Don’t Ignore Your Power to Take Control: My Journey to Conception via Western, Eastern, and Alternative Medicines…and Everything in Between
After two failed IVF cycles, I turned to holistic methods of achieving pregnancy. It is National Infertility Awareness Week, and in this post, I want to offer resources and information about exactly what was helpful to me on my journey through secondary infertility. No one should struggle through the desire to have a baby alone.
“You will be happy again. Life will become joyful again. And somehow, some way, if you want to become a parent, you will.”
–Dr. Alice Domar, Boston IVF and The Domar Center for Mind/Body Health
Infertility stinks. Whether you know the cause or it is unexplained, when you’re having trouble getting and staying pregnant, it’s an all-encompassing situation that gets more complex and frustrating with time. Midway through my journey in infertility, someone said this: “Just when you feel you’re at the end, you realize it’s just the beginning.” That was certainly true for me, several times over. No matter how resilient you are at your core, this is one quest that will knock you down over and over and over. It’ll eat at your conscious and subconscious mind; it’ll start telling you stories about yourself that aren’t true; it’ll keep you up at night and then be your first waking thought. It will nibble away at your marriage or partnership, no matter how strong. Overall it will prevent you from showing up for your own life. Or at least it did all these things to me.
My story: I conceived my son after taking Clomid for one month and having an IUI at age 40. Early in my pregnancy, my nurse practitioner said clearly that if I wanted a second child, I would need to start trying to get pregnant as soon as possible. My FSH was 14, and because I’d be even older when I tried the second time, I would be a good candidate for in-vitro fertilization. The doubts about future conception were planted: a few months into an easy pregnancy, the fear that the nurse might be right started to grow right alongside the baby inside me.
Following directions, I breastfed my son for six months and weaned him to start trying for our second baby. After trying for a month naturally (no success), I quickly moved on to Clomid (no success), then a round of gonadotropins – an IVF-like protocol – that resulted in a chemical pregnancy (when your hormone level measures above 5 so you’re “pregnant” but then drops 48 hours later – so you’re not).
With time NOT on my side, my nurse practitioner recommended that I contact a fertility clinic (at the time, Montana did not have one) to start doing IVF as soon as possible – so I did. I guess I was ready for a second baby, but I also felt I wasn’t given a choice. We went for a ‘one day workup,’ and learned that statistically, I had a 5 percent chance of becoming pregnant and bringing home a baby via IVF. That didn’t deter me from wanting to try as soon as possible. The clinic also made it clear that the best chance for pregnancy would be via donor egg – an 80 percent success rate – and offered their services in that department as well. Knowing that my body had just successfully produced my son, I felt strongly about wanting to utilize my own eggs first before I moved on to thinking about someone else’s.
In-Vitro Fertilization: The IVF part of my story is long, and it took a year to do one stimulation cycle with two embryo transfer cycles. Overall, IVF is amazing, it’s incredibly wonderful that we live in a time where technology can offer every bit of information possible regarding getting pregnant. I’d strongly suggest IVF to anyone who can afford it, but I also believe that you’ve got to be ready for it, you need to have the right frame of mind. I went into it with more fear than I realized, and in the end, I believe that’s why it didn’t work for us.
IVF Details: Basically, after heavy-duty stimulation drugs, my ovaries produced eight eggs, six of which fertilized and became embryos in the lab, five made it to the third day. We learned about a month later than two were “A+ quality” and available for transfer, and three did not make it out of genetic testing (and were therefore not available for transfer). Those were fantastic results according to my IVF doctor – two viable embryos. I had my one-year old and couldn’t imagine having twins, so we decided to split up the embryos into two separate transfers. The first transfer resulted in a negative pregnancy test, the second transfer resulted in a chemical pregnancy. Again, I was pregnant, but then I wasn’t. I was exhausted. My doctor suggested doing another round of IVF in a more efficient manner time-wise, but I was frustrated that after a year of effort via IVF, we weren’t much closer to having a baby.
During that year, I’d asked the fertility clinic for help getting through the stress of the IVF process. They suggested counseling, so I called their counseling department. I was told that counseling didn’t often work well on the phone, so instead the clinic offered to find me a counselor who specialized in infertility in my hometown. Two days later they called to say there was no one in my state with that kind of training, and I was welcome to set up a phone appointment with them, but reiterated that infertility counseling usually didn’t work well over the phone. It was way before this point that I felt I needed some guidance – I’m a pretty balanced person, and I felt I was losing my mind. My husband and I thought if we simply tried everything that was suggested to us and went to the right place, we’d have success. But infertility doesn’t work that way. At least it didn’t for me.
Infertility is a diagnosis, it is a disease. Some say that the stress associated with receiving the diagnosis is akin to learning you have cancer. This sounds crazy, and though I’ve never been diagnosed with cancer and can’t compare, I can report that it is more stressful than I could handle alone. I needed and wanted help, so I dug my heels in hard and started digging around. A physical therapist I’d started seeing for help with a hip that was out of whack had just had twin boys at age 42. She encouraged me to look into doing a “fertility retreat” with a group called The Fertile Soul as she’d done, and lent me some books and materials. I’d started seeing an acupuncturist, and that felt helpful, but I wasn’t convinced I’d found the right one. I’d heard about RESOLVE through my OBGYN’s office. Via RESOLVE I found and started seeing an infertility counselor. I also started doing “energy work” called BodyTalk. Here’s more about my six strategies, all of which seemed to help in different ways.
1. RESOLVE: RESOLVE is The National Infertility Association based just out of Washington DC. It’s free to join and the website is an incredible resource for information on everything from IVF to adoption, donor eggs to the emotional side of things; information directed at men, suggestions for coping, etc. Via RESOLVE’s website, I learned I had “secondary infertility,” defined as the inability to become pregnant, or to carry a pregnancy to term, following the birth of one or more biological children. Also, RESOLVE is a support group: it has local chapters all over the country. It took me quite a while to make a phone call to our local chapter – I felt I didn’t belong because I already had a child; I showed up apologetic with a batch of cookies at the first meeting. Though everyone had different medical causes, we all had the same “infertility diagnosis”…and I quickly understood that the emotional rollercoaster of infertility is the same, no matter the cause. Realizing that, and being able to connect with other local women on similar journeys, was incredibly helpful. Being able to talk, cry, empathize, celebrate successes, and laugh knowingly…together….was powerful for me. Thanks to RESOLVE, I was no longer alone in my quest for a second child. If a support group doesn’t interest you, RESOLVE also has a strong online community – it breaks it down by topic so you can read, lurk around, question, and connect with other women in your particular situation. I also found RESOLVE’s online community especially helpful and supportive when I was going through IVF.
2. The Fertile Soul: Dr. Randine Lewis trained as a medical doctor, then earned her PhD in acupuncture. She’s made it her life’s work to help women balance their lives and achieve healthy pregnancies. She wrote The Infertility Cure, which is an “ancient Chinese wellness for program for getting pregnant and having healthy babies.” The book outlines recommendations for balancing your mind and body – most of which I followed prior to attending one of her fertility retreats. Before the retreat, I followed her Spleen Qi Diet: a diet completely free of gluten, complex sugars, dairy, alcohol and caffeine. I also tweaked the dietary supplements I was taking – I started taking CoQ10 and a few others she recommends.
Dr. Lewis asks for retreat attendees to come with an open mind, soak in all that she has to say, then give yourself 90 days (three ovulation cycles) to let hormonal changes take place in your body before expecting to become pregnant. With time running out (fertility centers prefer to treat people who are younger than age 43) and with my husband’s wavering support, I decided to go to Asheville, NC at the last minute.
Once there, it was crystal clear that Dr. Lewis is thoughtful, incredibly bright, knowledgeable, and competent – and that she has a 70 percent success rate. At the retreat I attended, people had traveled from as far away as Greece and Australia to attend. The crux of her message: stress is the main culprit. She showed how the advice many of us often hear: “Just go on vacation! Relax, and you’ll get pregnant!” has a lot more science behind it than I ever assumed. The stress of infertility causes norepinephrine and cortisol to overtake reproductive hormones in your body – literally not allowing a pregnancy to happen. Her healing process for the soul “removes mental, emotional and spiritual patterns of obstruction.” I learned to stop thinking with my mind about infertility, and open my heart instead. I learned all about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as well as methods for managing stress like diet, herbs and acupressure, meditation and Qi Gong (which I loved and found very helpful), and I resolved to take 90 days and give it all a try.
3. Infertility Counseling: Via RESOLVE I learned about a woman in Bozeman who was just starting out as a counselor with a specialty in infertility. I was thrilled – I’d been seeing someone who was compassionate but she didn’t understand the particular stresses of infertility. My counselor was and still is amazing – she studied with Dr. Alice Domar (see below) before having twin boys via IVF, then she conceived naturally and has a third son. Sitting with her for an hour each week was incredibly helpful for me. She gave me articles specific to my issues, homework, made suggestions, and offered general support. If you’re stressed and feel like you don’t have anyone to talk with besides your husband or partner, I strongly recommend looking for a counselor who specializes in infertility.
4. Conquering Infertility by Alice Domar: Dr. Alice Domar’s Mind/Body Guide to Enhancing Fertility and Coping with Infertility. My infertility counselor gave me Dr. Alice Domar’s book, and also two meditations on a CD. Dr. Alice Domar is a Harvard-based psychologist who studied with Herb Benson, the “father” of the mind-body connection movement. The idea is to help your body elicit “The Relaxation Response” via meditation. I loaded her two meditations onto my computer and dutifully listened during my son’s naptime. Quickly my meditation time became my favorite time of the day, and I craved hearing the calm, confident voice lead me through relaxation exercises. After meditating, I started to feel there was space and possibility right in front of me somehow – an opening – room to breathe. In addition to these two meditations (which are short – one is 13 minutes, one is 17), I read her book, Conquering Infertility, that contains strategies for stress relief, support, and hope. Actually her “toolbox full of coping skills” (chapter two) changed my outlook completely. Mindfulness, living in the present moment, is something that sounded very ‘pop psychology’ to me, but when I put it into practice, it provided peace in a seriously turbulent time. I also found “cognitive restructuring” extremely helpful: the idea that our thoughts can determine our emotional states, and our emotional states can influence our physical health continues to stay with me.
Dr. Domar was as helpful to me as Dr. Lewis. Harvard educated, she runs a world-renowned clinical program at the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health to help infertile women achieve pregnancy; she has the research to back it up. She leads an online chat and answers questions about infertility. She is not a medical doctor, but “offers sensitive, practical, and scientifically documented support and guidance.” After IVF failed and I was deep into holistic methods of achieving pregnancy, during her online chat I sent in a question about epigenetics, a new body of science that my infertility counselor had told me about that basically says if you have a donor egg, your genes can certainly influence the outcome of that egg. Almost immediately, her response came back: “Infertility specialists from around the world have been noticing for years that children conceived through donor egg seem to be a whole lot more like their moms than anyone expected. There is now speculation that the maternal environment can act to switch genes on and off in the baby, perhaps to be more like the mom. This is a really new concept, so one can’t say for sure that this is what is happening, but it makes sense.” That was incredibly helpful to me. Here is more information about epigenetics in BioNews.
5. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): Throughout my year and a half journey, I found acupuncture very helpful. It took me several tries to find the right fit though: I recommend finding someone with experience in infertility, and going as often as you can afford. When I showed up I was deficient in almost every category: my kidney, spleen and blood showed the severe effects of the stress of infertility coupled with the first year of motherhood. She treated me thoughtfully and was convinced I could achieve pregnancy after re-building my body’s different systems via acupuncture. After weekly visits for about four months and trying two herbal formulas plus a combination of dietary supplements, she recommended that my husband and I be the “pin cushions” for a visiting acupuncturist’s seminar. The visiting guru strongly suggested that I take Deer Placenta (yes, I’m serious) along with another herb, which boosted my overall well-being almost immediately. Acupuncture is a proven method to boost fertility, and I strongly recommend giving it a try. An ancient, complicated science, to me it’s an art that I know works, does not hurt, is never the same twice with a good practitioner, and the overall effect is very relaxing. You don’t have to believe in it for it to work, you just have to be open to giving it a try.
6. BodyTalk: BodyTalk is a therapeudic method to amplify your body’s healing capacity best described as quantum physics meets traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). At first I was very skeptical, but doing BodyTalk with a certified practitioner once a week greatly helped in my infertility journey. It’s like touchless acupuncture and is incredibly calming. Basically during each session my practitioner removed blockages in and among the different systems in my body, and worked with different energy systems to achieve balance. Overall it’s pretty “out there”, but I’d recommend doing this or something like this if you’ve got the time and interest. Though my first thought was “well, it can’t hurt…,” after I understood it a bit more, I realized that it complemented other alternative therapies to a great extent.
So, after diving head first into all of these Eastern, alternative methods of balancing my life as well as the hormones and systems in my body, I enjoyed last summer twelve pounds lighter and gluten-free, energetic, hopeful, and optimistic – I’d never felt better in my life. I returned home from The Fertile Soul retreat and we tried to get pregnant for two cycles with no success. Then, my town’s only reproductive endocrinologist who was fresh out of her fellowship reviewed my medical history starting with my first pregnancy through my two failed IVF cycles. She convinced me to return to IVF before my 43rd birthday instead of spending any more time on anything but “ART” (assisted reproduction technology): she pointed out that my chances of conceiving naturally at 42 were five percent, the same percentage of success I’d have with IVF. And even though I was deep into holistic ways of achieving pregnancy, her logic somehow made sense – my thought was if IVF failed, I could simply return to my new, holistic ways to keep trying. Along with this shift, I finally decided I was OK with having a donor egg if that’s what it was going to take to have a second child – after I tried again with my own eggs. So I called my fertility clinic and they scheduled me for an IVF cycle starting over Halloween weekend – my son’s second birthday. But we’d planned to host three out of four grandparents for his big weekend, so I decided to put IVF off for a month and spend Thanksgiving at the fertility clinic instead. Wanting to make the most of the cycle, I had an IUI but felt the timing was off. And then that month…
….a happy ending! I found out I was pregnant, and now I am seven weeks from my due date. So all in all, almost exactly 90 days after The Fertile Soul retreat, I found out I’d conceived on a natural cycle. I feel a deep sense of pride and accomplishment, and I want to help other women through this incredibly challenging time.
Work at being optimistic. Because my body had managed to produce one baby, I never really believed my “infertility” diagnosis – I simply knew I would have another baby. However, I felt impatient, angry and resentful, because lots of people and forces and western medicine seemed to be in control of telling me how and when it needed to happen. Or that it might not happen at all.
There’s a well-known book, “Taking Charge of Your Fertility.” I have not read it – but it’s what I did. It sounds corny and Pollyanna-esque in hindsight, but for me, taking control was about knowing I was doing everything I could to achieve a pregnancy, and also about releasing fear. Infertility is tricky, because every cycle you are presented with a black and white answer – are you pregnant or not? The answer is as easy as peeing on a stick. Month after month, I felt I’d failed….not just myself, but my family, my husband, my son, even our dogs. I remember saying “I am the problem” because that’s what I’d been told – my eggs were old.
That said, in my head and heart I was still optimistic. I knew I was taking great care of myself, and I reached a point where I could say that I had done just about everything I could do to help myself conceive. Then, I let go a bit – I felt great, I wasn’t nearly as stressed, I was truly hopeful, we finally agreed on a plan – one more IVF cycle, then use donor eggs. And that’s when I got pregnant.
Take charge, do your research. Looking back, I now know that I got pregnant because I took control. You are your own best advocate. Understand your medical issues, research them, ask lots of questions, connect with others online or in your community via RESOLVE. It was amazing to me to hear the amount of medical information exchanged at RESOLVE meetings! Oh and there’s a stat about women in infertility support groups – being able to conceive up to 35-50% above women who aren’t in support groups. No one will get you the answers you need except yourself – you have to fully participate in the process. And if you don’t like the answers you’re getting, see a specialist, do more research. Don’t stop digging!
Educate Yourself. Even though IVF didn’t work for me, I have a huge amount of respect for my fertility clinic. If the cause of your infertility is more complex than age (like me, I was ancient in the infertility world) know that there are specialists everywhere. A few tips about that experience: you might feel like a number, a case. It might feel like no one cares, not your doctor, not the nurse, not the receptionist. Keep in mind fertility centers are businesses….they want you to be successful in bringing home a “live birth.” But don’t expect or rely on your IVF clinic’s nurses and doctors to take care of you in any other way than efficiently. This was hard for me….infertility is incredibly personal, and I value connection with others, no matter how business-like. I appreciate pleasantness, especially when I’m the patient. My advice is to go into IVF with some tools in your pocket – find other ways to take care of yourself (RESOLVE, a counselor, Dr. Alice Domar’s methods etc) – don’t rely on your IVF center for “softness.”
Expense. RESOLVE is free. Books are basically (almost) free. Information on the web is free. Obviously, other stuff is not: acupuncture, BodyTalk, a fertility retreat, IVF. Expense is a huge part of fertility. Whatever your financial or insurance situation is, it will become a huge part of your decision making process (if it hasn’t already). Since I did IVF, I’ve learned of a program offered through some fertility centers that, if you qualify, you “buy” 3 IVF cycles for the price of one. If it works the first time, that’s great (you’ve paid full price). If it takes two times, great – you’ve gotten 2 cycles for the price of one. If it works on the third time, great – you’re on your way to having a baby, and you got much more treatment than if you’d just signed up for one! And, if it does not work in three times, you get your money (or part of it anyway) back. Also, this tab on RESOLVE’s website offers valuable information about infertility treatment grants and scholarships. My point is ask questions, spend what you can afford, and research all your options.
Infertility vs. Secondary Infertility: My struggle with infertility started while I was pregnant, and continued throughout the first year and a half of my son’s life. My heart aches for anyone that wants a baby and doesn’t have one; but I also understand that the sentiment doesn’t run both ways. People with infertility can’t stand people with secondary infertility – I get this. My struggle, as everyone’s, was real…it changed my life. But there is so much I learned…so much positive came out of it.
Stay open, and dare to combine Eastern, Western, and Alternative Medicines in your quest to get what you want: a child. WARNING: This is much easier said than done. Sure, when I think about my bout with infertility in retrospect, it’s clear which parts were more “western” in nature – in-vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, western doctors and nurses telling me I had little time left – along with the parts that were more “eastern” minded – like balancing my body’s different meridians via acupuncture and BodyTalk, practicing Qi Gong, and eastern doctors telling me I could conceive up until menopause. At the time though, all I knew is that whatever strategy I was focusing on was not working. I knew I was getting older. And I knew the same thing that every infertile woman knows: that month after month, cycle after cycle, shot after shot, treatment after treatment, that I was still not pregnant. It was a cruel game, a test of my spirit, a challenge that I couldn’t conquer. And it didn’t help that all the different practitioners I was seeing did not agree on what was best for me…it’s not like all the folks I involved in my quest knew each other and everyone was working together – my “team” was assembled by ME, it was my creation. My IVF doctor didn’t want me to take herbs while on medication; his perspective was “show me a study that proves that herbs enhance fertility” while my acupuncturist’s perspective was “show me how herbs do not help enhance fertility.” Everyone I encountered was a trained professional who had dealt with infertility clients before, and my struggle was just as “real” to them as it was to me: each of them wanted me to become pregnant, but via their methods. I tried to work this out in a way that made everything complementary, but it often felt at odds. That’s not to say there was no overlap…my fertility clinic strongly suggested acupuncture immediately before and after an embryo transfer. I’m sure some Western-trained practitioners are growing more progressive and suggesting that patients combine best practices from Eastern medicine, and I’m equally sure in some cases that IVF really is the best option for acupuncture patients. But I had to sift through my “team’s” various convictions and prescriptions and suggestions myself. My advice is to seek out doctors, practitioners and caregivers with similar preferences as your own. But rely on yourself for direction: you are driving the boat. Follow your intuition, listen to your body and trust your gut when putting together your “infertility team” of practitioners.
Adoption/Donor Eggs: My infertility felt like a race against time – yours may not feel the same. For a while, I had adoption in mind as plan B, my husband had donor eggs in mind. Know that it’s common to be on different pages, and that it takes a lot to work, determination and tears to work through it all together. I can say that when I got more information about each, I felt empowered – simply researching the options gave me peace, though it took me too long to do it. I so wish I’d done it earlier!
I now know this: When I finally accepted that donor eggs may need to be the answer, this was the final piece that opened my head and heart, that made way for my body to conceive naturally. For me it was about taking control, doing as much as I could, taking charge….and then letting go. I needed to trust that my optimistic intuition would resolve as a child in one way or another…and it did.
Know that you are NOT alone. Know that you’re dealing with something that’s tough to talk about. Infertility is not as taboo as it used to be, but for me it was tough finding a place to start. When I got over feeling down, overwhelmed and unsuccessful in the battle and started digging deep instead, I didn’t stop.
I pray that sharing what I went through is helpful to you. This is my honest hope.
To learn more about the disease of infertility and National Infertility Awareness Week, click the following links:
(Basic understanding of the disease of infertility.)
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If you have any questions or would like specific information about what I’ve written, please email me at email@example.com.
I will try to help in any way I can.