Thursday, April 29, 2010


This week is National Infertility Awareness Week.

I’m posting this a little late in the week because I’ve been struggling to figure out how to approach this on the heels of my recent pregnancy announcement and musings on what this development might mean for my blog.

If you’ve read our story as outlined in the announcement post, then you know that infertility is still very much a part of our experience and our pregnancy.

I’ve written about the complexities of chronic illness and infertility several times over the past several months/years, but still many of the specific details of our journey remain offline. That’s just what works for us. But over the last few years, I’ve found myself reading infertility blogs more regularly than I’ve read chronic illness blogs. The humor, grit, empathy, and authenticity I’ve discovered in so many women’s stories have been both informative and inspiring.

I never wanted to turn my blog into an infertility blog. Rather, I wanted to discuss infertility within the context of chronic illness and explore the overall challenges of building a family despite illness, whichever path that entailed. I’ve always been a strong champion of the idea that specific symptoms and disease labels are less important than the universal issues we face as patients: acceptance, guilt, or control, etc.

I’ve realized the same holds true in the infertility community. We all have different stories and different reasons for our struggles. In my case, it was easy to feel a little isolated: unlike so many women (and men), I don’t have reproductive problems aside from those caused by my lung disease. I mean, how many people are out there writing posts about a genetic lung disease making them infertile? The precipitating issue and the ensuing pregnancy challenges my illnesses pose are indeed rare, but the overall experience is similar: we all have to fight really hard for something that is natural and automatic for other people, and the avenues we ultimately take to build our families often differ from most of the people in our lives.

As I processed all of these thoughts this week, the link between what I wanted to say about the future of this blog and National Infertility Awareness Week suddenly became clear: it’s all about transition.

People who experience infertility transition from thinking pregnancy is a given to realizing it will be a struggle. Often, the question moves from when pregnancy will happen to when parenthood will happen, because so many of us who go through this do not end up with a viable pregnancy. It’s a transition in the expectations we had for our families and for the process we thought would be involved.

A colleague and friend of mine remarked that “the waiting makes it all the more precious” and I could not agree more. If there’s one thing we all share, it’s the waiting, the excruciating, mentally and physically exhausting waiting. For those of us fortunate to have some sort of a happy ending, hopefully the preciousness of it is universal, too.

I hope I never take a second of this for granted, knowing the four years of difficulties that went into it and knowing there are women who are not as fortunate, women who have to transition into totally new realities for their lives, ones that may not include children.

So while we’re discussing transitions, I so appreciate all the warm wishes and support as we transition from infertility to high-risk pregnancy and impending parenthood.

I do plan to discuss our pregnancy, but within the context of chronic illness and, again, the more universal issues of parenting with chronic illness. This won’t become a pregnancy or motherhood blog, and for many reasons: the privacy of our expanding family; my readers still living through infertility; adhering to the main purpose of this blog, which is to discuss chronic illness in young adults. I’m not a belly-shot person, and if I write letters to our child, they, like a lot of this personal journey, will remain offline. When I do have pregnancy stories and moments I think will resonate with the community of young adults living with chronic illness, I will definitely share them.

In fact, I’ve got a bunch of posts in mind already, tidbits I’ve been storing up for a few months now.

But this week? This week is about transition, so I will hold off. I’m getting there, and I’m so grateful to have you along for the ride, and so grateful to have learned so much from so many of you as we’ve progressed.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Are You a Health Activist?

Last week, I had the chance to attend WEGO Health’s first Health Activist Meet-Up here in Boston. It was my true public excursion in weeks due to infections and related pregnancy issues, and I am so glad I was able to go.

The WEGO folks are infectiously enthusiastic about health care and social media, and from the “pick three hashtags to describe yourself” to the lively chitchat before and after the breakout sessions, the vibe was friendly and dynamic. I had the chance to catch up with friends like Cheryl Alkon of Managing the Sweetness Within and meet several new bloggers and Health Activists, like Karen of Bitter-Sweet.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to lead one of the three sessions, one called “The Road to Activism: How to Turn Your Passion into Activism.” As I prepared for the event, I thought about what it was I was passionate about and what it takes for anyone to turn passion for an idea or a cause into activism.

I used the following steps as initial talking points:

1. Identifying Your Passion
2. Recognizing Your Strengths/Becoming an Expert
3. Finding Your Voice
4. Locating Your Niche/Building Your Community

Luckily, I had a dream group of articulate, interesting people and from those brief talking points, a true conversation emerged. Of the many take-away points we covered, one that stands out to me is the idea that everyone becomes a blogger, author, advocate, etc (in sum, a Health Activist) for different reasons and wants different things from the community in which they join. For example, the newly diagnosed might want validation or commiseration, while “veterans” might be more interested in sharing experiences or offering wisdom from experiences. Successfully turning passion into activism depends partly on knowing what you offer, what you want out of the experience, and connecting with like-minded people.

In my case, I’ve always been passionate about writing and after an entire lifetime of illness and hospitals, I realized maybe I could use that passion to share experiences and lessons learned. My passion is chronic illness in younger adults, because so many of us live with it and face challenges unique to this stage in life. As I joked the night of the event, I am equal-opportunity when it comes to chronic illness—I don’t focus on any one condition or disease, partly because I have several conditions, because I am a rare disease patient, and mainly because I believe the universal challenges of life with illness unite us.

But that’s not what works for everyone, and that’s why I think the whole idea of turning passion into activism is so interesting—there are so many outlets and ways to express ideas and build communities. I think the robust diabetes online community is a great example of how successful a community of people contributing perspectives on life with a particular condition can be.

What’s your reason?

Other compelling questions we discussed that evening were deceptive in their simplicity:

What do we mean by activism? When do you become an activist?

Some of us were of the opinion that it can happen when you don’t even realize that’s what is actually happening. It could be the first time you write a blog post, the first time you get a reader comment that really stays with you, the first time you put yourself out there.

But I’m interested in what you have to say-what do you think when you hear the word “activist?” When does that transformation from merely being passionate to becoming an activist occur?

Thanks again to WEGO Health for a great evening that set the stage for relevant and inspiring conversations. Looking forward to the next meet-up!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Rest of the Story: Children and Chronic Illness

In some ways, I’ve been drafting and revising this post in my head and heart for almost four years.

I first touched on chronic illness and infertility in August of 2006, with this post on numbers, statistics, and hope. Since then, we’ve talked about can versus should, the tough decisions potential parents with chronic illness face, and other universal aspects of having a family. But the behind-the-scenes story? That was never fodder for this blog.

It’s been 44 months since we first started trying to have a family. That’s three years, eight months. Not as long as some, I know, but too long. About eighty percent of our marriage, in fact. Forty-four months later, I see this long journey as characterized by moments of awareness, a series of changes in thoughts and assumptions that challenged our perspectives.

There were moments of realization:

Along the way, I fell completely in love with other people’s children, and realized emotionally what I knew intellectually: unconditional love does not adhere to boundaries of biology or relationship. Parenthood does not depend on pregnancy, something I knew but didn’t really know until I knew. With that, we both realized that no matter which path we took to build our family, we would do the right thing for us and it would be our first choice, not a fallback plan.

I’ve realized no matter how hard we try and how much they really do care, there are people who will not understand, who cannot give us what we need or speak the words we are desperate to hear. I’ve realized that this is okay. I’ve learned to let go.

Similarly, no matter how many consults and additional opinions we’ve sought, no matter how meticulous and deliberate we have been about our decisions, there will be people who judge. And while hard, that too is okay. I’ve realized that doing right by each other and our potential child is all that matters—with that realization comes some freedom.

There were moments of isolation:

Not surprisingly, my ongoing fascination with language spills over into this journey. If you take the adoption route you become fluent in terms like open adoption, or the semantics of birth parents, first parents, adoptive parents, etc. If you look into surrogacy, you’re flooded with euphemisms: at our hospital, the preferred term is “gestational carrier,” and the recommended agencies have all sorts of feel-good names. If you pursue assisted reproduction you start speaking in code: IUI, IVF, 8dp3dt, BFN, BFP, PIO.

But either way, you no longer speak the same language as most of the people around you. You speak the language of “if,” when so many others take for granted the “when.” And some days, surrounded by the “when’s,” the easy talk of when pregnancy will happen and the carefree assumptions about when siblings will arrive, is a lonely place to be.

In another twist of language, I learned that putting the words “very early” in front of “miscarriage” does not mean it is not sad. I wondered if anyone could see the shadows of that loss when I wrote about disappointment. Private sadness is indeed isolating, however necessary it is.

Of course, there were darker moments:

I remember one particular day last spring. It was the first bright, sunny day that thawed winter’s slush, and after a terrible doctor’s appointment it was the first day we truly felt, however fleeting, there was little hope. What good were all these options people kept talking about, I kept talking about, if none of them seemed attainable?

“You know the hardest part of all this? Waking up and going through the day and acting normal when it feels like the world is crashing down,” I said to my husband. For many weeks, when I woke up and realized the situation had not changed, I felt I was in a living nightmare. I hated people to hear or see me cry, so I simply didn’t talk to many people.

Another sunny spring day we all waited in a hospital waiting room, anxious for the arrival of a much-loved baby. I kept jumping up to take cell phone calls in the hallway, re-scheduling consults and high-risk assessments. I was angry, not because I was being told I might never carry children while hanging out in the maternity ward, but because even on this happy day when I wanted to be fully present in the joy, infertility was literally stalking me. It had already taken so much.

We made a cocoon for ourselves so we could filter out the white noise and weigh what we wanted versus what is most fair to a child. Anytime you bring the “can versus should” element into a conversation about children, the responsibility inherent in that is staggering. We take that responsibility more seriously than anything else in our lives.

In these moments, I, we, have learned sadness and grief, frustration and disappointment. But we’ve learned much more. As hard as it was to hide what weighed us down, it is even harder to hide good news, joyful news, especially when it has been such a long time coming and has exacted such a toll.

And so I am pleased to share what is truly a moment of joy: This fall, we are expecting a baby.

It still feels strange to type those words. Despite the many ultrasounds, the many doctor appointments, the talk of showers and strollers, sometimes it is hard to believe this is happening, this thing that happens for other people.

I am incredibly grateful and excited. When I first found out I cried so hard my poor husband thought I had yet more disappointing news for him and instantly went into consolation mode. I simply did not have the words to explain happy tears.

We have pictures proudly displayed on our fridge and multiple teams of doctors monitoring every breath, doctors who never forgot to say “congratulations” amidst all the precautions and variables. What a beautiful word.

We kept this news to ourselves for a long time. It’s high-risk. I’ve already been hospitalized. We’ve lived through loss. I have jobs and policies and details I needed in place. We are fiercely protective of this little one. But at 16 weeks I am getting comfortable telling people, and I love sharing news that is actually good.

And through this all, there were (and still are) moments of relativity:

Infertility was merely the starting point. Infertility with a guaranteed high-risk pregnancy and chronic illness? It’s a tough combination to contemplate, but everything is relative. We have to focus on the tough road ahead of us, and I know we can do it.

Baby showers and pregnancy announcements never bothered me, and seeing babies always brought me joy instead of reminding me what I did not have. I pretended I was immune to a lot of the emotional fallout from infertility, that I was focused solely on risk analysis and decision-trees. Not true.

Now that I am pregnant, I feel the aftershocks of infertility. I see the many bits and pieces it chipped away, and the bits and pieces the high-risk nature threatens. The first time I checked out the maternity section of a clothing store, I couldn’t relax. I was in a cold sweat; I felt like a trespasser. Now that I’m closer to needing new clothes, it’s getting a little more real, a little easier.

After 44 months of this, my gut response to the topic of so-called “push presents” is, isn’t the baby the gift? My mother asked me recently if I had a preference for a boy or girl. “Alive,” I told her. All I want is a baby as close to full term as possible and for both of us to come home from the hospital and be okay. That is the gift. That is everything.

Lastly, there have been moments of growth:

We often sit at night in my husband’s office, soon to be the nursery. He uses the desktop computer, and I sit on the bed with my laptop. We talk about paint colors, and even well into the first trimester I would stop, mid-conversation.

“Are we allowed to talk like this, to plan a nursery?” I ask.

“You are pregnant. We are having a baby. It is okay,” he reassures me.

So I exhale and smile and think about meeting this little person whose waving arms and bent legs on the screen make my husband smile from his eyes and put all the oxygen I need back in the room as if by magic. And I allow myself.

And when I get overwhelmed by the realities of this high-risk pregnancy, when I worry that everything I am doing to keep us both healthy will not be enough, I think of this baby squirming around, a baby who is thriving. This is the only type of pregnancy I will ever know, and I embrace it fully. I allow myself.

I am proud of us, proud that we came through this journey intact, a better team than we started. We always told ourselves that somehow we would be parents. Only a few months into dating, we knew this was what we wanted for each other and with each other. We had no way of knowing just how long a journey this would be or how it would end, but we wouldn’t change any of it.

So I am working on a new lexicon, one centered on “when.” We talk about the baby’s library or imagine walking him or her to school up the street and talk about the kind of parents we want to be, and it is no longer strictly hypothetical. We imagine new moments, new possibilities, and we are buoyed by the one word that started this whole conversation 44 months ago, the one word that is important than ever: hope.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review—Balancing Diabetes with Pre-existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby

I don’t even remember how I first stumbled onto Cheryl Alkon’s blog, Managing the Sweetness Within a few years ago. After all, I wasn’t a type 1 diabetic, nor was I undertaking a pregnancy with diabetes. But I know why I kept coming back anyway: her humor, accessible tone, frank candor, and overall pragmatic, down to earth attitude.

I totally dug her style, and since we’ve become friends in real life since I can attest to the fact she’s that funny and refreshing in real life. When she first shared her book proposal with me, I was so excited—I could see her book on managing pregnancy with diabetes unfolding, and I knew it was a necessary resource.

I am proud to see her project come to fruition, not because she published a book (though that is a feat all by itself) but because she published such a good book. Balancing Pregnancy with Pre-existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby, which pubs this week, is a comprehensive and essential guide to planning and living through a pregnancy with diabetes.

With the meticulousness of a seasoned professional journalist (she went to Columbia Journalism, after all), Cheryl interviewed dozens (seriously, dozens) of patients with diabetes, as well as physicians and other experts, to offer hands-on advice and information. In addition to anecdotal experience, the book is crammed with well-researched facts and resources. From pre-conception blood sugar control to the intricacies of each trimester to the delivery and beyond, Cheryl covers all the bases.

What’s more, she is diligent about including multiple perspectives. Struggling with infertility in addition to diabetes? She has tons of tips and resources. Contemplating an alternative birth plan or curious if a doula might work for you? She has plenty of information on that, too.

Just need some encouragement that a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby are indeed attainable? That’s where Cheryl’s veteran experience as a type 1 diabetic and the many patients she interviewed prove so valuable. It’s one thing to hear from doctors or disease organizations what is possible, but it’s another altogether to hear from people who’ve actually walked the walk: they’ve dealt with first trimester lows, third trimester complications, and figured out the best way to deal with their insulin pumps during labor and delivery. They’ve juggled breast-feeding and fluctuating insulin needs, and know how (and when) to advocate for themselves.

But what I love is that it isn’t just about the content. Cheryl brings that same accessible, engaging tone she has on her blog to the book, evident from the opening lines of the first chapter:

“As a woman with long-term type 1 diabetes, I know this disease intimately. Reading this with type 1? Hi—you are my people. Type 1 is very-much-insulin-dependent, ain’t-going-away-with-weight-loss-or- after-the-kid-is-born diabetes. Type 1, despite what much of the mass media or well-meaning but clueless people will tell you, is a separate condition from the far more common type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes.” (p.3)

But don’t worry-this book isn’t exclusively for T1s. If you have type 2 diabetes , there is plenty of material to meet your needs, and its conversational tone makes even the most serious subject matter in the book seem less daunting.

As a writer who published a book on chronic illness in young adults because I felt there was nothing out there that addressed that audience, I really appreciate a book that fills a true void. For the many readers out there contemplating a pregnancy with diabetes or managing one right now, this is the definitive resource for you.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole: When Chronic Illness and Work Conflict

“Can I write you a note? Would that help?” my nurse practitioner asked delicately. She went on to add (just as delicately) that I really needed a few days off to recover from my recent hospitalization.

Part of me wanted so desperately to accept her offer, to tell her a note would help and that I could take a few days. I wanted to give in, to crawl into bed and not get out.

But, it was the busiest and most intense period of the semester, busy enough that I found myself commenting on drafts at 4am in the hospital, grateful I did not have a roommate so I could keep the lights on. I was too uncomfortable to sleep, and I’d hit that early-morning window where Law and Order reruns abated for a few hours.

The numerous side projects I was committed to—both on campus and in my writing life—were all ramping up, and everywhere I turned it was apparent to me that too many people would be affected by my absence if I checked out of life for a few days. It’s one thing for me to be sick and fall behind, but it’s not acceptable to me for others to get behind because I am sick. Thanks to wifi, my laptop, and the impossibility of sleeping in a hospital I’d managed to keep up the charade of business as usual while I was an inpatient, but it was exhausting.

The night I was discharged from the hospital I stayed up past 3am trying to catch up on work, and woke up early the next day for chest PT and another 18 hours of work and catch-up. That set the tone for the next week and a half. By the time I had my discharge follow-up appointment, I’d managed no more than four hours of sleep per night: coughing, wheezing, and fighting for air made it hard to sleep; steroids and stacked nebulizer treatments that make me jittery and wide awake made it even more difficult.

Things were not going well. In the ongoing quest for balance and the negotiation of priorities when it comes to employment and illness, I was floundering. Free-falling, actually.

Since this fall I’ve repeated the mantra of “just make it work.” Find a way to get it done, don’t complain, use every second of time efficiently. When you’re sick, you don’t have the luxury of not working when you don’t feel well, or you’d rarely ever work. People do things even when they don’t feel up to it, that’s part of life. Whatever else happens, just make it work. Get results, don’t make excuses.

And for months, that mantra served me well. I’ve made choices that translate into a consistent 7-day work-week; aside from Thanksgiving Day and two days at Christmas, the last time I had a true day off, including weekends, was sometime last summer. I had (and have) my reasons for these decisions, and do not regret them. I went into this with my eyes wide open and cannot complain about a situation I created. The trade-offs—a big step in academic career development; a second book deal; expansion of my freelance consulting business—are worth the sacrifice.

But all bets are off when my “normal” level of illnesses becomes really acute. Part of it is physical-the exhaustion of infections that last for months, the toll fighting for air takes, the impact of weeks and weeks of poor sleep, hospitalizations, etc.

However, more it is mental and emotional, and is a result of a lifetime of pushing. It’s always jarring for me to go from the hospital right back into “real life” without a chance to stop and process. Since the work always follows me into the hospital (when I was getting stabilized in the ER this last time, my main concern was how to handle my in-person class the next day), it always feels like one big blur.

In a throwback to my old patterns, the longer this recent exacerbation dragged on, the more determined I was to make sure being sick did not impact my ability to do my jobs. When I first got home I turned around 40 rough drafts with substantive comments in two days. I attended meetings and jumped into debates and responded to clients. I’m pretty sure no one knew that days before I’d been hooked up to oxygen or that walking and talking at the same time was not yet possible.

Interestingly, though, the more I built up the fa├žade, the more a little bit of me wished it wasn’t quite so convincing, that I had some sort of buffer. I felt like my grip on things was dangerously tenuous; one tiny slip or extra deadline or new symptom and everything would come crashing down.

For someone so wired to be in control and so focused on not slipping on any of these details, I felt (correction: I still feel) very out of control.

I know something has to give. Even though things are getting a little better by now, I will not fully recover if I keep up this pace. When I found myself negotiating my way out of a second admission last week from the Starbucks at work, armed with a briefcase and a hospital bag (doesn’t everyone bring one of those to work?), I realized I’d reached a tipping point. This is not sustainable. In fact, it’s sort of crazy.

I am not balancing things at all and I know it but I am torn by conflicting responsibilities-to my students, clients, colleagues and myself. I am torn my stubborn pride about never giving in and pragmatism that says if I keep this up I won’t be of much use.

So I have some decisions to make. I have to prioritize my life so I make it through the rest of the semester as effective as I normally am.

And just one good night sleep? That would go a long way, I think.
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