Sharing a Story: Sophie Sulehria
Sophie Sulehria has had 6 rounds of failed IVF. At 35 and without ever having been pregnant, low ovarian reserve, endometriosis and poor egg quality she started to look into to other ways of becoming parents with her husband Jonny.
Most people would just Google. But Sophie is not most people.
She’s a BBC journalist who decided that there wasn’t enough out there for couples in their position and that Radio 4 should broadcast her research as she did it.
Sophie’s enormously successful Radio 4 series, Our Fertility Journey is the most beautifully intimate and important work. In it, she keeps an audio diary of her last IVF round (cue full on floods of tears from me and my catalyst for contacting Sophie); then interviews with people who have become parents through other means; as well as talks with their families to raise awareness that infertility affects more than just the people going through it.
She’s doing a bloody brilliant job of ‘flipping the script’, the theme for the US's National Infertility Awareness Week (this week). By being so open about her journey and sharing what they are going through, she has singlehandedly (with her brilliant husband Jonny of course) been able to put this incredibly hard choice on a huge platform which, I have no doubt, has helped an enormous number of people already.
I met Sophie at BBC Broadcasting House to talk to her about her decision to go public and for her to tell me more about her journey too. Sophie, thank you for your honesty and for being so open with me when you didn’t know me from Adam.
(NB: who is Adam? Adam and Eve?? Never known.)
Sophie’s IVF attempts:
1st round: 1 egg, fertilised well (didn’t work)
2nd round: 2 eggs, 1 egg fertilised (didn’t work)
3rd round: 1 egg, didn’t fertilise
4th round: no eggs fertilised
5th round: no eggs fertilised
6th round: 2 eggs, 1 fertilised unsuccessfully
Sophie, what inspired you to document this part of your journey?
I’ve been working in TV/Radio for 8 years. It’s my passion and my job. Of course… I usually tell other people’s stories! But after 4 years of IVF failing for us, Jonny and I started to approach the idea of looking at other options, because it just wasn’t working. My ovarian reserve is extremely low, I’m 35 and heading into the menopause quite quickly, which is depressing, plus I also had severe endometriosis as well.
It’s been a really crappy journey. I was really struggling and Jonny wanted to look at alternatives. But I didn’t want to. I sat with it for a year and while my mind was processing it, I started to realise if I was in this position there must be thousands and thousands of other people in this same position. I was searching and searching for people’s testimonies, other people’s experiences and found very little who were in the same position as me.
The only things you would find were the people who had come out the other end, found their path, and it was great. But you never found the people who were in my position which is: this is what we’re doing and its hideous and we don’t know what to do next.
Around March 2017, I decided I was going to make a podcast. Because I worked for the BBC, that podcast turned into a conversation with someone at Radio 4. Rosie, my editor, then said: we’d like to do this series. I told her I was about to start my final round of IVF and she said – ‘would you record it for us?’. Immediately I thought, yeah this is a great idea. And it felt like a great idea. Like I was using my skills as a reporter and our experience, for some good. Cathartic. It felt like a natural thing to do and it felt like I was doing something good with the experience, which had been hideous.
So that’s the reason we decided to do it. The response and my feelings about a month after we’d gone public were very different from that, I don’t think I realised the enormity of the situation. I think I thought that I would put this piece out and it would just kind of go with the rest of pieces over time – interesting to some people and not to others. But the response was insane.
In the first couple of days I had hundreds of people contact me. People I know of course, people I hadn’t heard from in years, and then all these strangers that it had affected.
If you think about it, nearly 4 million people in the UK a year struggle to get pregnant. If you even tap into a third of those people it’s vast. It was completely overwhelming. I think I had some kind of nervous breakdown in that first month, just through sheer shock.
I felt completely exposed. I felt naked and vulnerable. And also, I hate to admit this, I absolutely hate to admit this: but I felt ashamed that I was a woman that couldn’t do what a woman should be able to do which is create eggs and have a baby, and I’d told the world about my flaw.
While I got used to it in my own head, I don’t think I had processed how it would feel to tell everyone the same thing. So that first month was quite tough. But as the series continued, I realised that I was making complete shift, and meeting people who had been in my position, and had come through into a different realm and had moved on… In fact, what was heartening was that every single person that I met – bar the childless couple to be fair – but the others, through egg donation, overseas adoption, adoption in the UK, the fostering to adopt scenario, these people were telling us that this was not their first option for a baby…but had now become their first option.
We’re really glad we’ve done the series now.
So you’ve spoken to all these people. Are you making decisions now about what you want to do? Have you made a decision?
We know what we don’t want to do. We know that childlessness isn’t an option for us yet. It will have to be if it is the only option but we’d rather it be the last option.
We’ve got a really good relationship and we’ve got an amazing little cat who is literally our baby. This cat has been a turning point and a saviour, Olive. She’s amazing.
Tell me more!
Our worst year was 2016/17. Really awful. We’d had our third round with one egg collected at this really difficult clinic to be at. I went through the ringer. It was horrific.
And at the end of that round, we had one egg collected and it didn’t even fertilise. I was in the gutter at this point. I was absolutely bereft. I was hideous to be around as well.
I didn’t want to hear about people’s children, I didn’t want to see pregnant women, I didn’t want to speak to women of my age group in case they told me they were pregnant. It was absolutely horrible. And I hit real depression.
But it was that October that we went to our friend’s 40th birthday party. I remember feeling like a shell of my former self, just really low. Then we saw our friend Helen. She works at a vet and we ended up telling her, in this bar, what was going on and saying we don’t know what to do.
And she said – have you thought about getting a pet?
I said yes, we had talked about a kitten. But I didn’t want it to ruin our sofa and my very special arm chair! Plus I had allergies when I was growing up, and they’re expensive, and the care…
But she said, oh ok, I think you should probably just ignore all that.
Then by pure coincidence that week, she had this bin man come into her vet with this tiny bundle of fluff. He’d found this cat on the wheel arch of his lorry. And he’d driven around with her for two days. So, he went to the vet and said I’ve just found this on my bin lorry. Helen took the cat, washed her up, took a photo and tagged me on Facebook saying “I think I’ve found your cat”. So: we went and got her! Her name’s Olive and I could honestly tell you that she was a turning point. I am allergic, she has ruined my chair, she is expensive because we pay for the most expensive food for her, but she’s our baby.
For us, the two places where we’re on the same page: overseas adoption, or donor eggs. Jonny more on board with the donor eggs than I am, because I still feel like I would be carrying another woman’s baby. But I’ve had a lot of counselling around that and it might be something that we decide to do. Overseas adoption appeals to us, because my dad’s side of the family are from Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt. So, it wouldn’t be completely random to go to one of those countries and perhaps look into that.
You and Jonny sound like you have an amazing relationship, how have you got through this?
We still try to find the happy. I think that’s the key. If you’re going through IVF, if you are going through any fertility journey, really important to remember why you wanted a child in the first place – we wanted them because we wanted a baby…this is the sad thing for us. We wanted a child because we loved each-other and we wanted a part of us to be joined together and that’s what I find the most difficult. The genetic side of things, I’m an only child, I have very mixed heritage, I find it very depressing that I may never meet my biological child.
But you have to remember why you wanted the child in the first place and why you got together in the first place – and the fun you had. We’ve been at our lowest ebb and I’ve had to really focus and remember why we’re together, what makes you happy. I’ve been known, and we have done this, to get up after a really depressing spell and just go to Thorpe Park. We have spent some of our most depressing times –I have sat on a rollercoaster and cried for the whole ride! But I thought, we have to get out of here and just have fun. Because what are we going to do? Sit in this bedroom and just cry?
So, I have dragged him to Legoland, Thorpe park and I thoroughly advise that that’s what you do. Find the fun.
I interviewed a woman whose relationship broke down after 8 years of fertility and she doesn’t blame him for walking. She said she doesn’t recognise herself when she thinks back to the person she was. She says she can see that, in the main part, this was because she just completely became obsessed with a baby. There wasn’t any relationship left.
How do you deal with other challenges? How do you cope with pregnancy announcements?
Those have been my most depressing times. Even this year, when I felt like I turned a corner, we were making the series, it was Christmas – it’s a very difficult time for a childless couple, but this Christmas I felt in control of it – and I had 5 pregnancy announcements within 2 months. But one in particular floored me because she was about to start IVF. And I can’t help but feel bitter and jealous of that. Why did she get saved from the boat?
I’ve got friends that can sneeze and get pregnant and I don’t find that a difficulty. But the moment someone puts themselves in your boat and they say – oh god, this is awful, I can’t get pregnant, this is our experience, it’s been hideous – and I start imparting my wisdom, bring them in, feel like I’m with them in some way. Then later they say they’re pregnant and it floors me. Every time. It’s got to the point that when people say they’re struggling now, I have to give myself some distance. Because for you, it might work, but for us, it hasn’t.
Do you think communication is super important?
Yes it’s key, it’s one of the main reasons I did the series. I still feel like some people can’t handle it. People who aren’t in it don’t always get it, and think it’s a private issue – I think there’s still a stigma and it’s still taboo.
Sometimes I say to people, even after the series, “sorry I can’t do that because I’m at the hospital having a scan” and they’ll look another way and I know they’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do with that information, she’s talking about a scan for her baby thing…’!
I get it I guess, it’s been a private issue for so long. But if somebody has cancer and says they’re going to have chemo, I don’t think they’d react like that - people rally round. When someone goes through fertility issues it’s like, why are you talking about it so publicly! People probably think it even now with this series. It doesn’t matter that 4 million people are struggling to have a baby every year, why are you talking about it so publicly, it’s supposed to happen behind closed doors!
I know you said you had some counselling – I did as well, which I found really helpful.
Yes, and I’m still having it.
How did you find your counsellor? I think it’s really important that people get support if they need it.
Yes, it is. It’s the one thing about America – you go to a counsellor as soon as you go to the doctor, gynae, osteopath. Again, it’s so awkward in this country – people hate to admit they need some help, though I think that’s on the turn.
I actually can’t thank my counsellors enough, I had three at one time! CBT for the anxiety side of stuff; I’ve been to one for past experiences and how it led to the present - basically sorting out your core stability and feeling like you’re enough…which is really key if you are trying for children and you can’t have any. You need to live with yourself. And we’ve been to couples counselling through the clinic – I can’t thank the Lister enough. Their counselling is a free policy, and they’re always on hand. I have an amazing counsellor at the Lister. She has cleared her diary for hours in the past because we have desperately needed to talk it through.
I bet you’ve tried all the alternative stuff as well as IVF.
I’ve done anything and everything. I’ve read books that said it was better to be vegetarian, I read books that said you shouldn’t, so I didn’t, I read books that said a nutritional diet would help. I’ve tried them all, but I’m only human and this is year 5 and…and you have holidays, birthdays, you have Christmas… it wasn’t helping that I was stressing myself out, putting a huge amount of pressure on myself if I wasn’t sticking to the regular diet, then berating myself if I ate a burger! We spent so much money on vitamins, acupuncture - the head one – reflexology… the lot.
I’ve got to a point now where nothing’s actually worked. So I’m just trying to be chilled. Because every single one of those things would cause me some stress. I don’t like needles and I don’t have time for appointments. Yet I was trying to shoe horn acupuncture into my life every week for a year. I would be stressed trying to fit it in, stressed because I don’t like needles, and at the end of it I was a mess. And yet I’d spend £45 a week on this thing. Then there were the vitamins tablets – they were getting more and more difficult to source! The minute I’d run out I’d have a panic attack. The whole vegan thing…I would be ok for a couple of days, then I’d be so upset and low because I felt like ‘I can’t even eat that’…so, because nothing seems to have worked so far, I gave up…
It’s what works for you. And actually, I do believe my doctor - who I now have a friend like relationship with because I’ve had him in my life for 5 years - who said ‘do what makes you feel like you’re happy because when push comes to shove, you have endometriosis, you have low egg supply and your eggs are bad quality for the same reason. Do what makes you feel happier, but you are ill. I don’t want you to feel like because you spent a year eating meat that it was your fault’.
I want to try and encourage people to try everything, find what works and that is what you do.
Yes. And with the mental health thing: to say ‘relax’ is the worst. If I’m told I should relax one more time, or that ‘it will happen when you’re not trying, or when you least expect it…’ it’s so frustrating. And actually, there’s not a single element of truth in this because the same amount of people who are super stressed out verses the ones using mindfulness techniques get pregnant equally!
The difference is how it helps you to cope.
It’s about your mental health, not the success of the treatment.
Sophie and I could have chatted for hours (her last comment there about how frustrating it is to be told to relax was a good 2 months before Relaxgate!) The way she is sharing her journey and putting herself out there to try and change the conversation about infertility is incredibly inspiring.
Follow Sophie at @sophiesulehria for more updates on her journey and links to her brilliant work. And here’s a link to her series on Radio 4 's PM.
Let’s keep talking. Let’s break the stigma.