I’m now more than a month post-egg retrieval, but the truth is that I’ve spent several months feeling like I’m in a “liminal space”, just sitting and waiting for things to happen. It’s not my usual MO – I’m someone who likes to be busy, busy, busy, and it’s taken a lot of urging from my therapist to remind me that refusing to slow down is what burned me out in the first place. But while my new “get comfortable with not achieving things” philosophy worked well for me in January (and maybe even part of February), by March, I was itching to get back to normal.
Unfortunately, March is when I started taking hormones in preparation to freeze my eggs – and that’s when things went really haywire. At first, it was minor discomfort – some rapid weight gain that made me feel kind of gross, but that I knew would go away once the process was all over. I mentioned to my nurse that I was a little surprised by how poorly I was tolerating the “priming” meds they put me on before the real “stimulation” meds to grow my eggs, and I asked if that meant I was going to have an extra hard time with stims – but she said no, they expected me to be just fine. In retrospect, I think that was the start of some medical gaslighting that primed me not only for egg retrieval but also some tough mental challenges.
As I proceeded with the freezing process, my nurse was quick to dismiss any of my complaints, and I had the impression that she labeled me as a weak crybaby as soon as I started worrying about an unexpected last minute cyst removal before starting stims. (The cyst removal ended up being totally fine and practically painless, but the process wasn’t explained to me at all; for help, I looked to other women in my IVF support group, who described the procedure as something they were put under general anesthesia for. I was therefore pretty nervous that I was told to just pop a Tylenol and I’d be fine.) A similar situation occurred when I actually got into the egg stimulation / freezing process leading up to my retrieval surgery, I wasn’t really told what to expect afterward – just that I’d be fine to get back to work the next day, and I’d fully recover in 7-10 days.
When I asked my nurse about the possibility of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), particularly given the high number of eggs I had, I was told not to worry about it. I left the hospital post-retrieval with a list of OHSS symptoms and told to call immediately if I had any of them – most notably, weight gain of more than 2 pounds (meaning my ovaries were filling with fluid). I ended up gaining not just two but FOURTEEN pounds of water weight that first night, which was both painful and scary. But when I called the nurse and eventually pushed to come in for an ultrasound, I was told that things looked normal, to drink fluids, and it would all be better in a few days. Why was 2 pounds cause for concern, but my 14 pounds was fine? I didn’t know, and I never got an answer to that question.
It also wasn’t until weeks later, when I finally demanded copies of all my records to go get a second opinion, that I learned my estrogen levels the day before the surgery were at a level deemed “panic high” (the lab technician’s description as written on my chart). Pretty scary, especially when estrogen typically continues to increase for a day or two post-retrieval. (My clinic didn’t do any blood tests after, so I have no idea what I ultimately peaked at.) The ovarian swelling did eventually go down, but between that and a lot of pain in my right ovary (that was so crippling I found myself lying on the couch gripping a blanket to try to get through it), I constantly felt like something wasn’t right. Frustratingly, any calls to the IVF clinic made me feel like a hypochondriac. But that physical pain helped remind me that I wasn’t okay, and that the healing process was going to take a while. In hindsight, I’m glad I had the physical symptoms, as they helped me realize that the mental problems I was having were equally real.
I didn’t think much of the mental weirdness at first. I was more irritable? Well, that was obviously because XYZ annoying thing had happened. I felt sad and stressed? Probably because I wasn’t allowed to run or do intense workouts, which have long been my coping tool for stress relief. But then my boyfriend (kindly) mentioned that he had noticed changes in my personality; I was getting extremely moody and irrational, though it came on so slowly that it took a while for me to notice it myself. It wasn’t until about a week after my egg retrieval, when things got really bad (like – I was crying for 8-12 hours a day, for no reason) that I could look back and see that it had been building for a while.
The worst part wasn’t the mood swings or the crying, though – it was the feeling that I was slowly going crazy and losing my mind. The gaslighting had already set me up to feel like maybe I couldn’t trust my own experience, but then I started seeing solid evidence that I wasn’t thinking clearly. I would pick fights with my boyfriend for “not being nice to me” – and then later would look back at text message conversations and see in black-and-white that he had just been sending me sweet things. I had no recollection of these texts, though I read them at the time, and didn’t understand how my brain was rewriting history. Or I went to do a Peloton ride, and suddenly found myself unable to remember how to buckle my spin shoes. For one day, I chalked that up as a simple brain fart, but then a few days later, I went to ride again and the same thing happened. I literally had to look up a YouTube video of how to put my shoes on. And I’ve donned spin shoes literally hundreds of times! It was terrifying to feel like I was completely losing my mind, and I worried about what I was going to lose next.
While I often hold off on blogging until I can see the good in things, this post is not going to end on a very positive note. If I look on the bright side, it’s that I was able to freeze 24 mature eggs – enough, my doctor tells me, for 2-3 kids. But in trying to preserve the option to have my own biological kids, I’ve lost so much of what makes me Laura. My hobbies, my personality, my relationships, and the most important thing of all, my mind. I still don’t know what’s wrong with me, and devastatingly, I think some of what I lost is irreparable.
I started writing this post on yet another day where I was crying for hours, wondering if I’d ever feel better again. But I’m publishing it on a day when I feel at least a glimmer of hope ahead. Maybe I can’t get back all the things I love, but maybe it’s possible to take a few things from before and pair them with some new things to love? That’s what I spent this weekend trying to do, and I ended my Sunday night having only cried for an hour, which is progress. And speaking of baby steps, I’m still only working part-time, but I’m currently en route to Fort Lauderdale for a business trip – the same flight I used to catch every week for two years to visit one of my biggest clients. It will be nice to go back and be reminded of a sunny time when I was feeling my sunny self.