I came off antidepressants to try and conceive, but lockdown caused a relapse
A little smile spread across my face when Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced fertility treatments would be able to restart from 11 May.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the services were temporarily suspended on 23 March – and quite rightly so, as NHS staff were pushed to their limits and thousands of people were losing their lives.
I, along with thousands of women across the country, breathed a sigh of relief that our journey to conceive a child could continue.
Not long after tying the knot with my husband James in September, we started trying for a baby. At the age of 38, some would say (and I’d be inclined to agree) that I was knocking on a bit to become a first-time mum. I think the correct term is ‘geriatric mum’.
Despite a decline in fertility, plenty of women have children in their late thirties and forties – Meghan Markle, Gwen Stefani and Geri Halliwell to name a few – and it is becoming more and more ‘normal’ these days.
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I also had an added complication, in that I had been taking Citalopram medication since 2017 to treat anxiety and depression. Medical research suggests (although not definitively) that taking SSRIs (the group of tablets Citalopram belong too) can increase the risk of miscarriage and premature birth. And, in early pregnancy, they could slightly increase the risk of your baby developing heart defects, spina bifida or a cleft lip.
At the time we began trying to conceive I had reduced my dosage to 10mg, so reasonably low, although I did still feel like I needed them. Maybe I saw them as a crutch, or perhaps it was habitual. As we moved into the New Year, I made the conscious decision to come off the antidepressants altogether and discussed it with my GP. I felt much stronger, and I wanted to give us the best possible chance of having a baby.
With this type of medication, I couldn’t just suddenly stop taking them; I had to slowly reduce my intake over four weeks, (sometimes it can take even longer), to prevent any withdrawal symptoms.
As we headed into March, I was fully functioning without the tablets, and we’d also reached a milestone in our pregnancy quest. After six months of unsuccessfully trying, it was time to visit the GP and take the first step into a fertility investigation. (It is advised that women aged over 36 should visit their doctor if they haven’t conceived within six months).
I was subsequently booked in for a ‘Fertility MOT’ as I like to call it. It involves undergoing an ultrasound scan and blood tests to measure certain hormone levels, and my husband obtained an appointment for his semen analysis. We were on the first rung of the ladder.
That was until it was announced that all non-urgent outpatient appointments and routine surgery would be postponed to allow NHS staff to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak. While I completely supported this, I was also really disappointed. But you remind yourself there are others in much worse situations, and you carry on.
As lockdown swept the country on 23 March and coronavirus pandemic spread, life started to change for us all – and my mental health took a hit.
The enormity of what was happening around us was difficult to process and being stuck indoors together constantly puts pressure on any relationship, newlywed or not.
I started to become anxious about my work as a freelance writer, which had reduced due to effects of coronavirus.
I was also pent up with worry over my family. My mother finished her radiotherapy to treat breast cancer, and my dad is in the latter stages of dementia, and he was particularly struggling with the lockdown.
This all inevitably led to a return of my anxiety and depression, days full of tears and low moods and some days not wanting to get out of bed or talk to people. And don’t even get me started on the Zoom anxiety – as someone who finds these sorts of calls overwhelming and stressful, I’m still struggling with that.
I tried to counteract this by throwing myself into volunteering in the local community, running the food bank and collecting and delivering donations. I even took up running through the Couch to 5k app, something I never thought I’d do.
Some might ask why I didn’t restart taking the Citalopram. It did cross my mind, but I was conscious of the negative impact it could have on a potential pregnancy. And it can take between four and six weeks to start working properly.
Often it can make you feel worse before you feel better, with side effects including insomnia, nausea, weakness, and dizziness. I didn’t want to put myself through those again, especially during a time of uncertainty. It was an internal battle for me to decide the best course of action.
In April, during the height of lockdown, I turned 39. Not a particularly significant birthday you’d think, but as I learnt it is the difference between one round of NHS IVF treatment or three.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, women under 40 should be offered three cycles of IVF treatments. But this is a postcode lottery and ultimately the area you live in defines how many treatments you are entitled to. Fortunately, it is three in my borough.
However, now everything is on hold, who knows what is going to happen? I feel at a crossroads about what decisions to make for the best. We are almost 10 months in and still no nearer to conceiving. Fertility treatment has recently restarted in private clinics, and in some NHS areas, but in plenty it still hasn’t – including mine.
It is also inevitable that the waiting list for treatments will now increase because there is such a backlog. It is becoming more evident to me that by the time we have gone through the fertility cycle, I will have reached 40 and only be entitled to one round of IVF.
So, do we plough our savings into it and go private to speed up the process? That could have a detrimental impact on other areas of our life. Just a basic fertility test starts at £500, and IVF cycles begin at around £3,000, so we have to be careful, as it could end up costing thousands with no guaranteed result.
I often blame myself for waiting so long to start a family, which does have an adverse affect on my wellbeing. Now, as lockdown begins to ease, I feel like I have the strength again to continue to improve my mental health, stay on the fertility rollercoaster and keep hopeful for a positive outcome.
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