I’ve doubted for a while whether I should type this article, yet in the end it made all the more sense why I should. I keep a wellness blog – covering both the mental and the physical aspects of the phrase – but unfortunately the last 8 months of my pregnancy I haven’t been well. In fact I was sick enough to take daily medication, be under strict medical supervision (struggling to keep myself out of the hospital for a good couple of months), while trying to enjoy and endure my first pregnancy at the same time. In short: All my effort went into staying mentally and physically well, while going through one of the most special periods in a woman’s life. Needless to say I learned. A lot. In this article I would like to share how I managed all this by staying positive when you are sick, while giving some much needed attention to the pregnancy condition called Hyperemesis Gravidarum, or HG in short.
How a normal pregnancy became complicated
As I mentioned in one of my last Wellness Updates, I found out I was pregnant in June last year. I miscarried a brief pregnancy the month before, and I simply didn’t think it was possible for me to be pregnant again so soon. But I was! I vividly remember keeping the 3 positive tests (I mentioned I could barely believe there was a possibility, right?) in a little box to show the Mister as soon as he got home. We were ecstatic, excited and gloriously happy with the unforeseen results. It physically felt right this time, but we were getting an early ultrasound just in case.
Who would have known that only a week later, I would be so sick from the pregnancy hormones I had to carry a baggy in with me to see our baby’s heartbeat for the first time?
Because only a couple of days after testing positive I started to feel nauseous. I remember sitting behind my PC while having the feeling I needed to throw up started to slowly dawn on me. I actually remember feeling a little smug and gleeful: “See, this is me, being pregnant. Look at how pregnant I am!” Little did I know that from that moment on, I would be nauseous every day. And night. And in a much more dreadful capacity than what I was experiencing there and then.
So what is Hyperemesis Gravidarum
Hyperemesis Gravidarum, or HG in short, is a pregnancy condition which you could shortly describe as “extreme pregnancy nausea”. On the contrary of regular pregnancy nausea, this sickness persists 24/7 and comes with a constant risk of malnutrition, dehydration and dangerous weight loss due to (the constant risk) of throwing up. Unfortunately, these symptoms do carry risks for the mother, and if untreated or unchecked also for her child.
This condition was relatively unknown until the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was unlucky enough to suffer from this condition during her pregnancies. It left her hospitalized, worrying royalty-loving Brittain over their princess with a sickness few people had ever heard about. But for other HG patients it was an unforeseen blessing that this illness got so many sympathy and attention. Because it wasn’t that long ago that this pregnancy condition was considered psychosomatic by many doctors and nurses, leaving the literally starving moms-to-be hospitalized solitary in a dark room with little more than some dry saltines, and IV drip and the means to clean up their own sick.
Unfortunately, it has been proven that HG has a tremendous physical and psychological impact on a pregnant woman.
The physical impact of HG
I once read a comparison of Hyperemesis Gravidarum to having a bad case of food-poisoning while riding a rollercoaster. Although it’s a funny idea, I wouldn’t quite agree. I had a serious case of food-poisoning and intestinal inflammation at the start of last year, and it naturally was no walk in the park. But there’s something about the hormonal-driven sickness of HG that made me lose all material to compare.
Somehow, a weird instinct kept causing my body to ditch the content of my stomach in any case my mind found a sensation even mildly unpleasant. This would include a hair in my mouth. A bite of food I chewed too long. Drinking a sip of water from a glass while remembering it came from the dishwasher (which I then found unbearably smelly). But in many cases, turning my head too fast or sitting up would be sufficient to lose all the food and fluids I fought so hard for to take in and keep down.
Then again, I was “lucky”. I somehow managed to keep my much needed vitamins down on an empty morning stomach. I was able to “limit” the amount of times I had to throw up to 3 to 12 lengthy and violent sessions a day. At my worst I managed to keep down about a liter of fluids and a couple of biscuits, which I lavishly tried to dress up with calories in the form of butter and sugar. Despite my effort, it caused me to lose 5kg, which I managed to gain again after about 15 weeks – 8 of which I spent in bedridden because I simply couldn’t get up without being sick. With the proper medication, I managed to stay hydrated enough to prevent myself getting hooked up to a drip. I felt lucky, because I soon learned many women in my shoes don’t escape hospitalization.
Little did I know that I was to be one of the few who would suffer from HG my entire pregnancy. For a lot of women, Hyperemesis Gravidarum becomes milder (or in rare cases, even disappears entirely) after about 20 weeks. Unfortunately I managed to remain sick until my due-date (and the 10 days I was overdue, as well). Luckily my eating pattern had improved over time (from biscuits to bread, from junkfood like pizza and fries to potato products, to – during the last couple of weeks of my pregnancy – the occasional salad and microwave dinner): It helped me feel better both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, this didn’t prevent me from being too sick to work or do my own household since week 5: Eating to keep us strong, and keeping it down ruled my days.
The psychological impact of HG
In the best case you’re thrilled with having a baby, and want nothing else but to be a good vessel for your child. No drinking, no smoking, no raw beef, no stress, a bunch of appropriate vitamins, pregnancy courses, maternal yoga, plenty of fresh air – you name it. Instead you find yourself sick very early in your first trimester. So sick in fact, that keeping anything down becomes virtually impossible – let alone eating healthy.
Personally, it made me feel like I was failing as a mother before I even gave birth. Luckily my midwife* had experience with HG and made an effort from the start to assure me my baby would be fine. This, combined with the fact I was able to stop working immediately – and with the help of my loving partner, my helpful mother, and a good portion of mental stamina – really limited the amount of times I felt I couldn’t handle this sickness. It all allowed me to focus on my health: Which more importantly, meant the baby’s health.
* In the Netherlands pregnant women are usually under medical supervision by a midwife.
Unfortunately, I realized not all women suffering the same condition are so lucky. When I joined a HG support group on facebook I soon found out few people are able to sympathize with “a healthy illness like pregnancy nausea”. Even when family and employers are starting to grasp the severity of the illness, lack of familiarity of the situation makes them unaccommodating and even mean. I’ve heard stories of women being fired during their pregnancy because they “proved to be incompetent workers”. Mothers telling their pregnant daughters to “cut the crap and just start eating” (like they weren’t trying already) or to “start being happier, because the baby in your belly would get mental damage by feeling unwelcome”. Not to mention partners fleeing from their pregnant wives every chance they got, in addition to blaming her for not being able to work, take care of the household and look after their other children.
All of this makes understanding why women with HG consider – or even follow through – terminating their pregnancy, somewhat easier.
Staying positive when you are sick
I want to start this paragraph by stating that by no means I want to play down people’s individual illnesses or emotions considering. No case is the same, nor are different people when they endure hardship. But I wouldn’t like to leave this opportunity to share what helped me through this difficult time unchecked.
Staying positive when you are sick: Keep frustration at bay
It’s easy to get frustrated with the situation you are in. Remember having one of those days where everything seems to go wrong? Starting by missing your train to work, spilling coffee over your papers, losing your house keys and ending by stubbing your toe? There are many ways to turn your bad day around, but several days, months or even years of misery won’t get solved by having a strong cup of tea. I learned what helped me is to keep frustration to a minimum. Prevent thoughts like “I hate this situation”, “I wish I could be doing something else” or “Why is this happening to me” from circling your mind. Because they simply won’t solve anything.
Instead, try to keep a positive view by counting your blessings every day, no matter how insignificant they might seem*.
* At some point, we used to share our daily blessings in a designated Hyperemesis Gravidarum facebook group. I remember women sharing they were happy they spent a couple of hours out of the hospital, that they were able to cuddle their children without having to throw up, or even being sick for only 5 times that day instead of 15.
Staying positive when you are sick: Surround yourself with positive distractions
When you’re too sick to even blink, distraction might sound like too much of a hassle. But positive distractions can come in the smallest forms! Don’t underestimate the power of a clean set of sheets (washed in your favorite laundry detergent), the window cracked open to let the sound of birds come in, or even a small potted plant in the corner of your view. If you’re up for it having a new book or magazine, some new series to watch or something nice to eat can really make a difference in your day as well*.
* I actually made a habit of ringing my mum at least twice a day. I couldn’t be more grateful for the distraction and love she provided me. Thanks mom!
Staying positive when you are sick: Focus on the future
Hopefully if not probably, your sickness is going to pass. That’s why in this case it’s wise to focus on the future, rather than to dwell in the now. Do you have an event in your schedule to look forward to? Try focusing on getting better before that day. In my case, I was looking forward to being recovered from both my pregnancy and the delivery*.
* How can images of making bike rides, swimming and even just walking around with your unborn child not make you happy?
The aftermath of Hyperemesis Gravidarum or HG
Although I’ve typed up a draft of this article in the last week of my pregnancy, I only finished it now my daughter is 9 weeks old. The birth of my first child has left me weakened (not only due to the HG, but also because of a not entirely smooth delivery) but most of all filled with love, joy and fulfillment. The sickness disappeared as soon as the placenta was removed, flushing all those vomit-inducing hormones away (but not after I threw up numerous times during labor, and even during the c-section procedure).
Honestly, HG seems to become more and more of a distant memory. It took me a couple of weeks to build up an appetite again; but now it’s back (with a vengeance). So far my teeth seemed to have survived all the acid reflux – with the right precautions. Mentally I have little setbacks, although it took “some getting used to” seeing my daughter spew up some of her milk at first. It looks like I came out of my HG pregnancy relatively unscathed. If you could call having a less than pleasant pregnancy – which I am strongly reconsidering to repeat for the sake of me and my family – unscathed, of course.
Do you have experience with HG? Or do you have another illness which makes you struggle for a positive outlook? I am very curious: Feel free to share your story in the comment section!