March 2020. What a horrific month.
Shortly after receiving notice that my fourth embryo transfer had failed, my IVF clinic announced that it was shuttering due to the COVID pandemic. I was crushed.
As an infertility patient, I had already felt helpless, with so little control over my body and future. Now the COVID crisis was adding to my frustration.
Like others, I tried to regain some sense of control by stalking the website of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, hoping for some sign that clinics would be allowed to open again. But as the weeks dragged on, I realized that my obsession was unproductive.
I couldn’t stop wondering why I had to suffer like this. Why? Why me?
At such a low point, I thought back to one of my favorite books, from a college philosophy course – Man’s Search for Meaning, by psychologist Viktor Frankl. The book covers how Frankl found meaning in suffering as a Jew in a German concentration camp after losing his entire family.
As he notes, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult of circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult of circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.
To some, this may sound like a trite statement that ignores people’s anguish. So, let me be clear. While we try to make sense of our deep suffering and experiences, it does not justify the infertility experience. Nobody should ever have to suffer so much.
The world can’t brush the pain aside by saying, “Oh, find the bright side!”
That is toxic positivity. These realizations and discoveries, if they happen, need to come from within.
For me in 2020, when “pandemic baking” wasn’t enough of an outlet, I decided to look deeper into my suffering, like Frankl. I exercised what he describes as “the last of human freedoms”— changing my attitude about my circumstances.
I got involved in the infertility community. Initially, I thought it would simply distract me from my heartache. But in the process, I discovered one of the best (though still not widely practiced) tricks for surviving infertility – advocacy and community engagement.
The first way I got involved was with a local support group. A large group of women had recently “graduated,” leaving a vacuum of leadership and only two or three active members. I decided that I would organize Zoom support meetings to keep the group going.
Given Zoom fatigue, I did not know what would be the best way to keep people engaged. To draw people, I invited anyone I could think of to give us fresh perspectives – an endometriosis doctor, an infertility policy advocate, and an infertility author. Soon, our membership skyrocketed. And from those new members, support and friendship blossomed.
Through organizing these meetings, I received a couple of offers to speak to journalists about my experiences as an infertility patient during the clinic shutdown. Ultimately, my story was featured in a major national magazine. It was another opportunity to raise awareness about the devastating impacts of the clinic closures.
In addition, as an attorney, I started to wish I could do more pro bono work to help infertility patients. When I asked around my firm about what opportunities there may be, I was thrilled that my employer was already pro bono counsel to the board of directors of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. An email later, I found myself on the RESOLVE client team.
Through my work for RESOLVE, I became well acquainted with an inspirational infertility advocate, who helped me to make sense of everything that was happening to me – why I was suddenly finding myself more active in these kinds of community activities. And her words never left me.
“Initially, the infertility journey is only about you and your suffering,” she explained. “But when you make the infertility journey about more than you, it changes your relationship with infertility itself. You find purpose in the suffering. As a result, infertility gains less control and power over you, and that makes all the difference.”
Too often my own infertility journey felt like senseless suffering.
How true. Too often my own infertility journey felt like senseless suffering. And I had initially tried to ease such suffering with solutions directed only towards myself – therapy, an infertility puppy, self care, a trip to New Zealand, and one time, smashing old bottles and electronics at a “rage room.” Those all helped a little, but the benefits did not last long. (I even broke a toe in the rage room.)
It was only when I started to look beyond myself that I found meaning. I was able to leverage my experiences to help lessen the sadness, fear, and anger experienced by others. Every month that my treatments failed or were delayed, I had another month to make a difference in someone else’s infertility journey. And that is when I started to endure the suffering with a little more grace.
With Frankl’s experience and insight in mind, I now advise people early in their journeys to think not just about “what is the quickest way to get a baby,” but also “how can I learn from my suffering, find meaning in it, and help others.” The former does not always pan out, whereas the latter provides resilience.
There is never a “perfect” opportunity to get involved in an infertility community.
If you are running on empty and can only focus on yourself, that’s okay. Don’t feel guilty. Join the effort when you’re ready.
When you feel compelled to connect as I did, the best way to start is to start immediately and start small.
Listen to a fellow warrior suffering. Send flowers to a friend grieving a miscarriage. Nominate a friend for an IVF funding opportunity. Participate in National Advocacy Day. Join a walk-a-thon. The opportunities are only bounded by your creativity and passion.
People often see community engagement as doing favors for others. But in reality, it’s also an effective form of self therapy.
And here I am: After five years of infertility, including six IUIs, four IVF retrievals, five embryo transfers, and two early miscarriages, I am shocked that we are expecting a baby boy to arrive in October. But it’s not the end of infertility advocacy and community for me.
My goal is to be the support for others that I wish had existed for me early on. I dream of a day where infertility does not create the battle scars for others as it did for me.
And so, I stayed involved. Engagement helps to heal my deep wounds from this journey.
Georgina Jones Suzuki is a technology and life sciences attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives with her husband and dog Pocky, and looks forward to a baby boy joining them in October thanks to IVF. When not engaged in infertility issues, Georgina loves to cook, hike, travel, and discuss the latest Korean dramas on Netflix.
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