By: Chris Whol
I was on a plane. It was a short trip, about 35 minutes of flight time. It changed me, or rather, I should say that it brought the changes in me into an unignorably harsh reality. I had been hurt. It isn’t so much that someone hurt me, or that I had been injured, or even that a sudden change occurred in my life. This was far more subtle and far more damaging. Infertility had seeped into my life and brought with it all the nefarious, course-altering, dream-destroying possibilities with it.
On that airplane, I had my first TRUE panic attack. I say true here because panic is something that we all experience. When you lose your keys, when you have concerns about making it to the bathroom in time, when your car stalls on a train track with the Express barreling down on you. The difference though, is that a panic attack happens when those same emotional and physical responses arise that cannot be readily assigned to an impending danger.
My wife and I had just gone through another failed IVF attempt. We had, yet again, piled all of our hopes into a frail and tattered basket and thrown it off a cliff, hoping it would land intact at the bottom. Unfortunately, it didn’t. I took that sorrow with me on my trip. I didn’t realize how deeply it had embedded itself in me until the door to the plane closed.
I’m tough right, I’m a guy. This fertility stuff, sure I am contributing to our undiagnosed conception issues, but, whatever, I am supposed to somehow be immune to feelings of loss, frustration, ineptitude, depression, fear. That is for my wife to experience and I am there to be the rock that sees her through the emotional storm.
We take that stance, we need to be there for our female-counterparts. Although this may not be true of all men, I am willing to venture it is true of many. We are supposed to pick them up, mend their wounds. And we do. We do that with such great focus that tending to our own injuries becomes a very distant thought, if we consider it all. That is what I did. Until that short flight. The next half hour, after my panic attack started, was a mind-rattling race of uncontrolled thoughts, hyperventilation, and a literal feeling that I was not in control of my own body. It was as if somehow, at any moment, my subconscious was going to take over and fling me out of the plane. All of these emotions that I had bottled up so neatly had built to a crescendo that finally erupted on that flight.
When the plane landed, I wasn’t the same. I had to cancel my trip. I drove home from that airport and had to sit on the couch the rest of the night. The bedroom felt too cramped. My vulnerability, exposed without my consent, left me reeling with no perception of what to do. Until, eventually, I realized that I wasn’t alone. What amazes me still is that, in my frenetic state, someone else stayed on that couch with me and worked through all of these bizarre and new feelings, my wife. She didn’t know where my spiraling thoughts were coming from or go to and, she didn’t care. She adopted a similar position of caring to the one that I had when I helped her get through the latest sting infertility had delivered. Although in that moment I didn’t recognize it as anything other than a tether in my incredible psychological storm, she was so much greater. She helped enlighten a new path of communication that I never knew existed, one where she helps me with the feelings I am facing.
Since that flight, I have been on many more flights. I have had many more panic attacks. I, with the help of my wife, have faced this psychological challenge with the same steadfast tenacity that we faced our infertility with. These scars left by our battle with infertility that are contributing to my anxiety cannot hold me, and us back, I won’t let them. I talk to a counselor, I have a psychiatrist, and I take anti-anxiety medicine. I have looked into meditation, calming oils, and anything else that can help me to overcome.
Infertility is a most worthy adversary. It has fought hard to leave indelible marks on my psyche and prevent me from simply living. I may never be rid of panic attacks, just as I will never be rid of infertility. Caring about and for my psychological wellbeing, allowing other people to help me, and being open about the challenges I face has armed me to press on. It seems that, like the world of infertility, trying and failing to succeed in the arena of mental health is a possibility. Admitting defeat, is not.
Chris Wohl, along with his wife Candace, writes about their experiences with infertility, adoption, surrogacy, and parenting-after-infertility on their blog, Our Misconception. He has also been featured on many outlets including MTV and GQ magazine. He has gone to Capitol Hill to advocate for family-building policies for RESOLVE Advocacy Day and works with Candace’s local RESOLVE support group on co-ed and male-centered topics.