Causes & Treatment

The Shock of Being Diagnosed Infertile – with Knackered Knackers

Eloise Edington  |   5 Jul 2021


Male Infertility is a common and growing issue that many males have faced, and are facing. Hearing about personal trying to conceive journeys is so important, as it shows you that you are not alone. This time, we are hearing Shaun’s story on what he has experienced, and how he has been able to overcome it.

Words by Shaun (AKA ‘Knackered Knackers’)

Hi. I’m Shaun. I’m a man. I’m infertile.

That’s not something you hear very often, is it? That’s exactly why I’m here.

Struggling with fertility is tough for anyone who goes through it, male or female. It’s an experience like no other, and my wife and I have the scars to prove it – literally. There’s a lot of undue shame and secrecy about infertility in general, but when the complications stem from the male side, that shame and secrecy increase exponentially. From my own experience, I know just what a lonely place that can be.

@knackered_knackers

Over the last few years when I searched for platforms, communities, accounts and groups for male infertility, there were none. There were many infertility support groups for women, which were helpful to a degree, but I wanted to speak to other men in the same situation.”

Male Infertility: A Taboo

Male infertility has been a taboo subject for too long, because men are taught to ‘man up and get on with it’, to suppress their emotions. It’s because of this that I decided to share my story.

Having male voices in the infertility world changes the dynamic for everyone. Women don’t have to feel like they’re carrying the emotional burden for their partner. And raising awareness will normalise it to a degree for men – it can help lead to the path of acceptance – to recognise that it does not make you less of a man. It is a medical condition; it has nothing to do with you as a person and nothing to do with your status as a man. Once you start processing your thoughts and feelings, it helps rationalise the situation.

My wife Jenna and I have been together for twelve years and married for eight of those. In 2017, after eight happy years enjoying life as just the two of us, we started trying to conceive and began the next chapter of our lives together. After having no fertility success, we went to the doctor’s to explain our concerns, and hopefully find some fertility answers.

Following initial fertility blood tests on both of us, it was established that I had azoospermia – no sperm in my semen. This was most likely due to having mumps as a young adult, but I also had a large varicocele – a cluster of enlarged veins above the testicles – which also creates problems with sperm production.

Related Article – Male Infertility: We Need to Talk

Becoming Accustomed To Fertility Operations

In 2019 I underwent two operations to try and rectify my troubles with azoospermia, and to find some sperm.

Firstly in March, a varicocele embolisation, which is a relatively non-invasive procedure, was carried out under local anaesthetic. Following the operation there was a three-month wait to see if sperm production improved, which meant yet another trip to the fertility clinic to provide a semen sample.

Neither of us will forget the day that we received the phone call with the results of the post varicocele operation sperm test. Jenna was driving me to the train station as I headed off to work, and just as she was parking, the phone rang. Still zero sperm. That was a real blow. Although the chances of the operation improving my count were slim (around 30%), we are both inherently positive people, and as always, we were both hoping for good news. I guess the flip side to being hopeful and positive, is that there’s further to fall on the other side.

Jenna was crying, and I was just numb. Frozen. Frozen from what? Embarrassment? Shame? Guilt? All of them I think. We had already chosen a fertility clinic by this point and had been for preliminary fertility appointments and consults with fertility specialists. They were awaiting the outcome of my varicocele op, which had already been arranged prior to our appointments with the IVF clinic. The outcome would determine what kind of treatment we would need. But now there was absolutely no doubt about it. If Jenna was to carry a baby, it would have to be via IVF, which meant her having to go through a hell of a lot physically, all because of me.

Had I failed her? Would she leave me? These were some of the many questions going around my head.

Related Article – Male Infertility: ExSeed Health’s Mission to Empower Men

Microsurgical Testicular Sperm Extraction

Following that failed operation, I underwent a more invasive operation called Microsurgical Testicular Sperm Extraction (aka Micro-TESE or mTESE). This fertility test for men involves an incision into the scrotum, and the outer layer of one testicle is then opened (sometimes both). The surgeon then examines the testicle under a high-powered microscope for any areas containing sperm, and any sperm present is harvested for use in an ICSI procedure. It was a much more intrusive operation, with more potential risks, such as pain, bleeding, infection, low testosterone, and – in rare cases – severe testicular damage.

Still No Sperm

I was apprehensive for the Micro-TESE, but pressed on with the operation. I wanted to know that I tried every avenue.

After the operation I was wheeled back to the ward, and not long after I came around from the sedation, the surgeon and a nurse came to see us. They gave it to us straight. No sperm were found. That was it. I would never father a biological child of my own.

Related Article – Calling all Fathers-In-Waiting: Everything You Need to Know about Male Infertility by Clinica Tambre

The result left me questioning my masculinity, compounded by the fact that I couldn’t find any forums or accounts of other men experiencing the same, even those with azoospermia. I felt alone and went inward. I have had a lot of time to consider this question of masculinity – are you still a man if you cannot provide sperm?

Over time I came to realise that of course I am still a man. A journey of infertility gives you a new sense of manliness. Being engaged in your actions, showing up, being there at tough times, at tough appointments. The fertility clinics and procedures may be awkward and embarrassing, but by consistently being by your partner’s side – showing strength, compassion, and love – you are being every bit the man she needs you to be. And it’s important to acknowledge that men have emotions too. Suppressing them will only lead to further complications down the line – the emotions will be released in some way, somehow, so they’re best dealt with as early as possible.

The Grieving Process

Part of the emotional healing process is the grieving process; grieving for the loss of your genetics.

It’s a big loss, and one absolutely worth grieving over. You have lost what you would have considered to be the normal route to parenthood – a route that so many others seem to have easily and take for granted. This is a difficult phase, and it will most likely not pass quickly.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a theory that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I certainly experienced each of these – some of which crept up on me without me knowing or consciously welcoming them. And these feelings of grief may well resurface from time to time. It’s important to deal with them when they do. If you’re experiencing infertility depression for example, don’t suppress it, as it will not serve you well in the long term – even if it feels good at the time to push the feelings aside.

Once you have grieved, and moved towards a form of acceptance, you can start to look forward. The journey to acceptance is not a quick one, and people have different mechanisms for dealing with this. But I think that it is key to recognise that in finding acceptance, it doesn’t mean that you have to like what has happened. You just choose to make space for it in your life. You give yourself permission to be who you are, and to stop expending energy in resisting it; energy that can be better served in supporting your partner in your next phases of trying to conceive.

Related Article – Male Infertility: The Rarely Discussed Aftermath

‘The Little Big Things’

My shift to this stage firstly came after I read the powerful book by Henry Fraser – The Little Big Things. It is Henry’s incredible story of how he accepted his new reality, following a tragic life-changing accident. It’s truly inspirational. Henry talks of finding gratitude in the simplest of things – things that he would have previously taken for granted.

The book led me to reflect on my own circumstances, and just how much I had to be grateful for. I downloaded an app called Day One, and every morning, I began writing what I was grateful for. There have been many recent studies on the benefits of practising gratitude. It is said to open new neuro pathways in your brain and has numerous positive effects on both mental and physical health. By focusing on the positives in my life, I was able to acknowledge my strengths, and utilise them to overcome the recent adversity I had faced. I found a power within myself that allowed me to accept my present and write a new future. After all, you cannot create hope for the future when you are staring into the past – wishing for what could have been.

Acceptance truly is transformative. Your mind changes, which in turn feels like your body changes – as if a weight has been lifted.

Related Article – Male Infertility: Baby Making is a Team Sport

My wife and I decided that we still wanted to raise children, no matter what it took. I knew that I had a lot more to pass on to a child, other than my DNA: my values, my strength, my love, my life experiences. We elected to use donor sperm, and in February 2021 she gave birth to twins – a boy and girl, Ray and Evelyn.

It’s a truly amazing feeling, and I love them both so much. I wouldn’t change my journey for anything, as it led me to Ray and Evelyn. Everything is exactly how it was meant to be.

My message to any men experiencing infertility is that it’s important not to suffer in silence. Male infertility causes can come from a range of things, but it’s not your fault. Have a conversation. That’s the first step to understanding and healing. Whether those conversations are with your partner, a friend, a therapist, or someone like myself who may be further along the road, having been there – that’s down to what you are most comfortable with.

Just know that there are many ways of making a family – each as special as the next. Follow Knackered Knackers on Instagram.

Related Article – The Physical and Emotional Pain of Being Told I Have Zero Sperm

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