It was billed as a sabbatical, a 12 month break after many years in the work game. I was leading a high profile project taken on a month after silently miscarrying our first baby. Sixteen months later, a third failed IVF round had me, and other well-meaning friends and colleagues, scapegoating the job and stress of working in a (literally) toxic political environment. Frenetically paced, my veneer of confidence and drive during the day cracked to and from work with panic attacks on the crowded Thameslink train, the increasing sense of existing apart from others despite proximity to their armpits, their bags, their breath.
I had moved from a five to four day week to gain breathing space; what for was not entirely clear. So I could perform professionally throughout four long days to have the space to fall apart at my NHS counselling on a Friday? So I could sit gratefully in the Guy’s counselling room, a wall apart from the disabled toilet where I saw my first positive pregnancy test, and cry my heart out at the depths I seemed to be plunging to, with no slowing down? That hour every week staring out at the London Bridge skyline heaving into tissues with Caroline became my lifeline. Thank fuck I had no idea of the six long years to come. As more and more people around us started families, went on glorious short and long haul holidays, got promoted, moved house, acquired pets, seemingly nailed their 30s, I felt that despite valiant efforts I was slowly disappearing. I could barely make it to work without my heart hammering in fear of catastrophe let alone get on long distance trains and planes. The Eurostar became my friend only when put up against a plane and with a huge amount of fear, physical anxiety and desperation to have a holiday – because as we know it’s “always” relaxing abroad that brings about the much wanted bun in the oven, hard eye roll. I remember one year’s Eurostar to the south of France when the crew announced last minute they weren’t going to serve alcohol because of the world cup. As the train snaked out of St Pancras, I looked around in total panic at everyone chatting excitedly at 7:15am, sipping their coffees, getting their kids comfortable. Babies crying. I didn’t know how I was going to make it to Marseille at 186mph sans gin and tonic.
Death and irrational fear seemed to lurk around every corner. Our baby had died. I hung on by the frailest of psychological and emotional wires for the maternity leave I hoped I would one day have. Back in those naïve early years, achieving motherhood appeared the existential answer to solving everything: panic attacks, crisis in confidence, stilted career progression, being the only child of parents acrimoniously divorcing, parenting the parent, not feeling so hideously, cerebrally alone. And thus began the career break that promised so much hope; less ‘stress’, (er – as if this really impacted the outcome, I wince writing this), more time to devote to operations and IVF. Some people travelled round the world on a sabbatical; I travelled the well-trodden train and tube to London Bridge and Great Portland Street. Time for me to properly unwind (winces again), our confidence fairly high that this dramatic life change would be the key needed to unlock the Rubik’s cube of pregnancy. My husband prepared the single salary budget spreadsheet, we agreed where we would need to cut back (basically: everything, and then some) and put our entire savings towards IVF, professional counselling and acupuncture. Going for broke in all senses and having the privilege to do it. I thanked my love of shopping as I opened an eBay account to sell the clothes and shoes that no longer served me. I still thanked my love of shopping when eBay closed my account due to ‘fraudulent designer goods’ and my husband had to start up an account that made him look like a very cool transvestite.
Cue 18 months of operations, IVF treatment, a different, more expensive clinic, endometrial scratches, womb biopsies, drips, clexane, intra muscular progesterone injections, steroids, another egg collection, pre genetic screening, another embryo transfer, so many pills, pessaries, injections, pain, another pregnancy test, another loss. Me ironing my husband’s work shirts like a Stepford housewife as the seasons changed, my subconscious tipping backwards into further freefall. A fourth IVF round had not worked. Trying naturally had not worked. Doing another hysteroscopy had not worked. Isolation and loneliness from the routine of the human race that – oh the irony! – offers a sliver of normality during times of crisis. My career on hold, but my confidence further receding despite reassurance I could ‘pick it all up again’. All this for the ‘greater good’. All this so we could say we had ‘done everything we could’.
I called it, laughing bitterly, maternity leave without the baby. I started up my cat’s Instagram account commenting on the political and celebrity issues of the day (I couldn’t yet write about all of this). I threatened to learn to cook magnificently and failed. I saw Sue, my counsellor, and Emma, my acupuncturist to pull myself out of the victimhood, the misery, try to face the future. There was a lot to unpick and babyloss and expanding our family was always, always at the epicentre. We appeared to be in the adoption hinterland, the point where IVF had now not worked so many times that people didn’t know what to do or say other than: this. Just before I returned to work we went to the local council and Barnado’s passionate adoption talks, held one night after the other in a depressingly dark and cold January. I was desperate to ‘put an end’ to this, to move on. It wasn’t the answer for us at this point. Our emotional and financial gamble hadn’t worked out the way we wanted. I was 38 and staring 39 in the retinolled face. We had been trying since I was 32. A close IVF friend got pregnant on her fourth round and as I rang my husband, sobbing, I knew that in all senses I felt desolately, utterly, alone.
I’d like to say that after years of anxiety, fear and skirting the rim of depression, I was able to pull myself up by the bootstraps and point my life compass in a different direction. That my psyche somehow adjusted, became bored with the entrenched grief of infertility and loss, spoke to my physicality, calmed it down, made me feel part of the human race again. That being almost 40 and not being a mother to a live child was gracefully accepted, the hurt fading away like Prince Harry’s royal career. What actually happened was two years of professional counselling with the amazing Sue, at a reduced rate that we could afford on a single salary, supporting me through my sabbatical, and showing me that a life without IVF and children could also become a happy, fulfilled life. What then happened was one of my best and closest friends taking her own life; suddenly, brutally no longer part of mine.
Thanks to the global pandemic, we talk increasingly about loneliness and mental health awareness. But how much do any of us really understand loneliness? Understand what emotional and practical support and steps we can take, and reach out to others for? How much, in the grips of sadness, isolation, grief, do we feel able to do this? How much do we try, and then feel it doesn’t work, and then don’t do it again? What preventative measures can we put in place when we feel the grips of loneliness closing in? I don’t have the answers. All I know is that my close friend’s death was a wake up call that pierced with absolute clarity my personal loneliness and shocked me into mental and emotional action after years trudging in the infertility wilderness. The day I said goodbye to her was the day I had yet another negative pregnancy test following a CRGH natural IVF, scan assisted cycle. It was a seminal moment in the way I perceived life.
I told her that I would live for us both. I knew that the way of the last five years could not be the way of the next five, or ten, or however long Earth plans to host me. I heard her in my head, her sharp as a tack barrister wit, the beautiful girl from Somerset who had met the girl from Bristol on day 3 of university and backed her ever since. Went through our miles of WhatsApps over how many years, relived her joy as I messaged her going into court that I was first pregnant. She replied under her gown immediately, went onto to pulverise a criminal. Standard legal genius from an extraordinary human whose humour meshed so much with my own we should have been sisters. And even then, I saw her loneliness pulsating under how much she gave to others. I felt it and then at the end knew we had been powerless to pierce it despite repeated attempts, counselling, care, love. Not a day goes by when I feel I should have done better. The loss of her presence, her intrinsic understanding of me, of others, is an unfathomable loss to everyone who knew her.
Our connection to people and our community is fundamental to protecting our mental health. It is a life right that every human should expect, and not all of us receive. It underpins everything: how resilient we are in the face of life happening, how we connect with others, how we exercise boundaries and protect ourselves. It lays the very foundations for how we breathe in and out every day, our thoughts, decisions, evaluations, perceptions. It still feels like a luxury to talk about, or receive, when in fact it’s a damn essential.
It took a potent mixture of infertility, baby loss, rank anxiety and parental divorce to get me to the professional counselling table. Back then I felt I was fighting for myself. Now I know I had the NHS and private counselling privileges to support life changing loss, rewire my thought patterns, tackle the huge physical and mental onslaught that over the years just seemed to keep on coming, with key figures in my life enduring crises in theirs. It wasn’t overnight. It wasn’t in a year. But inch by inch, access to specialist counselling support has provided the balm, equipped me with the skills and taught me how to navigate feelings in times of great uncertainty. I have learned how to hold my nerve even as it stretches to breaking point. I have built layer upon layer of resilience, some painfully erected, others formed quietly and definitively, emotional tectonic plates grinding together to create a newly defined landscape. To have this emotional support and expertise to bring about positive change isn’t an M&S nice to have. It’s something everyone should have access to when processing bereavement and grief.
Please don’t ever hesitate to pull up that chair at the counselling table.
This blog was written especially for Petals, the Baby Loss Counselling Charity providing free, specialist counselling for all types of loss.
One thought on “The Sabbatical”
Spot on, as always, A’bel. X