When I was 26, out of a carefree and thoughtless boredom and a desire to make some seemingly easy extra money, I filled out an online egg-donor application for a respected clinic in upper Manhattan. At the time, I was working full-time as an office manager, I lived with my boyfriend, and I was a month away from the publishing date of my first book of poetry. Sure, I was a few thousand dollars in debt from a more carefree time in my life, but things were for-the-time-being extremely stable in my life, and the single-page online application was uncomplicated enough to fill out in the middle of my workday without much thought: Yes, I have both ovaries; no, I don't have chlamydia or gonorrhea; no, I am not currently prescribed any antidepressants.
A week later, I received a form-like email that invited me to fill out a second application: a massive, 60-page questionnaire that asked detailed questions about my family history (how tall was your great-grandfather on your mother's side? What was his complexion? Is he dead, and how did it happen?); my personal goals (oh, I've always known I wanted to become a writer, except for a brief stint in the second grade when I wanted to become a squirrel); and what I would like to say to my future-child, if given the chance, though it was also made extremely clear that as a donor I would be completely anonymous. I would never get the chance to meet the future-baby, and the birth mother would never know my name or see the baby pictures that I included with the second application. The clinic wanted to know I was a nice young lady, even though I didn't actually need to be.
And then, I was in. Over the next two months, I visited the clinic for even more tests. These included: a 650-question true-or-false personality test that was filled with queries regarding whether I heard voices in my head before falling asleep, whether I became suspicious of my friends if they were being too nice to me, or whether I thought my dad was a good person. I completed a physical and multiple blood and urine tests to screen for drug use and any physical and genetic disorders. I met with the in-house psychologist who explained very plainly and repeatedly that even though I was providing my eggs to create a human, this was not my baby. I nodded along, signed some papers, and a couple of weeks later, I was matched with a mom.
We were both put on the same birth control to sync our cycles. While she didn't know my name or what I looked liked, she knew I was a college graduate, average weight for my height, and half-Korean.
Around this time, I noticed a shift in my emotional balance. I started crying almost daily at work and picking fights with my boyfriend. I couldn't tell if it was the hormonal birth control or if it was just me, in that moment. Then, after about a month on birth control and a particularly messy cry in the women's bathroom, I quit my job, to my and my boss's surprise. I told them my boyfriend had gotten a job in LA and that we were moving there next month. This was partly true — he and I did plan on moving to LA for new work, but not until the end of summer. The imminent payoff from donating my eggs led to a disregard for my finances.
After almost two months, I was taken off birth control, and I was ready to start the next step of the donor process. I was given three different hormone and hormone antagonists, Gonal F, Menopur, and Ganirelix, which all had to be injected into my belly fat at precise times every day. These drugs would temporarily shut down my ovulation and stimulate my ovaries to begin producing a high number of follicles. On the first day, I laid out all the various syringes, fluids, gauze, and alcohol pads on my desk at home, in disbelief that they trusted me to perform these injections daily for two weeks. I iced the injection site, my heart racing nervously; I was afraid. My boyfriend watched as I brought the needle closer to my skin. I pressed in, pushed down on the syringe, waited five seconds, and pulled out. It's in! I did it. I can keep doing this.
After day one, the injections became sort of fun — a masochistic, mechanical new purpose in my life. I watched as my stomach collected tiny galaxy-like bruises and pinpricks as it fell victim to my shaky, inexperienced hands. During a normal menstrual cycle, only one of the follicles in the ovaries will make it to full maturity as the body prepares itself for ovulation. With the hormones I was injecting, I was tricking my body into maturing multiple follicles so that the recipient would have a better chance of becoming pregnant. My ovaries began swelling to an unnatural state, which I was able to see at my daily sonogram and blood-work checkups. "Aaaand there are your eggs, they're growing spectacularly," the doctor would say, as they moved the ultrasound probe inside of me to show blobs of follicles on the screen, each measuring about 18 millimeters in diameter toward the end. I felt like a proud momma spider showing off her egg sac.
Most of my girlfriends asked how I was feeling during the whole process, which I replied to relatively positively. I was achy and slow, but only mildly. I wasn't allowed to drink, do drugs, exercise, or have sex. It was pretty OK, other than the feeling of being weighed down from the most central and sensitive part of myself.
Halfway through the injections, my boyfriend of nearly two years and I broke up, somewhat mutually. While it feels too easy to blame the "dissolution of Us" on the foreign hormones in my body, it would be reckless to ignore the fact that over the past six months I had focused a lot of my attention on my egg-farming endeavor. Though he was and remained completely supportive of my decision to donate throughout the entire process, he was going to move to LA alone, and I felt sad that the end of our relationship was marked by a Me who didn't really feel like the outgoing and positive-minded Me that I was for most of the relationship.
After 13 days of hormone injections, it was finally time for the retrieval. This involves a needle that is passed through the top of the vagina and into the follicles inside the ovaries, where the eggs are then very literally sucked out of the donor. The anesthesiologist explained that afterward, I might experience some discomfort similar to menstrual cramps for the next few hours. She inserted an IV into the top of my hand and walked me to my hospital bed inside the retrieval room, where I nearly immediately fell asleep. Half an hour later, I woke up in a different room, was handed apple juice and some graham crackers, and texted my now-ex-boyfriend in the waiting room some gibberish that included not knowing where I was or if the procedure was over. I felt nauseated from the anesthesia. An hour later, I was on the train home.
The nurse was right — I did feel achy for the next few hours. What she didn't tell me was that these pangs would evolve into some sort of body-defying monster cramps that would gurgle and internally rev constantly without any release, bloating me to the point of popping so that I had to wobble from room to room, wincing if I stepped down too hard, which sent a jolt of pain from my foot, through my vagina, and up into my now-empty-but-still-very-swollen ovaries. If I ate something small or drank a little water, my stomach and bladder would become full immediately because there was less room for them inside of me now. I made frequent, painful trips to pee, but after 24 hours of not shitting, I thought, Let me Google this. It turns out that the post-egg-retrieval bloating and constipation I was experiencing were part of a fun game that in-vitro-fertilization doctors seem to love playing on their egg donors and prospective mothers, in that they DON'T TELL THEM ABOUT IT. Nearly every woman on every forum I found was also suffering from mild to severe forms of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a medical condition that affects nearly one in four women on fertility medication, and they were furious, yet relieved, to find that others were experiencing the same pain and discomfort that they were.
As someone who has struggled with body image and weight issues her entire life, it was horrifying for me to see my stomach puffed out and solid, like a kickball made of brick. I wanted to be punctured and deflated and thrown away. I immediately stocked up on Fiber 1 cereal and bottles of dusty bodega prune juice to help me feel some semblance of the nonpregnant woman I knew I was inside. Every step, meal, and attempted bowel movement was agonizing, and I could sleep only on my back because my breasts were so heavy and tender. The $8,000 started to look laughable as I thought of the 6:30 a.m. train rides from my apartment in Brooklyn to the Upper East Side that I took weekly and then daily. It seemed extremely not worth it as I looked at my body in the days after the retrieval and recognized only hate toward its weakness. The emotions that I felt on the comedown of the hormones were brutal and worse than anything leading up to it.
But even with all the whining and discomfort, in my more clearheaded moments, I thought, So what? I did this voluntarily, right? I made it out eventually. I got paid.
Before the retrieval, it was easy to recommend the process to other women. You are helping a couple achieve something beautiful that they are unable to do alone. You are compensated, and nothing hurts that badly. Immediately after, however, it felt irresponsible and senseless to recommend that anyone willingly offer up their stable life and well-being to months of emotional and physical damage.
Egg retrieval is a relatively new science, so there aren't any long-term studies on its effects yet. Because I don't plan on ever conceiving children of my own, the rumors and unstudied risks I heard about future infertility didn't bother me. I knew I couldn't "run out of eggs" since women are born with all the eggs we're ever going to have (about two million). But instead of routinely bleeding out the immature egg follicles like usual, I harvested and sold them for $8,000.
The paycheck was the only thing I cared about when I filled out the very first application. Then it became an unrealistic bonus at the end, one I sort of imagined I would never actually receive. It became less about the money during the process and more like I was playing the role of an Employed Fertile Human Body for an Intangible Future Mother. I felt jaded in a way that removed me from why I was doing it — I just was. And I had to keep going.
By the end of the process, I had learned more about the morals of donating and the effects of the hormones inside of my body, but the money was, whether at the forefront of my conscience or periodically backlogged, always my driving force and will. I struggled only a little with the ethics of reaping my otherwise nonexistent follicles so that someone could pay to create their biological child when this money could undoubtedly be used to adopt one who already existed. This mental spawn warfare was short-lived when I remembered my credit-card debt and how if it wasn't me, it would only be someone else.
Sarah Jean Alexander wrote a book of poetry called Wildlives (Big Lucks 2015), and she lives, laughs, loves, and drinks in Brooklyn.