My experience with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG)
I’m writing this at 25 weeks pregnant, on the lowest dose of sickness medication now (soon to hopefully finish completely), with my third baby. I’m sat with a cuppa at soft play chaos, still very happy that I can now, not just stomach, but enjoy a cup of tea, and tolerate enduring 2hrs of soft play noise (hence having the time to write a blog post!) – a few months ago life felt very different…
A bit of comparison, in my first pregnancy, I had severe sickness and nausea from 6 weeks, what I could eat for the first 3-4 months totally changed and became very limited as food aversion kicked in. I wasn’t working at the time, but awaiting my new job to start after moving from Cardiff to Cirencester. I could rest or sleep when I needed to (which was most of the time) and my husband would regularly find me laying on the floor unable to move when he got back from work. I couldn’t drink water, but I could keep small amounts of squash down. I remember being able to manage the odd walk in the first trimester and if I had an appointment, I was able to get out to it and rest after. The sickness seemed to ease around 14-16 weeks, I lost weight at first but soon put it back on. Skip forward to my second pregnancy, I managed a similar, if not more intense, sickness and nausea that hit at 6 weeks again, and I was teaching just a few classes a week alongside looking after my then 18mth old. I spent a lot of time hooking her up to peppa pig on the ipad while I slept, holding my breath when trying to cook anything for her in the microwave and changing her nappy outside in the garden as much as I could to ease the smell. Again, the food became very limited due to aversions, but I managed to find ‘safe foods’ that kept me going (mainly marmite sandwiches and cheese puff crisps). I was still able to drag myself out to appointments after a few weeks of sickness, and a trip away at 12 weeks. It sucked a lot, and I used all the usual tricks of sickness bands and such that I had done before to help. I did ask my midwife at one point about medication, but was told I wasn’t bad enough, so I ploughed on and the sickness passed again by 16 weeks.
This pregnancy, I felt like I was hit by a truck and I’ve never experienced anything so debilitating in my life. This felt different and I knew from the start. A positive pregnancy test at 4 weeks in the summer, nausea already started creeping in that week. We got back from a trip to Ireland to see family, and by week 5 the nausea intensified, my senses exploded and I started vomiting. I started putting the usual measures in place, trying to find ‘safe foods’, sickness bands that I wore so much they left my wrists with holes and blisters, acupuncture sessions, and resting when I could, hoping this might pass as before. My work commitments were huge compared to the last two pregnancies, with doula clients, classes and photography shoots to juggle, but I managed to get through most of my last summer work commitments in that week 5 before HG completely hit.
I vividly remember the day before HG kicked in. I’d taught my last summer pop up class and came home and collapsed on the sofa, my husband made me something bland to eat and I remember saying ‘if it stays like this, I can manage’. Well, the next day I fell off a cliff, I couldn’t stop vomiting, and by 6 weeks I was so weak I couldn’t get myself up out of bed and was having to crawl around the house if my kids needed me. I could barely drink anything and eating was out of the question. It was the summer holidays, meaning I had less work on, so less to reschedule and cancel thankfully, but as a self-employed person I lost at least 2mths+ income. I couldn’t stand or barely get myself to the toilet, let alone look after my 5 and 3-year-old. We spent most of the rest of summer in the living room watching films, with my husband popping downstairs to check on us/stop the kids from killing each other (thank god he works from home!). A few days in, I asked my mum to come around, and I told her about the pregnancy then, with no feeling of excitement or enjoyment of sharing our much longed-for news, I had my head too far in a bucket for that. HG really robs the magic of pregnancy like that.
I’m usually someone who would rather not take medication, but I knew I needed it straight away. I had already contacted the doctor who wanted to try me on the first line medication (it’s a ladder of treatment, starting at the bottom and working up to see what you respond to). I couldn’t drive as I was already so dehydrated and weak, so my mum took me to the Dr’s where I hobbled in slowly to see the nurse, and she checked my very low blood pressure, saw I already had ketones in my urine and had lost weight, sat breathless on the chair – by a few weeks into the sickness I had already lost a stone. I was assured that if that medication didn’t work, I could try the next, sure enough I continued to vomit and wretch and went through 4 medications before I desperately called the out of hours GP on a bank holiday for another med. They asked me if I’d tried eating ginger biscuits and I burst into tears, if you know HG you know eating ANYTHING is out of the question, and it won’t be solved with some bloody ginger! Thankfully though, he prescribed a medication that my usual Dr hadn’t heard of before, and for me, this eventually stopped the relentlessness of my constant vomiting, but the nausea still remained.
My mum would pop by on her lunch break to take the kids out to play, and my husband on his and my parents in law helping when they could too. The most I could do was lay on my left side and sleep, any other position made me sick. As a person who is used to being busy, relied upon by others, and very active, I found myself sobbing most days wanting this all to end so I could go back to normal. Although, I often wondered if I’d ever really feel normal again. I’d sleep and dream about eating, wake up and think of food and immediately wretch, my body started to starve as I struggled to find any safe foods I could stomach.
I can’t explain the 24/7 intensity of nausea and vomiting and food aversion. EVERYTHING smelt. My kids, my husband, every room, and obviously any food and drink. I bought so many air fresheners, which are now incredibly triggering smells ironically. People being next to me made me want to vomit, people talking, me talking, looking at a screen. The saliva in my mouth built and built, that in itself was vomit inducing. I had a first trimester bad tummy, as well as sickness (oh joy!), and my heart regularly went into palpations every day. The medication also has a side-effect of drowsiness, so I was totally knocked out in more ways than one.
With the help of the medication, I finally found 2 or 3 foods I could eat, in tiny amounts. My husband brought me plain white toast, which I managed half a small piece once or twice a day, and a specific brand of plain crisps. I found I could eventually stomach Lucozade sport, apple juice and fizzy drinks too, and this undoubtably kept me out of hospital, despite my weakness. Eventually I started feeling sick at the thought of these foods though, and it was a 2-week cycle of finding a couple of things I could eat, managing only those for 2 weeks and then panicking I couldn’t face them anymore, but I also couldn’t think of anything else to eat instead. My body went into starvation mode and as a vegetarian of 10 years, the only thing I could think of eating was plain chicken. How random, but I trusted my body, surrendered and honoured what it wanted. I bought whole chickens, with my husband watching me eat chicken legs, slightly amused as a meat eater himself. Alas after 2 weeks of just chicken, the thought of it then made me vomit and the cycle started again (safe to say I’m back to being veggie again now!)
I felt so disconnected from this baby due to the sickness and other factors, I wanted an early scan to reassure me this sickness was for a reason, and to see my baby growing well to spur me on. I just about managed being in a car, led on my side, with a sick bag over my mouth, and hobbled into the private scan appointment. Being outside felt scary and unpredictable, everywhere I walked smelt, walking past people smelt, and I was scared I would collapse or throw up in the street. We got to see our little blob and beating heart, I smiled, but still wasn’t filled with excitement or hope – it felt too scary to feel this, or impossible to, alongside the intense sickness. I had a terrible thought, that if the worst happened, I didn’t think I would be strong enough to try again, and face HG another time. In a cruel way, if I felt pockets of feeling slightly better, I worried WHY I felt better, and would panic the baby wasn’t ok. In a weird re-framing way, at least the HG was a constant reminder that my baby was there and growing.
I upped my medication dose and started being able to sit up, and even walk around the house more comfortably. I barely stepped into my kitchen for the first 4 months of pregnancy, and it took until around 5 months to be able to sit at the table together as a family to eat/watch the kids eat and consider eating a vegetable (as a vegetarian, I’ve always found through all 3 pregnancies, that veggies and healthy foods are my main food aversions in pregnancy sickness!)
HG was hard enough for me, let alone for my family to watch me go through it, and they all rallied around to support me amazingly. My husband had to suddenly do everything. Breakfast, lunch, check-ins, dinner, bedtime, the washing, the shopping…it was all handed over to him overnight alongside his full-time job. I started to feel the light at the end of the tunnel when this new medication helped, but I had been bed bound for over a month and felt completely weak with muscle atrophy, I needed to slowly re-build my strength (sounds very dramatic but it’s how it felt). Term re-started and I started joining my husband for walking to school pick-ups, luckily, we live at the top of the school car park so it wasn’t far to go. I was feeling anxious about leaving the house and used my yoga and breathing techniques to keep me calm. Soon I was able to do even more, I had classes to get back to teaching, and I slowly eased back into them, coming home to sleep after and my husband even offered to drive me there and help me set up and pack down. I could walk the kids to school, sometimes sitting on the floor for a rest by the preschool door as we waited for it to open, and holding my breath as we walked past the school kitchen extractor fan (the smell of doughnuts was the worst!). It took over 4 months for me to actually have the desire and energy to take myself on a walk around the block though, until then I existed in pure survival mode.
I felt enormous guilt for the kids, worried they’d remember this horrible time, but they were so excited for their new baby brother or sister to join us and helped me as much as they could. Luni drew me pictures and brought them to me in bed, bringing a smile in between the sickness. We decided to tell the kids early on from the start about the pregnancy, we had to because I was so ill and their lives changed a lot in that period. I remember the first time I had the energy to take the kids out to the local park, they beamed so big at being able to spend proper time with me and not be stuck with the tele. I joined a HG facebook support group through pregnancy sickness UK, it was really helpful to have a community of others going through similar experiences, and often much worse, with people being admitted to hospital multiple times or having such bad sickness all the way through to birth. I felt guilty and like a bit of fraud in a way that this, thankfully, wasn’t me. It took until half way through pregnancy to feel more ‘myself’ again and start enjoying it, but I know I’m incredibly lucky to be able to say that.
All through this experience, I held on to the visual of my 3 babies playing happily together. I held on to remembering that I’ve felt this sick before and gotten through it, that this phase is temporary, however long it takes to feel ‘normal’ again. For anyone reading this in the thick of HG, I see you. Reach out for the help you need.