TUCKED away somewhere, Michelle Meech has a picture of herself and husband Dave holding a photo of a tiny embryo.
At the time, it represented to them a “perfect little baby”, but several years on and following repeated rounds of IVF that ended in failure, Michelle (34) must now give up her dreams of becoming a mother.
Coming to terms with the prospect of life without a child of her own threw her into depression so severe she ended up being sectioned.
An overdose, self-harming and “just completely losing myself” resulted in Michelle spending weeks in a mental hospital.
She told the A&T she did not want to live if she could not have children. “It was all I ever wanted, I just wanted to be a mum,” she said. “Even as a little girl I can remember wanting that.”
But today, Michelle is all smiles. Her salvation from years of darkness, she says, has been her husband and family, and now the support of women like her – childless not through choice.
Michelle, from Totton, recently took the brave step of posting a message on Facebook appealing for women going through similar experiences to get in touch.
“I had thought about posting it for a year, but I was worried no one would respond, and that would make me feel worse,” she said.
In fact, Michelle was inundated with more than 100 comments. “My phone didn’t stop bleeping – it was brilliant. I just sat there crying.”
My own experience of trying to have children was so lonely
Michelle, who works at her family’s tearoom in Romsey, has now formed a group of 10 women who have been through the same heartache in the hope they can support each other.
“At our first meeting we just laughed all night,” she said. “There weren’t even any tears. I could not have hoped for it to go better.
“My own experience of trying to have children was so lonely. I felt like I was the only woman in that situation.”
Michelle’s struggle for a family started a year after she met Dave, when she was 25.
“I was naive – I thought I would fall pregnant straight away,” she said. “I realised quite quickly that there was something wrong but we couldn’t see a doctor until we had been trying for 12 months, which was frustrating.”
Her fears were confirmed when tests came back with a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility”.
Michelle said: “We were offered a round of IVF and I was excited and full of hope. There are miracle stories about IVF everywhere and you get lulled into thinking it will be easy.”
But her first cycle ended in hyperstimulation syndrome, a rare and dangerous complication of IVF in which the ovaries produce too many eggs.
Although it was a huge blow, Michelle did not lose hope and embarked on the second round of treatment, which went well.
“Fourteen eggs were removed and I was so happy,” said Michelle. “But I will always remember the woman in the bed next to me being told just one of hers had been removed – I felt sorry that she had just one chance.
“Twenty-four hours later we were told we had 11 grade-A embryos. I thought there was no way it wasn’t going to work.
“The next step was to have one implanted but there were problems with my womb lining, it wasn’t thickening enough. They gave me different medications, but nothing worked.
“The worst thing is, when you go for the implant you’re given a picture of the embryo.
“Me and my husband took a picture of us holding this little thing; we were just so full of hope. For us, it wasn’t just a collection of cells.”
However, a test a few days later revealed she was not pregnant. “I was devastated,” said Michelle. “But I knew we had eggs left.”
With the help of their families, the couple went on to spend nearly £6,000 on IVF.
Another attempt also ended in failure, but four months later Michelle insisted on trying again. “I knew in my heart that this was my last chance because it was starting to affect my mental health – physically and mentally it is a hideous thing to go through.
“This time they gave me a home pregnancy test to use after ten days, and when I took it the result was positive.”
Over the moon, Michelle phoned Dave to tell him the good news, and then contacted her family. But a blood test to confirm the results showed Michelle had experienced a chemical pregnancy – a term used to describe a very early miscarriage which occurs before the fifth week of gestation.
Michelle was devastated.
“That was the worst day – the horror of going through that false hope – and I think it made it easier to say I was done with IVF.”
She was given more hope by an offer of surrogacy – that ended in failure and Michelle did not want to go into detail about it.
I was suffering depression and anxiety
“I knew Dave was not going to let us go through IVF again,” said Michelle. “My mental health had started to deteriorate and I was suffering depression and anxiety. Every IVF had been like a huge loss.
“I phoned the clinic storing my embryos and asked them to destroy them. I needed them gone. I needed to draw a line underneath it.
“I feel guilty because there are women out there desperate for embryos, but I could not have lived with the prospect our baby was out there somewhere.”
The couple then made the decision to turn to adoption. “It was very, very intense,” explained Michelle. “There were no positive stories, they put the fear of God into you.
“I know why they do it, but I think they go too far. One day Dave came home from work and he looked absolutely broken.
“I said, ‘My God, what’s wrong?’, and he said, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t adopt’.
“Dave left me that night because he felt I would not stay with him because I wanted children so much. I was in complete shock.”
Michelle knew she needed Dave in her life, and told him she chose him over children. He returned to her but two days later she ended up in hospital.
There is rock bottom and I was below it
“It was inevitable,” she said. “I had a complete breakdown. There is rock bottom and I was below it.”
Michelle was discharged after five weeks, but she recalled: “I knew I wasn’t better but I put on this fantastic act; I fooled all my family. In secret I was self-harming, something I had never done.
“One day, I phoned my mum and said, ‘I’m hurting myself’. She sent my stepdad over and he found me sitting on the floor with blood all over, my legs cut to ribbons.
“He called an ambulance and I went to hospital, but again I fooled the psychiatrist so they let me go home.”
A few days later she took a massive overdose. Michelle broke down in tears as she said: “I thought ‘if I’m not going to be a mum I don’t want to be here’, it was all I ever wanted.”
A day later she woke up in hospital and was then sectioned. “That was hideous,” she said. “I felt a million times worse.
“After five weeks she phoned her mum and told her, ‘I want to live but I don’t know how to any more’. My mum broke down, saying ‘that’s what we needed to hear from you’.”
That was nearly a year ago. What helped Michelle come back from the brink was the support of a mental health nurse she calls her “angel”, along with the love and help of her family and Dave.
I’m never going to have children but why should I accept that?
Michelle said she is now going through a “grieving process”, adding: “I’m still in the thick of it. I’m never going to have children but why should I accept that? I’m angry and I’m bitter.”
Her Facebook post has also been a big part of the healing process, but took an immense amount of courage.
“I’m so glad I did,” said Michelle. “I have lost a lot of friends because they just didn’t know how to be around me. Dave and I used to be asked to kids’ birthdays but that stopped.
“Every one of my friends has children now. I am never going to be part of a mum-and-baby club, a toddler group.
“The Facebook group is so amazing because we all have something in common.”
Although Michelle is in a much better place, she knows she still has a long way to go.
“A lot of people hold that miracle pregnancy hope,” she said. “Part of making me better was letting go of that.
“I feel good but there are still moments – a friend told me recently she was pregnant and I was right back to feeling absolutely terrible. But I have now learnt good coping mechanisms.
“And me and Dave are really strong; I made the right decision there! I can’t imagine being without him.
“Our life now is not the one we would have chosen, it is the one we have. And we have to learn how to live it.”