that I lived for some time, years really, in a reality where exposure to babies, pregnancy announcements and talk of other people’s children had every capability of harming me physically.
The doctor went on. “This is a tremendous amount for a person to go through. That you could go through all of that and be doing as well as you are is good.”
Upon her asking, I told her my last panic attack was a month ago. And that it royally pissed me off because I hadn’t had one in three months.
After taking in my symptoms, she turned her head to the side and nodded slightly. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was thinking – knowing of my serious biochemical imbalances coupled with the tragic and perpetual nature of what I went through in the human reproduction department – was she thinking that things for me right now could be a lot worse?
If that’s not what she was thinking, well then I sure was. It started to hit me how well I had done, and continue to do, under the circumstances.
“Look, you got through all of that. You kept taking your vitamins the best you could. You’ve done a good job.” She went on to mention the ways in which we might tweak the program that could help some of the things I still deal with.
But I barely heard what they were. Relief swished through my body.
The overwhelming lethargy of grief flashed through my mind.
Called forth were the years where just merely walking out of my front door made me feel sick. When the demons of nausea often accompanied the presence of people. In the crucible of life’s harsher brutalities, being around mere normalcy can make you feel ill.
But I kept going. Underneath the canopy of stopping treatment, the debilitation of trauma and the death of sorts I died. I somehow didn’t quit. Not by a fucking longshot.
“That is just so helpful to hear. I DID do a good job” I sniffled as she ran to get me tissues. “Especially considering in those first few years of grief, it’s just so hard to care.” I could barely choke out this truth as the memory quickly became raw once again. But that had been me, as I now saw it. Me going through THAT. I hadn’t wanted to die exactly during my final treatments and those first two years of grieving. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to LIVE. But I kept going, trying to gulp down all those vitamins anyway. My un compounded program equates to about 30 pills and 2 liquid supplements daily.
Having to stop something short of a goal, treatments short of a child, is an almost unfathomable thing to do. Especially in this day and age where our western human culture blindly worships persistence in the most one sided and disintegrated of ways. I always understood intellectually that I wasn’t a quitter. Now, facilitated by her words, I was able to FEEL it deeply.
As I left, I thanked her for being so aware and understanding. I let her know it was a relief to not feel like I was talking to a brick wall for a change. My words rang hollow in light of the positive effect hers had on me. I wanted to take more of an interest in her but there was too much regarding myself I had to attend to in that short period of time. I wondered if she had personal experience with infertility. It’s weird when you finally get the opportunity to be the patient you are that you never got to be. It’s as if your whole being stutters.
I was fortunate to have my husband with me. We had traveled to Annapolis Maryland for this appointment and later that evening found ourselves at a lovey third floor restaurant roof top patio on a balmy and hotter than normal early September evening. Like the setting, the food also ended up being perfect.
During treatment and in the two years after we lost our children, our celebrations changed. When you constantly see in the eyes of your husband the children you will never have, how much of a celebration is it, really? And when your time together comes to be about acclimating to their absence, “celebrations” are tinged with ache. And pain. They often ooze sadness in spite of the deeper gratitude you now have for the other’s existence. The gift of your person, the only person on earth who has any real idea of what you went through and what you go through, becomes unavoidably, and deeply, veiled. But we never totally forgot. What this experience bestowed on me is that, in the face of life’s tragedies, it’s important to do what you can in the celebration department. And it’s as equally important to not do what you can’t.
But that night, we could. “What are we celebrating?” Julio asked as our server poured out our wine.
“You know, today for the first time, it hit me in a whole new way, I am surviving. What I’ve had to and continue to deal with is very real, and very serious, but I’m doing it. I mean I’m really doing it.”
The doctor’s words facilitated a clearer appreciation of where I am, and, also important, of where I’ve been. In a journey where getting through the present often borders on insurmountable, one does not have the time or space to peep backwards. But for once, for the first time in six years or maybe more, I felt myself on a plateau of sorts. As if I had scaled a massive cliff with the aid of faulty equipment, a cliff so high and wide you can’t see anything. Not even your next move. And I know many of my readers full well know, when you can’t see, you have to feel.
So I scaled this cliff and found myself in a brief respite of sorts, a petite pocket where things grow carved out in its side where I could rest, reflect, and even safely look down. Is there more to climb and navigate? Without a doubt. But I was finally in a space, a precious space, where I could glance in amazement at what imperfectly and heartbreakingly is.
“So here’s to being here” I said to my husband as we raised our glasses. “Here’s to being seen and heard and to surviving.”
Oh yes. Clink clink cink the full bodied oak barrel aged chardonnay to THAT!!
My doctor’s sweet words speak to the importance of validation. We traumatized grievers rarely, if ever, get told how amazing we are. All too often, we’re judged on how well we conform. On how “happy happy happy” we present instead of how deeply and authentically we feel. We’re cheaply held responsible for other people’s comfort when it is OUR healing that hangs so delicately in the balance. We constantly have standards applicable to much easier circumstances imposed upon us. As a result, the effort to see myself is a forced – and constant – excavation. Being seen and heard has become a gift and a luxury. A gift and luxury, I have no doubt, that is crucial to the healing process.