For me, Traditional Chinese Medicine is the infertility equivalent of shopping around for deals on car insurance or clearing out my wardrobe, I know that I should do it and that I need to do it, but I never seem to quite get around to it. I was finally inspired to take the plunge by The Infertility Cure written by Randine Lewis. It was the first time I have delved into Eastern medicine and many passages describing specific symptoms seemed to be written about me. It seems unlikely, having not met Randine, but I was convinced that I saw myself in the words, the way one might relate to a medical horoscope. The book endured such a flurry of underling and flagging that I could no longer deny that Chinese medicine was resonating with me.
My husband, on the other hand, was not so taken with the concept. It is fair to say that Joe initially fell into the camp of mildly sceptic when it comes to Eastern medicine and would rather be an observer than a participant in the whole affair. His view is that if it were highly effective we would all be doing it. I explained that they are. In the East. I rattled off some information that I had read about a scientific study comparing success rates for herbal remedies for infertility with IVF which concluded that herbal remedies are more effective. This would be especially true, I piped up, for cases of hormonal imbalance or unexplained infertility as opposed to structural reasons for infertility which IVF was originally designed to overcome. He shrugged in a vague, disinterested manner. I was tempted to go to my computer, print off the research and not leave his side until he had read it. But then I decided our relationship could do without me being an arse. And besides, I had already bullied him in to attending and receiving his own special batch of herbs, so mission accomplished. An element of my husband’s wariness stems from a belief that the herbalist may feed him bleach. I explained on multiple occasions that this featured as an incidental storyline in a subplot on a TV drama, not a factually accurate investigative documentary on Eastern medicine. Still, that thought seemed to fester. But I was not perturbed and as the driving force for the fertility enhancing craziness in our household I went ahead and booked us both in to see a herbalist recommended by my fertility massage therapist.
My Chinese herbalist is based at the South Bank Clinic, as small set of offices tucked away on an old world London street lined with two up, two down houses just near to Waterloo Station. It’s a cool little street busy with post work pint dwellers outside pubs and I was feeling like a young bohemian as I headed down the road to my alternative medicine appointment. At least I would have been, if I hadn’t been running late, sweating profusely and scuttling my way through the crowds like a London street rat. My wait in the serene reception area was thankfully long enough to regain my composure and for my sweat patches to dry.
My herbalist, also known as the loveliest woman in the world, began by taking my personal details and medical history. She initially thought that I had come from an acupuncture session, which doused me in a wave of panic, partly because I’m scared of the idea of the needles but mainly because it had been an awfully long time since my legs had their last date with the epilator. They were unacceptable. I had the hairiest legs in our household, and I live with a man and a cat. There are countless studies showing the effectiveness of acupuncture, both as an aid to increasing the rate of success with IVF treatment and as a way to relieve stress. But I’m a wimp. The thought of a long skinny needle being inserted into my shin bone or ear makes me want to cry. My fertility massage therapist is a strong advocate of acupuncture and I asked her whether it would hurt , expecting her to float some comforting words my way. “Not really. It is good if you can feel them, it means they’re hitting the right spot. It’s no worse than sticking a small needle into your finger.” But that is exactly my fear, that hurts! But back to the herbal appointment and luckily my overly expressive face relayed for me the message that I was only in the market for herbs and we agreed to park acupuncture until nearer the time of IVF, after I had plucked up some courage (and my legs).
So, what happens during a Chinese medicine appointment? In addition to taking a detailed medical and health background, to help her make a diagnosis the herbalist:
- Took my pulse. In different places on both wrists, with both of her hands. When I enquired how my pulse felt, the answer was ‘weak’, quickly followed by the comment that is nothing to worry about ‘as the pulse is usually reflective of the character of the person’. Ah! So my pulse is OK, but my personality requires substantial work. Morale was waning. Following the appointment my husband, with a spring in his step, informed me that he had the pulse of an athlete. Technically, she had said ‘someone who does a lot of exercise’ but he promoted himself to a professional exerciser, ever the optimist.
- Pressed my abdomen. Lying on a table, the herbalist pressed different locations on my belly and asked me whether the pressure felt sore. Surprisingly not. The only part that felt tender was my womb. I’m not sure whether you are supposed to poke a womb. Seems a little abrupt. The conclusion: “You are definitely bloated.” “Oh dear. Am I?” Another slap in the face for morale. Post appointment my apparently equally puffy husband was upbeat about his bloating: “It’s not just fat. What excellent news!"
- Checked my tongue. I was self-conscious as I stuck out my tongue for inspection, reassuring myself that as far as I knew, my breath didn’t stink and my tongue wasn’t the wrong shape or a funny colour. But in all honesty, who knows. Internal bodily parts like tongues are by their very nature, difficult to compare. The herbalist drew a picture of my tongue in her notes, a quick sketch not an impromptu still life class and I certainly wasn’t offering to take my clothes off and expose my unmistakeably bloated body. The image of my tongue had something noteworthy drawn in on the tip with an arrow pointing to it. I tried (and failed) to read the notes upside down, a no doubt intensely irritating habit that I have developed when in the presence of medical professionals. My natural instinct is to learn all I can so that on exiting an appointment I can immediately consult Dr Google, surely the reason why they conceal their notes from my prying eyes.
The outcome of the questioning, poking, feeling and sketching was my very own prescription of Chinese herbs, particularly sourced (‘not from China, too many heavy metals’). Without sounding too much like a drug lord, I’m definitely willing to pay a little more for a purer batch. My anticipation of long weekends hunched over a pan, brewing herbs and getting my witch on were dashed when I collected the screw top plastic pot containing what looked little like posh fine grain cat litter but with a less pleasant aroma. The herbs are simple to consume - a teaspoon of the tiny pellets in a mug, add hot water, give it a stir, job done. Drink two cups a day and wait for the dramatic turn-around in health and comprehensive all round improvement in life.
There is one hardship, other than the herbs being 20 times more expensive than the poshest of cat litters, and that is the taste. Oh my, the taste. Now I am lucky and my taste buds have escaped the ordeal with just a mild telling-off, whereas Joe’s have been thrashed to within an inch of their lives. I had a sip of Joe’s herbs, as we like to share prescriptions. It was the worst thing I’ve tasted and I drink shots of algae and endure a weekly munch on liver. It is a rancid, bitter, take your breath away and slap you round the chops kind of a taste. Best served tepid and necked down in one. My herbs, on the other hand, are completely bearable. Do I sound smug? Good. I feel smug. Mine taste like a deeply disappointing herbal tea, one you’d make a mental note not to buy again but would finish off the packet because you’d bought them and are not one to waste money in times of austerity. I suspect the difference in taste is due to the herbalist carefully crafting my prescription to avoid anything that weighed too heavily on my digestion, as she was concerned to avert an episode of ‘Amber Pooey Pants, The Sequel’. But I told Joey that the rancid taste was probably bleach.
It is too early to say, which I recognise is a disappointing ending to what has so far been an ‘edge of your seat’ story. Much like when the protagonist wakes up to realise that it had all been a horrible dream, something I still hope will happen to me someday soon. ‘I dreamt I couldn’t have a baby. How strange. Ridiculous! But it seemed so real…’ But the word on the streets of Instagram is that Chinese herbs make a real impact on cycles, health and fertility, and the research that bored my husband says the same. Ten days of herbs and the benefits are already peeking out into the light with reduced blood pressure for Joe, better sleep for us both and cervical mucus that makes me wonder whether my pants are hosting an impromptu wet T-shirt competition. So I am maintaining boundless optimism that our two cups of herbal tea a day, coupled of course with a complete overhaul of our lifestyles and nutrition (a minor detail), could be just what the doctor ordered to regain our fertility. Although not actually what the doctor ordered. Not at all. Western medicine is a sceptic. Maybe it senses the competition, thinking of Eastern medicine as a more beautiful love rival. I am too far gone to be perturbed by cynicism from Western doctors. To use a phrase from The Walking Dead ‘I’ve turned’. I’m now sceptical of my doctor’s cynicism and I’m willing to try almost anything (mustard seed oil as a lubricant being one exception) to get a bun in the oven. Come on Chinese herbal cat litter pellets, restore our fertility and flick off* the naysayers.
*First time of use. Being forced to consult Urban Dictionary not only informs me of the meaning of the word, but indicates that I’m not in touch enough to be using it. (First definition, not the second. I definitely don’t mean the second).