on ivf and eating disorders

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i write this on the ‘other side’ of our first cycle of ivf. everything went well – far better than i had any right to hope for – but it still ended up with a negative pregnancy test last weekend and, after a slightly delay while all the progesterone worked its way out of my system, the appearance of my period yesterday. the constant and gruelling nature of ivf hasn’t really left much time for anything else recently. we’ll try again in a few months (probably) but it’s bloody hard. it’s bloody hard for anyone. it’s really bloody hard when you’ve got an eating disorder.

i feel that i should start by saying that i don’t think my eating disorder is the cause of our infertility. everything is as good as it can be with me and i responded very well to the various drugs. when we started trying to conceive (a long time ago now), i was probably the healthiest and happiest i’d been for a long time. the eating disorder was definitely in remission and my relationship was food was fairly uncomplicated; it continued that way for a good 18 months (the fact that it got more complicated again is nothing really to do with the infertility). lots of people who have/have had eating disorders conceive naturally. some people who have/have had eating disorders need some help. it’s the luck of the draw really. (i should also add that i’ve also only ever had relatively short periods of amenorrhea in the past too).

for someone with such a litany of mental health diagnoses to their name, i’m actually pretty laid back about the big things in life and so i didn’t feel like the ivf process, in itself, phased me much at the time. with the benefit of hindsight though, i can see that there were some elements that i really struggled with and which were directly related to the eating disorder.

for a start, ivf treatment is predicated on you (and by you, i mean the woman) being at a normal bmi. when you’re trying to get away from measuring your self worth by your bmi (and when a lot of eating disorder treatment is based on you falling to a certain bmi), this can be hard. some people may have happily been in recovery for years and suddenly find themselves needing to drop weight, often pretty quickly. for others, like me, it means putting on weight. i basically binged myself into a healthy bmi. it did not help my mental state at all.

once you cross that first hurdle of actually being eligible for ivf, you have to face the fact that lots of people are going to see you with very few clothes on. of course, they’re all medical professionals and they see hundreds of vaginas a day but that doesn’t change the fact that you have to wander round in a flimsy hospital gown or lie on your back, legs akimbo, with five or six people staring intently at your naked body. in some ways, i found this part the easiest to dealt with (partly because i was always a bit more worried about triggering my ptsd but mainly because quite a lot of the procedures require a (very) full bladder and i normally had to concentrate all my energy on not wetting myself). but the fact remains that i am far from happy with my body and far from happy about having people see it. (side note: i was also self-conscious because of scarring from self-harm but that was generally ignored by everyone much to my relief). added to this is the fact that the hormones and all the follicles that grow inside you often lead to bloating (and weight gain) and you have a recipe for feeling shit about yourself.

clearly, for the ivf to work, you need to be eating three meals a day and eating a relatively healthy diet (there are also some other dietary suggestions they make – like lots of protein and full fat milk – which i tried to follow as much as i could). on the whole, i managed to eat regularly because i was so worried that my failure to eat would be the reason that the cycle didn’t work. it was, it goes without saying, hard particularly as you are advised to limit exercise both before and after transfer.

what i struggled with the most though was that the regime of drugs i was on required that i eat at certain times. there were some drugs that i had to take with food in the morning, some which i had to take on an empty stomach (ie at least two hours after eating) and some which i couldn’t eat for at least an hour afterwards. i had to take those latter two drugs three times a day. there are simply not enough hours in the day. so i was having to desperately force myself to eat or not to eat at certain times and i spent all day consumed with the thoughts about when/what i would next be eating. controlling my food intake is so deeply ingrained as a coping mechanism (particularly in times of stress) that to have it controlled by something else was, frankly, unbearable and it was also somewhat unexpected.

if this had resulted in a positive pregnancy test, i’d probably have a very different view. it will surprise nobody (least of all my psychiatrist) that i’ve stopped eating very much since we found out that the cycle failed. i was only really embracing recovery (to the extent that i did) for the sake of a future pregnancy and although this is certainly not the end for us, it seems that much further away now. my eating disorder is absolutely loving it.

obviously though, i need to be at a healthy weight for another cycle and i can’t cope with the idea of not giving the embryos that we have in the freezer the best possible chance of life. but there’s part of me that’s terrified of doing it all again (possibly with the same outcome) and so losing weight seems to be the best option. and so, yet again, i feel like i’m stuck in the middle of a war zone.

i know that we are incredibly lucky to have access to ivf treatment and, in particular, that we ended up with a fair number of high quality embryos so the odds are in our favour.  i certainly don’t take it for granted at all. when/if we go again though, i can only hope that, in the end, it’s all worth it.

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