Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A journey of love: review of Julia Leigh's Avalanche: A Love Story

This post is part of Pamela's blog book tour for Avalanche: A Love Story. For more reviews and/or to participate, please go here

*Author's note: I've struggled with this memoir for two weeks, particularly after Rachel Cusk's poor NYT book review. My goal was to write a honest review that couples my interpretation of the emotions from going through treatment, which Julia Leigh's story brought to the surface. So in addition to my words, I'm including music in this review. A soundtrack that I've been playing over and over as I've been reflecting on this story. This interpretation is my own with no direct ties to either Ms. Leigh or the musician featured here.*

Like many medical treatments, no one decides to pursue IVF without careful consideration. The expense is something that will stop most people from even considering this an option, but add in the emotional roller coaster, fueled by altering hormones, countless injections, a drain of finances and so much uncertainty make it appear as a very unattractive gamble. Yet for those living with infertility, the opportunity to have a child drives many to pursue this path to expand their family. The promise of resolving infertility (though not curing it) through pregnancy leads so many to take this gamble, risking financial ruin, stigma and especially heartbreak along the way. After all, it is biologically engrained in humans to reproduce. To not do so would be detrimental to the species.

Despite us living in an era of great medical advances, the myths and misunderstandings surrounding IVF remain. Many who have not experienced treatments or faced them as an option are flippant in their understanding of what this medical procedure entails. Though there are many stories of someone's friend's second cousin achieving pregnancy through fertility treatments, particularly IVF, these same people are unable to fill in all the details, like of the repeated losses/failed treatments, of the financial strain, the altered emotional state and physical toll caused by the fertility drug and especially the emotional trauma caused by the process. Worse yet are those who chose not to pursue treatments or end treatments after many failed rounds and find themselves not parenting. In an act of self-preservation, setting healthy boundaries and choosing to live a full life, they are often shunned, considered selfish and informed they are not parenting because "they didn't want it enough."

Equally foreign is the truth about IVF success. The reality that more often than not that these treatments fail. The statistics are often suppressed given that this is an industry that relies on selling hope. The hope of coming out the other side with the child you dreamed of expanding your family with. It is my firm belief that many who go into this business do so with the desire to help the patients involved; they want to bring that child into being. But when selling hope, there's money involved. And the truth is the good intentions often get skewed when there is money involved. And so the truth about fertility treatment success rates is often not evident so the way the statistics are performed is often not uniform and usually unclear.

Julia Leigh's memoir tackles all of these issues, with the author doing so by sharing her story. A story that starts out the way so many of us do. She falls in love, decides to expand her family and takes actions to do so. A similar start to the story of family building that many people around the world share. Unapologetically Ms. Leigh tells of her relationship with Paul, starting with their first meeting and love affair to their relationship over the years and then when they fall in love again. At this point, she is older, but she is also determined to nurture the new family she has while planning with Paul for bringing their child into the world. There are hints that time may be a factor, but there are other worries and obligations that Ms. Leigh is pursuing. Plus there is the added tales of those who successfully conceive well into their 40s. A hope of overcoming biological limitations.

It is when months of trying to conceive roll by that things begin to fall apart. Ms. Leigh details the arguments she and Paul face. A road that ultimately leads to them separating and divorcing. Promises made are not kept. And suddenly Ms. Leigh finds single and pursuing fertility treatments on her own. Combating the naysayers while pursuing the child already born in her heart.

It is with this decision that Ms. Leigh lays out in beautiful detail the conflict the average person living with infertility goes through with loved ones and family. Despite good intentions, pain is caused through lack of support and injections of judgement. All of it feeling of very intimate betrayal. Ms. Leigh guides her readers through each moment, bringing those who are open to the experience an up-close and personal view of how much these moments impacted her. Most similarly was finding the much needed support in unlikely sources. These shelters from the storm that was raging.

Ms. Leigh then goes on to share all the details on her journey through fertility treatments. From the beginning, there's a feeling of hope. The reproductive endocrinologists (REs) who she works closely with are driven to help her bring home her childling. In many moments, I found myself having flashes from my own treatment experience, with me also having a deep affection for the nurses who oversaw my care. There is also her injection regiment, where she details how she prepares and the worry of doing anything wrong, something many in the infertility community can relate with. But as Ms. Leigh goes on there's an underlying sense of ick that surfaces, from the offers of add-ons where the data of their benefit is unclear to the medical advice where they claim the decision is her own when clearly they are influencing her to the contract Ms. Leigh signs where it is disclosed that the doctors are financially benefitting from the treatments that administer. As Ms. Leigh shares the details in a way that illustrates the mindset of a fertility treatment patient, it's hard not to experience the confusion, uncertainty and lack of control caused by these mind wars.

In the end, Ms. Leigh decides to end the madness and reclaim her live. A decision that leads to grief for the loss of her childling. But also there is a reclaiming of control over the process. A claiming of limitations and setting of boundaries. Interestingly enough, while initially criticized for going this route alone, there is now pushing for her not to stop, revealing the trauma of not being allowed to properly grieve what was loss.

Ms. Leigh's book ends on a hopeful note; of choosing to love after things have fallen apart. Most impressively, she shares vignettes about her with her nieces and nephews. She shows her ability to love on the deepest of levels, especially during moments of pain. She counters all claims that those not parenting are unable to love on the deepest of levels. That this connection is not restricted solely to those who give birth.

Avalanche, in the end, is a love story in its truest form. A story of love that so many have experienced. Its the story of someone who sacrificed so much to bring her son/daughter into the world. One that anyone who is parenting or has ever desired to parent can relate with. The difference is that Ms. Leigh finds herself grieving the dead of this child. While others will go on to encounter milestone after milestone, she is burying her baby. That's not selfish and uncaring, but a love most dear. Evidence to refute all the myths and misconceptions surrounding those who are not parenting. That instead of being shallow and weak, these individuals are filled with strength, love and compassion. That they know how to love on levels and in ways that many fail to understand.

And maybe that's the lesson we're all meant to understand: that love comes in many forms. No better and no worse.

Monday, September 19, 2016

#MicroblogMondays: why we need to talk about infertility

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

Sitting on the bus back to campus, I finished the last page of Julia Leigh's Avalanche: A Love Story and felt like I had been stunned. The emotions welling up in me, combined with my own memories of fertility treatments, reveal a tangled web that still requires more picking. 

In an attempt to make sense of the emotions, I do a web-search looking to see what others have to say about Julia's book. One of the first hits reveals a review from the New York Times by Rachel Cusk. As I read, the numbness is replacing by hot anger. 

This week, Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos is hosting a blog book tour for Avalanche. Already some have asked why this is necessary. For those who wonder, I invite you to read Ms. Cusk's review as she illustrates beautifully how much we need to be talking openly about infertility. Ms. Cusk opens her review by drawing a comparison between those who want to be successful writers and those who undergo fertility treatments, stating early on that the chance of success is extremely low and both parties are knowingly setting themselves up for heartache. That somehow we are asking for pain upon pain in the pursuit to grow our families. The utter lack of empathy is clear from the first paragraph.

The sad part is most people share Ms. Cusk's opinion. Most see infertility as something we brought on ourselves. Be if we waited too long or that we aren't deserving or that parenting isn't part of a higher-power's plan for us or maybe that we did something to cause all of this. We absolutely deserve this in their eyes. 

Infertility isn't the first disease to face such stigma. 100 yrs ago, the American Cancer Society was founded during a period when a similar mindset was inflicted those diagnosed with cancer. It was through public education and stories, both of survivors and family, that changed how we view cancer today. But this only came because stories were shared, like Julia's memoir, Belle Bogg's recent book The Art of Waiting as well as many other books (Pamela's Silent Sororty, etc), this community of bloggers/tweeters/etc and even those who've chosen to share their journey, no matter the stage. The truth is, we need to talk about infertility and what it does to a person, a couple, a family and even a community. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

#MicroblogMondays: Walden

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cur a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms."
~ Henry David Thoreau. Walden

Monday, August 29, 2016

#MicroblogMondays: finding the good

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

It's amazingly easy to focus on the bad. From a young age we're taught to find anything that's wrong as focusing on the good is seen as bragging or acting self-important. Be it the weather, the looming deadlines, disappointments or changes big or small, the negative is always weighed over the positive.

Years ago, while in an infertility support group, the leader assigned an exercise to counter the negative. Given every member was in limbo and preparing for treatment, it was simply too easy. So we were challenged to find 5 good things each day and to share them with our partners. Those 5 things had to be shared prior to diving in to all the other stuff.

It surprised me how hard doing this exercise was. The urge to dump and vent following a rough day. And yet, by doing so, I found that my attitude shifted. Sure things were still painful and there were many moments where the hurt consumed. But finding those good things were reminders of why life was still worth living.

This past week was a hard one. Between the emotional landmine followed by an insane vet bill (both Jaxson and Daisy are healthy, which was the burn) followed by a trip to urgent care as the whole family has been sick, it was easy to find things to complain about.

But despite all of that, there was also the good moments. Like how the mornings have become cooler, leading to pleasant wake-ups. And the peaceful naps. Of the trip back from urgent care where we took the long way home and got a chance to explore the city. Of a morning spent with the Beats playing with their building blocks. The peaceful moments I got alone with a book.

And the promise of a Monday that this is a new week with new potential opportunity. A reminder that even when it seems hard, finding the good can fuel you to overcome.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The sorting game

Sunday night, Grey and I had a long conversation with my uncle and aunt. Passing the phone back and forth to one another, even though it was on speaker, we talked with both of them about the condo (we fired our management company!!!!; more on that soon), Cyrol drama, updating them about the Beats (both kids were so excited to talk with them) and about how we were doing in general. The conversation was an easy one and when it was time to say good-night, both Grey and I were feeling good.

Given all the drama from this past weekend, I've been reflecting on why my interactions with my uncle and aunt are so seamless in comparison. What is it about this relationship that leaves both Grey and me feeling safe to interact independently? Grey and I talked about it yesterday, reflecting on it all. Trying to work out what we can do to get there with the rest of family.

My relationship with all of Grey's family has been strained for several years now. Part of this was due to wariness from the start. Prior to us dating, Grey had been in a relationship with a woman where she actively tried to separate him from his family. Being young and in love, combined with some additional factors of inclusion into a new group of people who were incredibly supportive of his choices to follow in their footsteps, he found himself slowly drawing away from them. Luckily he didn't marry this woman, ultimately cutting all ties with these people (even though they still stalk him to this day), but the unspoken hurt has remained that no one has really addressed. So from the beginning they were suspicious. Would I do the same thing, separating him from them? To counteract that, I made an extra effort to show that I wouldn't. I called my MIL regularly, made a point of pushing for us to spend holidays with the family, ganged up on Grey when his sister chose to marry a guy who seemed way too interested in promoting his values over SILs, would go on to knit baby blankets for the then niece and nephews and even flew out with Grey to support his brother Lucas after his twins were born and they were in crisis.

Then infertility hit. And I struggled. I struggled as my MIL would talk on and on about her grandbabies during our conversations, knowing full well about our diagnosis. I struggled as holidays were being spent with the in-laws gathering on a different coast with the expectation that if we wanted to be included we had to fly out. I struggled greatly with this news. And this incident. So a wall went up as I didn't feel safe expressing how much I hurt. Even when I did with David's encouragement, it felt like it all fell short. Resolution never happened.

The wall didn't go away. During my whole pregnancy, I bucked a lot of the bonding my MIL wanted to do over the pending arrival of the Beats. We only saw them once while I was pregnant, with me finding ways to spend as little time with them. An offer of a baby shower by Grey's sister was immediately dismissed, largely due to my fear that doing so would jinx the pregnancy. The Sip & See proposed for later lead was ultimately a complete disaster. But the kicker came the day I was admitted to Chateau L&D. Grey's mother had also booked plane tickets out to see her other grandchildren. Calling to insist that she would cancel the trip, Grey reassured her that it wasn't necessary as we would likely be going home. But I knew he was in denial. As I watched the doctors and nurses, I knew the Beats would be making an early arrival. When she talked to me, I told her to go; to take that trip out to see her other grandchildren. And with that she not only missed their birth but was also kept away for almost a month as they were in NICU.

Over the past three years, there's been slow attempts to heal. Appreciation for gifts received was always made known and I tried resuming conversations with MIL. I even wrote Lucas a brief email apologizing for my past behavior and thanking him and his wife for all the clothes they were sending us. But during that first year, my uncle and aunt became very involved with helping us with the Beats. Weekly visits happened, with them giving us some much needed relief (usually in the form of sleep for me) and company while also helping with housework and providing meals. It was with my uncle and aunt that the Beats grew into toddlers, hitting those first milestones under their care and support. And though my in-laws were never actively excluded, the distance meant they missed all of that while they were aware that the Beats had gained another set of grandparents.

There's another level, though. One that I've struggled with. Lucas's wife is a woman who is easily described as a sweetheart. Getting pregnant for them always only took a month of trying (they have conceived their twins on their honeymoon) and they made a point of requesting MIL's help since the beginning. As much as I hate myself for this, there has been jealousy. Even after the Beats arrived and despite Grey's countering, I've felt that I've been tolerated while this woman has been embraced as part of the family. I'm outside looking in.

Over the past few days, following all the scars hurting and this new knowledge about MIL's confession, I've been reflecting on what I want moving forward. Knowing now that we're at a point where conversations have to start happening and things need to be hashed out. Because I'm tired of feeling like I fall short all the time. That somehow I'm less and am trying to keep Grey from them. Granted I have my role to play in all of this. But just as they have had their reasons, I've had mine. I had to protect my heart and my sanity.

The irony of all of this is I've witnessed what happens when complex issues like this go unresolved. My mother has an older sister who is estranged from the family. Years upon years of feuding and old hurts where they can't be in the same room as one another. The last time was at my grandfather's funeral. Watching all of them interact, never addressing the hurts directly but instead playing their respective roles, I truly wondered if I was witnessing a soap opera being filmed. More to the point, as angry as my aunt with every person in that room (24 total), it was me that she did well with. Me because I confronted her, made it clear that I would respect her as long as she respected me and actually took an interest in some of the things her husband was working on. Those witnessed interactions between this estranged aunt and I have become family legend with them all clueless as to why she did so well with me. The idea that this aunt was lashing out because she was hurting and that maybe, just maybe, peace could come through empathy, has been so profoundly foreign to all of them.

All this said, I still have no idea how to proceed forward. Mainly because this is still Grey's family and I don't want to push him into doing something he doesn't agree with. But also because with how complex all of this is, I'm still trying to figure it all out. A sorting game if you will. Emotions are high at the moment. Any misstep is likely to set off so many bombs. And I'm terribly afraid. But, like with my parents, it's time. So we play the game.

Any suggested moves would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, August 22, 2016

#MicroblogMondays: Boom!

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

Ever hear the saying "bad things come in threes?" The first blow is always followed by a second and then the inevitable closure punch. It leaves you reeling and filled a large knot of negative emotions. 

This weekend was one of those instances. Though nothing life-altering, it has rocked both Grey and me. 

First the news that MIL was doing an extended visit of BIL's family. I'll admit I was hurt that her summer trip is solely being spent visiting them, bringing back the memories of during infertility of travel plans that always excluded us. 

Then came the unexpected, late night phone call from BIL to Grey. He got a new job, leading to the relocation back to the West Coast. Though this is good news for them, it reminds me too much of this instance with how it was delivered. More scars revealed.

And then the final bit of news came this morning with a letter from Cyrol addressed to me, following on the heels of a letter for MB. All twisted and signs of an obsessed person who needs so much help and likely won't get it. So my morning is now going to be spent contacting law clinics and the police as it's time for a restraining order. Because we know that his family won't take action unless he is put in jail, as right now the legal system doesn't have reason to declare him mentally unfit. 

I've been struggling with all of this. Numb to Cyrol (I had my "of course" moment this morning), but struggling also with the mix of emotions with the other news. Learning that MIL confessed to Grey she feels like we don't want her to be part of our lives. Scars for a relationship Grey went through years before he met me and yet things that have added to the isolation we've felt. There's also the feelings of jealousy that BIL has the opportunity. Granted it's not one that Grey or I would ever consider (BIL is a good fit), but there's financial security that comes with this for them. The unfairness of the perceived inequality of resources.

Today is being spent putting it all back together. Analyzing why these feelings exist and figuring out how to heal and come to peace. Remembering to breathe deeply even though my lungs burn after being pushed underwater.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Human Connection

This post was inspired by Mali's recent post. If you haven't already read it, click over and have a read.

In 2009, the stop-motion animation movie Mary and Max was released. Stop-motion is something I've learned to appreciate with age (think Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run), so I was surprised how quickly this movie grabbed my attention. The story is about a lonely little girl who establishes a pen pal relationship with a middle-aged man who has Asperger's syndrome. The story unfolds as over the years their relationship grows and changes, hitting emotional mountains along the way. It was the ending that got me, though. Despite all the trials and tribulations, this moment where Mary visits Max, only to find he has died hours before, revealed the power of human connection and lifelong friendship.

Like so many introverted geeks, I struggle to find human connections; kindred spirits I seemingly click with. I always assumed that this stemmed from not having much of a connection within my own family and that I had failed to develop the necessary skill set to foster relationships. Hence I'm one that has always had a small circle of friends, focusing instead of the quality of the relationship vs. the quantity. And in general, I've learned to be comfortable with being alone.

Mali's post has me wondering though. Is this lack of human connection actually inhibited due to family? Have we been programmed from a young age to embrace family over all else? If so, is that part of the reason that infertility is so painful? A dual loss not only of potential family, but also the one at present as we become outsiders looking in. The added trauma of having to build human connections when one is unsure where to start.

When I began blogging about my journey through infertility, I found I was in the minority when it came to family involvement. Sure, most people weren't overly open with their journeys, but through reading it seemed that most had the support of parents and loved ones, even if it was more peripheral. In my case my family was completely cut off, leaving me struggling to find any source of support as I was grieving that loss. I was fortunate from the beginning to find the support I did through this space. To find my tribe. But this issue surfaced again just before the Beats were born. There was a disconnect about me not sharing this news with my family that many struggled to wrap their heads around.

The story of Mary and Max gets at the heart of this for me. With my family, I was a black sheep. So finding a human connection elsewhere, usually with strangers, became natural. In a weird way, it did prepare me finding my tribe within the ALI community. Shared pain and uncertainty do created a lot of bonding.

What I never considered, though, was that for many this sudden distance with family could actually be terrifying. That as Mali pointed out, most deep connections may be restricted to family and shared only within family. Making the mantra "blood is thicker than water" take on a whole new level and, as Mali pointed out, all the more traumatic when seemingly lost. And maybe, just maybe, that's one piece of information those who have never experienced infertility and loss ever really consider: the possibility of losing the human connections we know and have fostered simply because of the failure to relate.
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