I sat in a small chair opposite my surgeon when he said three letters that forced me to break down and cry: “IVF.”
I hadn’t gone into the appointment ready to talk about my fertility. I wasn’t expecting it. I’d thought it was just going to be a routine checkup, months after I had my second major surgery.
I was 20 years old and just a few months out of my reversal surgery. For 10 months prior to this, I had lived with a stoma bag after ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), caused my colon to perforate.
After almost a year with the stoma bag, I decided it was time to try out a reversal, and I went under the knife once more to have my small intestine stitched to my rectum, which allowed me to go to the toilet “normally” again.
I knew my life wouldn’t be totally normal after that. I knew that I’d never have a formed bowel movement again. That I’d need to go a lot more than the average person and that I’d struggle with hydration and absorbing nutrients well.
But I didn’t expect the surgery to affect my fertility.
I sat opposite my surgeon, with my mother by my side, talking about life after the reversal and things I was still getting used to — and things that I’d absolutely have to get used to.
My surgeon explained to me that while I wouldn’t have trouble carrying a baby, actually conceiving may be difficult.
This is due to the amount of scar tissue around my pelvis. My surgeon explained that a lot of people who have had my surgery go on to have IVF to conceive, and that I had a huge chance of being one of them.
I didn’t know what to think, so I just cried. It was all such a shock for me. I was only 20 and I hadn’t even thought of having children until I was a lot older, and having gone through such life-changing surgery, I felt overwhelmed.
I felt upset for many reasons, but I also felt guilty for being upset. I felt like I had nothing to cry about. Some people aren’t able to have children at all. Some can’t afford IVF, whereas I would have been offered it for free.
How could I sit there and cry when I still had an opportunity to conceive, when some couldn’t at all? How was that fair?
I was sad because I was drained. With ulcerative colitis, it often felt like one thing after the other.
Beyond the suffering that comes with any kind of IBD, I’d now undergone two major surgeries. Being told I would have struggles with my fertility felt like yet another hurdle to jump over.
Like many living with a chronic illness, I couldn’t help but dwell on how unfair it all felt. Why was this happening to me? What did I do so wrong that I deserved all of this?
I was also mourning for those exciting times when you try for a baby. I knew it was unlikely that I would ever have that. If I decided to try for a baby, I knew it would be a time filled with stress, upset, doubt, and disappointment.
I was never going to be one of those women who decided to try for a baby and had a great time doing so, just waiting for it to happen.
I was someone who, if I tried, there would be a lingering fear that it wouldn’t happen. I could already imagine myself getting upset every time I saw a negative test, feeling betrayed by my body.
Of course, I’d be grateful to have IVF — but what if that didn’t work, either? Then what?
I felt like the excitement and joy had been ripped away from me before I’d even decided I was ready for kids.
For me, IVF came before the idea of actually becoming pregnant, and for a 20-year-old, it can feel like you’ve had a meaningful experience taken from you before you were even ready to consider it.
Even writing this, I feel selfish, even self-loathing. There are people out there who can’t conceive. There are people out there for whom IVF didn’t work at all.
I know I was one of the lucky ones in a way, that the opportunity to have IVF is there if I need it. And I am so grateful for that; I wish free IVF was available to anyone that needs it.
But at the same time, we all have different circumstances and after going through such traumatic experiences, I need to remember that my feelings are valid. That I’m allowed to come to terms with things in my own way. That I’m allowed to grieve.
I’m still accepting and coming to terms with how my surgeries have affected my body and my fertility.
I now believe that whatever happens will happen, and what’s not meant to be won’t be.
That way I can’t be too disappointed.
Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes about mental illness in hopes of diminishing the stigma and to encourage others to speak out.