By Ritu Bhathal
Remember the time you huddled together with your friends, proudly exclaiming you’d finally got your period?
Remember that girl standing on the outskirts, not joining in with the conversation?
That was me.
Remember when you’d joke about the pains, share your remedies, your experiences?
Remember that girl, smiling and nodding, but not really joining in?
That was me.
Remember those nights out, planning what to wear, and whether white would be appropriate tonight, or not?
Remember that girl who always wore black, just in case?
That was me.
Remember the times you checked your calendar, making sure that week didn’t interfere with your plans?
Remember that girl who couldn’t pinpoint that week?
That was me.
Remember the time, a few months of no protection, and some fun, was all it took for your BFP?
Remember that woman whose months stretched to years, without that joy?
That was me.
Remember when you’d cry with disappointment, every time it appeared, then, the month it was late, you leapt with joy?
Remember that woman who just never knew whether to be happy or sad?
That was me.
Remember the struggles, the appointments, the wait, the medications, the scans, the blood tests, the disappointments?
Oh, yes, that was me.
Remember the gratefulness, the blessings, you felt when you picked up your child?
Yes, me too.
Finally, that is me.
Way back when I was a young teenager, waiting for that moment to cross the threshold from girl to woman, I had no real idea about PCOS, endometriosis, or any conditions that would hinder my life journey.
Back then, it was just the expectation that I would start to get these awful things called periods, suffer for a few days each month, with cramps and mood swings, then be okay again for three weeks of the month.
Well, it didn’t quite happen in that way for me.
I can’t even remember the actual time I realised that I had finally ‘started’. I was at least a year or so behind my friends, but that was nothing to worry about, because, like, I already had boobs, so, you know, things were on track.
But I do remember feeling that it wasn’t as big a deal as some of the others used to make out. I never really had bad pains, or heavy flow. It was a few days, here and there. Not even monthly. My friends told me that I was lucky.
And I thought I was too.
Fast forward to university days. It was still the same. Never knowing when Aunty Flo would come to visit. I talked to my mum, and she thought we shouldn’t worry too much. Her cycle was like clockwork. Mine would settle down, for sure.
To be safe, though, we went to the doctor. I told him about my irregular cycle and how inconvenient it was.
No thoughts of investigations, at that time. He just popped me on a pill. “There you go. You’ll get a monthly bleed, and all will be fine.”
Off I trotted with my magic prescription that was to mask any problems I had.
Now, I’d be like the others. I’d be able to complain that my time of the month was approaching. I might even get the cramps and moodiness now.
Press that fast forward button again to a year after marriage.
I always wanted a family. As did my husband. I’ve always loved children. Whenever there was a family gathering or a function, I’d be the one with a group of young cousins trailing after me.
“Ritu is going to be a wonderful mother when she is older.” That was a phrase I heard a lot then. Yes, I was indeed going to be the best mum ever.
The pill was thrown in the bin, and the baby making started in earnest, though, I wasn’t quite sure when the right time was, because my natural erratic cycles had started up again.
Oh, and I began to put on weight. Spots, that I had never suffered from previously, erupted over my face. I looked like a twenty-something teen. Oh, well, at least I knew hubby loved me.
It was nearing a year since we had started trying, when I went to a hen weekend for a very close cousin of mine. She was a medical rep at the time, and she knew we were trying for a baby.
“Have you been to the doctor, yet?”
“No, but then everyone says it takes time.”
“But I think you should go. You’ve begun to put on weight, and that’s not like you. Look at your skin. You used to have the clearest skin. And you are still not regular, are you?”
“I heard about this thing, polycystic ovaries. It’s something actually more common in us Asian women than we are aware of. That might be what you have. Please. Go to the doctor and talk about it.”
So, armed with some new, and frankly scary, knowledge, I trudged home to talk to my husband. He wasn’t overly worried but knew that it was better to check than remain in ignorance.
Of course, my GP thought I was fussing over nothing.
“It’s been only a year. Most couples have to try for that time, before falling pregnant.”
But I explained about everything; the erratic cycles, the weight gain, the skin breakouts, the not knowing anything…
She relented and sent me for blood tests and a scan.
The bloods, apparently, were borderline, “nothing to worry about,” she said.
The sonographer’s face told another story, however.
As she moved the ultrasound wand around inside me, to get a better picture, she gasped. There were many tens of tiny cysts populating my ovaries. I was definitely polycystic.
I went back to the doctor, armed with this new knowledge.
So, what could she do for us?
Well, the drugs came straight out.
“Take this Metformin. You need a high dose, but we’ll wean you onto it. There are some unpleasant side effects that could show themselves, but it will regulate you. If you’re not pregnant in three months, we’ll review.”
Sounded simple enough. So, off I went, to get ready for this baby explosion that would happen.
But it didn’t.
Three months later, and I had lost some weight (one benefit of Metformin, aside from the awful stomach upsets I experienced as my body cot used to the drug), but I was still not pregnant.
Bu this time, colleagues at my then workplace, were aware of my situation. They would tread carefully around the subject of pregnancy, or babies, not wanting to upset me.
But I wasn’t bothered. I was going to become a mother.
Because everyone said I’d be a great mum, remember, so it would surely happen soon…
At my next appointment, the blame was turned onto my husband. So, he went off to get tested, and we all know how men feel about that kind of testing… But he was fine. Firing all cylinders, so to speak.
It was definitely me.
No more blood tests, or scans needed apparently, the GP put me on another medication, Clomid, which is a fertility drug. It basically sends your ovaries into overdrive, so the hope is that if you are producing more eggs, then you should theoretically catch one, get lucky, fall pregnant and have that family you always dreamed of.
Instead, for the two cycles I took it, my life was hell. Who knew that a tiny pill, taken for five measly days of the month could cause your life to turn upside down?
For the first time in my life, I suffered migraines. And they weren’t just for a day. Both times, I needed a week off work because of the pain and discomfort.
I got called into see my MD at that point. To be honest, I was lucky to have such understanding employers. My boss told me that HR had been on to him and wanted to know why I was suddenly having a week off every month, citing lady problems. He knew the score. In fact, the first time I got one of these debilitating headaches, he was the one I had to call to say I wasn’t coming in, and he offered to take me to the doctor, because he knew no one was home, and I couldn’t drive. We came up with a plan, that if, next month, the same happened, I was to call him, and he would come and get me, then officially send me home, so no one could raise a finger at me.
I didn’t need to take him up on that offer, in the end. We decided that this was not working, and as we had access to private medical care at the time, I asked the GP to refer me.
My private consultant was an angel. She was so cross with the GP, who had done none of the regular checks to see whether my body was ready to handle the strength of a drug like Clomid, which it wasn’t at all. My cycle was still not settled, and though the hormones were beginning to normalise, due to the Metformin, they were by no means ready.
So now, I started the routine of weekly blood tests with her, and regular appointments. My husband was tested again, too, as a routine matter, and we were told that one good thing for us, would be to get away for a holiday, and totally relax.
That was something we really needed.
During the time we had been trying, there had been a wedding in the family, and my new sister-in-law had been causing her own grief in the house. That added extra stress onto us all. My in-laws never pressured us about having kids. They knew we were trying. I never discussed it with my father-in-law but would have frank conversations with my mother-in-law. She would pray for us, and suggest all manner of funny things, including throwing lemons into flowing water five weeks in a row (I kid you not) because an astrologer suggested it.
I did it all.
Who knew what would help me?
My own parents, though far away from me, were a continual support, and I know my Pops’ prayers went off the scale, for us, at that time.
A few months went by, and still no Big Fat Positive, or BFPs, as I came to think of them, because that’s what all the infertility groups I became part of, described them as. It was easy to think this was never going to happen.
But my best friend was always a ray of sunshine in my life. She still is. She told me a story of a friend of hers, and this story gave me hope. Her friend had been diagnosed with PCOS as a young girl. She was told it was so severe that she would never conceive. She had many years to come to terms with that. When she got married, she told her prospective husband this, and he accepted the fact. They settled down for a long life of coupledom, and as if by some miracle, or maybe she was just more relaxed, and not thinking about babies, she fell pregnant. And it didn’t happen once, but FOUR TIMES!
So, there was hope. If it could happen to her, it could happen to me.
Other members of the family began to ask that priceless question: “When are you having a baby, then?” It had been a few years since our marriage, by then.
My initial answer used to be, “When we’re ready,” which was often taken with disdain, by the elders, and with a nod of understanding from the youngers.
It changed to “It’s in God’s hands.”
That satisfied the elders. They knew we were trying and that we would give them some ‘good news’ soon.
The youngers were more curious. What did I mean? I took the opportunity to talk about PCOS with some of the women and girls close to my age. None of them had heard of this condition. They all knew how much I wanted to be a mother. It sparked a greater wave of support from them, and also made a few of them think about their own bodies. In fact, I know that at least two ended up having investigations done, themselves, and they found out they were also PCOS-ers too.
After another few rounds of blood tests, my private consultant thought we were ready for the next stage. Since we hadn’t fallen pregnant with just Metformin, the dreaded Clomid was mentioned.
I was scared. What if the same happened as last time? Those debilitating migraines were scary.
She explained that Clomid could only taken a maximum of six times, and I had already wasted two of those precious rounds, with my GP’s idiocy.
We had four more goes, or the next step would be IVF.
After discussions, we decided to give Clomid another go. My consultant was reassuring. The Metformin had done its job, and my hormone levels were as good as they were going to be. The migraines shouldn’t happen, but if they did, we would stop the medication.
And the first cycle went well, in that I had no headaches.
No BFP either, but baby steps, so to speak.
Miraculously, after the second round of Clomid, it happened. I got that longed for two lines on a pregnancy test. (I also got several crosses, more double lines, and a doctor’s test to prove it, but I had to keep checking, to actually believe it!)
This journey was going to come to an end, finally.
We were going to have that longed for baby.
Things had been tough for us, as a couple too. The stress and anxiety I felt, would be kept bottled up as I tried to be as positive as I could, for everyone else, but it was my husband who saw the sniffling wreck in the night. It was him who comforted me as another test was negative. Sex became mechanical, rather than a pleasure. He would always try to reassure me that things would be okay, but I couldn’t shake that feeling that without a child, my life would be incomplete.
And, God must have been smiling down on us, as I had a perfect pregnancy. No morning sickness, no excess weight gain, it was wonderful!
Apart from one scan, where the sonographer spotted something, and disappeared, reappearing with a doctor. That is never good, is it? They had found an enlarged cyst on my right ovary, which could cause me some discomfort, but they were going to keep an eye on it. It was around four cm at the time.
We decided not to find out the sex of the baby. The fact we were having a child, was blessing enough.
The birth story is another matter, but here I was, holding a bouncing baby… we didn’t know, and for the first few moments, didn’t care. This was the little being we had been hoping and praying for. The midwife leant over, lifted the blanket the baby was wrapped in, and pointed at the appendage. “It’s a boy!”
Tears of joy were already streaming down our faces. Phone calls made, we settled down to our first day as a little family.
I always remember my mum, on whose birthday he was born (can’t ever top that birthday present – your first grandchild! Happy birthday!), saying to me “We never cared what you had. A baby is a baby, and all should be loved. But still, considering all the troubles you had, I was glad you had a boy, simply so no one made stupid comments about trying again, if it was a girl.” But the thing was, we really wanted a girl too. My husband’s family hadn’t had a girl born in their family for a generation, and they were a small family, at that. There was a hope that a girl would grace the family, too.
Shortly before our blessing turned one, I started experiencing pains again, in the right side of my abdomen.
Emergency scans showed that the cyst from my pregnancy, which had been forgotten, had grown. It was now eight centimetres and causing pressure. That private care came in handy again, as the same consultant who helped us fall pregnant, prepared to operate on me, keyhole style to drain the cyst.
That feeling of waking up, and thinking you’d been sawn in two was what I experienced. As I came round, she was standing there near me, stroking my hand.
“Ritu, how are you? Now, remember, I said we were doing keyhole surgery? Well, in the end, I had to do an emergency Laparotomy (most definitely not keyhole, I have a caesarean-style scar to prove it, and I never had a c-section in my life) as the cyst burst. It was twelve centimetres when we got inside, and as it burst, we found it had been blood-filled, not just clear fluid. To stem the danger of septicaemia, we had to get inside to drain the blood, and found that your ovary had been ruptured too. So, we have had to remove your ovary. While inside, I discovered a case of endometriosis, so we have given you a scrape too, and hope that your recovery will be quick.”
She still held my hand, as she remembered our journey to become parents. “Don’t worry, you still have one working ovary.” Patting my hand, she left me and my husband to come to terms with this new reality.
So, I was now one ovary less than other women, I still had PCOS, and I also had endometriosis, so there would still be difficulties getting pregnant again.
But we had our blessing baby – who, for six weeks, I couldn’t pick up. You try to explain to a fifteen-month-old, why his mummy lying down all the time, and can’t pick him up.
There were many tears, of physical pain, as well as mental and emotional pain.
Would this half woman be able to have another child?
Of course, the next battle was more personal, as most people we knew, stopped asking too much, about babies, since we had one. There were always going to be the aunty-jis who wondered when we’d give our child a brother or sister… but you get used to it. Still, we wanted that little princess (or another prince) to complete our family.
Surprisingly, three months after my surgery, we found out we were expecting again! How did that happen? I wasn’t even on the Metformin again, yet? Obviously, the scrape during the operation must have helped, and my one remaining ovary was feeling the pressure, so it did its job properly. Tentatively excited, but scared, as I had just healed from the operation, we set upon the pregnancy journey a second time, but after six weeks, I started spotting.
The grief I felt at losing that miracle baby can’t be explained. Now, not only did I have to deal with the random ‘When’s the next baby?” comments, but those that knew about the miscarriage their own opinions. Most were supportive, but some would comment that it wasn’t even a pregnancy, merely a late period.
Say that to any sufferer of miscarriage, and I know they will agree that the moment you see a positive on a pregnancy test, that tiny dot becomes a person for you. Whether you carry a baby to full term, or a few weeks, nothing can stop all the dreams you begin to dream. And nothing can stop your need to grieve.
So now, on top of everything else, I couldn’t carry a baby to full term.
My dad hugged me close. He said that these things are God’s will, and there is always a reason behind what happens, though often, we will not be privy to the reason. We must simply accept it, grieve, and move on. I guess he was right. My body probably wasn’t ready for a pregnancy, so soon after surgery.
Once I was stronger, we began to try again. The Metformin was back in my life, and I was doing all sorts of other things to find the right time to conceive including charting my temperature, using a saliva microscope, and checking mucous secretions (I know, TMI, but that was my life)
Another three months on, and we got that BFP again.
I was exhausted though. It had been a tiring few months. Everything I did was with extreme care, to nurture this new life. The vitamins, healthy eating, meditations…
All in vain, as I experienced that cramping, followed by the dreaded spotting, eight weeks in, again.
I was broken.
Nothing anyone could say, consoled me.
But, somehow, I grew stronger. Somewhere down the line, a determination grew, within.
I came out of my miscarriage fog, with a renewed sense of positivity. I had been reading up on other people’s stories, and they gave me hope.
Another couple of months later, it happened. That BFP that was going to stick. And it did.
I can’t say this pregnancy went smoothly.
This time, baby made me really feel pregnant, with random sickness, and SPD, Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction, where the pelvic muscles basically relax far too early, and moving becomes hell…
But, after the allocated time, she arrived, screaming.
And she hasn’t stopped since!
And now, I move into the next chapter, of waiting for the menopause to hit, while my own little princess has started on her journey to womanhood.
I’ll be watching her, making sure things seem normal for her, but I’ll be damned if I leave irregular cycles to chance, when it comes to her. I’ll listen to her concerns, and if need be, I’ll get her checked, sooner, rather than later, but I hope, please, God, that she doesn’t have to suffer like me. I wish her regular pain, so she knows her body is working properly. I wish her a week of bleeding. I wish her normality.
Yes, we have our completed family now, 2.4 kids (that 0.4 is my cat, Sonu Singh) and I can finally say that PCOS, you gave it a good shot, but you didn’t beat me.
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