At least one in every hundred people who get pregnant will experience Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG). It is a debilitating and severe form of pregnancy sickness that can last anywhere from 12 to 40 weeks, so bad that research suggests that 25% of sufferers experience suicidal thoughts during their pregnancy. So why aren’t more women accessing treatment? Here, HG survivor and mother of two, Holly, shares her experience.
My HG nightmare ended Wednesday 18th November 2020 with the birth of my second and final child. Once again, like with my first 3 years earlier, I was worried that the extreme feelings of nausea wouldn’t go – but they did. I was worried that breast feeding (for I was determined to breastfeed my last child having been unable to do so for my first) would prolong the suffering – but it didn’t. I was worried that the numerous food aversions that had plagued me for the previous nine months would stick around – but they didn’t. I left the hospital 24 hours later, barely able to walk from my C-section and barely awake for holding a crying baby alone all night (thank you covid restrictions) but elated that I no longer felt nauseous and was capable of gulping a drink without immediately bringing it back up again. My HG nightmare ended Wednesday 18th November 2020. Or so I thought.
Having suffered from the horrors of Hyperemesis Gravidarum not once but twice, I am aware it is a game of two halves. There are the physical aspects, which are relentless, unforgiving and in severe cases life threatening. But there are also the mental aspects. The feeling of slowly descending into madness as you cannot remember a time when you did not feel extremely nauseous. The feeling that you are somehow to blame as being pregnant a second time means you have ‘done it to yourself’ (this was a personal favourite of mine; bedbound during the pandemic I would routinely and harshly berate myself for having the audacity to be pregnant again knowing what I was likely to suffer). And finally, the suicidal feelings. I am not proud to admit that in my darkest days I willed myself to just get to 24 weeks, when babies can survive birth, and then experience the sweet release of death. Normal feelings? Not in the slightest. Something that others in my HG support group can relate to? 100%.
But once your baby is born and you return home to exist in your newborn bubble the physical aspects fade away. The mental aspects are surpassed by new mental feelings. For some lucky mothers, euphoria with their brand-new babies. For others not so lucky, post-natal depression. I have found myself in both camps; euphoria with my first and PND with my second. Whatever it is that happens to you post birth, dealing with HG slides right down the list. I don’t want to say it disappears completely but for something that consumed your every waking thought for the best part of nine months, it barely registers a mention now; save perhaps those well-meaning but incredibly irritating family and friends who enquire when the next one might be. Or in my case, when I would be ‘trying for a girl’.
For me personally, this is a conscious and subconscious decision. Newborn’s are hard work, so your mind is literally occupied with a million other things. You aren’t thinking about the trauma you have just experienced as breastfeeding is a complete nightmare, or your baby just won’t sleep and screams for hours on end, or you are living in a lockdown with no family or friends able to help you out. Yes, all three things happened to me. That is the subconscious at work. But consciously you are also avoiding thinking about it. You want to focus on something positive. You want to reclaim your life and innermost thoughts. You don’t want to feel how you did for the past nine months so you pretend you don’t. For some this works. It is the post-natal version of fake it ‘til you make it. For me, it did work, with varying levels of success. But HG is a devil and one way or another it gets you again.
I returned to work mid-January 2022. I was convinced that the cure to my PND was to return to a normal I hadn’t experienced for nearly two years. Back to full time work, back to the nursery run, back to some form of exercise and adult conversation. By mid-March I had encountered a small breakdown and was signed off work for a month. All illusions of returning to normality firmly shattered.
Deep down I knew I had not processed the trauma that HG brings. I thought, somewhat arrogantly, that I could outrun it. On a Friday afternoon, in a hotel toilet during a first aid course, I could run no longer. I was sick, violently sick for the first time since I had been pregnant. My immediate and I mean immediate thought was ‘shit, I’m pregnant’. To get rather personal this was impossible on two counts; first, I had had a period since I last had unprotected sex, but much more importantly during my second c-section I had gotten sterilised. These important facts did nothing to stem the terror that was now clouding my every thought. What was I going to do? I didn’t want another baby, couldn’t cope with another HG pregnancy or round of PND, couldn’t afford to have two in nursery at once. On and on my thoughts went, going from 1 to 100. How far along was I? Where could I get an abortion, what would my husband say, what would my parents think. This whole succession of thought occurred before I had even left the cubicle.
At home that night my husband gently tried to explain to me that there was no way I was pregnant whilst I countered back with more and more wild suggestions as to how I might be. I even went so far as to take a test. It was, of course, negative. It was during this time that a Guardian article about how badly HG sufferers are treated by some healthcare professionals was shared in my HG support group. It triggered me so badly that I finally accepted I wasn’t coping and went to the doctor who promptly signed me off work. She also started the referral process for therapy. Several assessments later it turns out I am suffering from PTSD. My warped mind cannot separate being or feeling sick with being pregnant. This is unsustainable. Over the course of the rest of my life I am going to get food poisoning, or a tummy bug or a hangover. Any one of these can produce nausea or sickness and I need to experience them without reliving the HG.
The mental scars that HG has left me are only just becoming visible, at 20 months post birth. Women like me are seriously let down. First we fight, at our most vulnerable, to get the help, support and treatment needed to live with a HG pregnancy. For too many of us that fight is often in vain as we are denied perfectly safe drugs or told we aren’t quite ill enough to receive hospital care. But then we are let down again post birth with a complete lack of care and attention to our fragile mental health.
If my support group and social media is anything to go by, there are too many of us living with the trauma of HG and too few of us receiving the help to do anything about it.
If you are suffering with HG, you can seek help at pregnancysicknesssupport.org.uk