Lying on the bathroom floor, my stomach convulsing, I stared at the packet of cancer medication. So blinded by sickness, I hadn’t the fight in me to consider the potential dangers of taking it. My mum’s immediate reaction was that I shouldn’t, but at this point, it was medication or terminating my pregnancy.
I was in trimester one of my first pregnancy, and suffering my first experience of Hyperemesis Gravidarum. Also known as HG, it’s a condition of extreme sickness and nausea that affects around 1% of people - and the cause isn’t yet fully understood. Experts warn the condition can last throughout the entire pregnancy, with around 60% of sufferers still experiencing symptoms by the time they give birth. This was me.
At six weeks pregnant, I had started to feel a bit under the weather. I was more lethargic, didn’t want to eat much, and realised I couldn’t walk down the detergent aisle in the supermarket without feeling the need to retch. Noticing the colour drained from my face, friends and strangers alike would tilt their heads, roll their eyes and say, knowingly, “Morning sickness”. But it was so much worse than that. My vomiting was far from confined to the mornings, and as the days rolled on I started to wonder if something was seriously wrong.
By seven weeks, the sickness had a grip on my every waking moment. I couldn’t keep fluids down, and spent most of the day moving zombie-like from room to room in a vain attempt to out-run it all. The nausea had me clawing and scratching at my throat. I wanted to throttle anyone who suggested I try a ginger biscuit. I took nine weeks out of my job, unable to move for the debilitating sickness, and watched as my husband was signed off work to be my carer.
In a bid to help ease my symptoms, I was prescribed Ondansetron; the drug given to cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. It helps stop the serotonin hormone which can cause nausea and vomiting, and despite studies showing very little chance of increased birth defects, I couldn’t see past 'cardiac malformations' and 'oral clefts.'
It’s not just the crippling nausea and vomiting that makes HG so hard to bear; the toll it can take mentally is arguably the greatest challenge. The panic at the thought of this being how my nine-month pregnancy would play out was beyond anything I’d experienced. I lost two stones in a few short weeks, and my brain whirred with negative thoughts. If I kept losing weight like this (some sufferers get back to their pre-pregnancy weight at full term), then how could I grow a baby? What damage was I doing to it, and to myself? The consideration of a termination became ever more present, but it was such a major decision, and not something I had the mental capacity at that point to fight. The feeling of desperation was indescribable.
How could I even contemplate termination?, I’d think in a rare moment of clarity. I want this. Other times, I would catch myself screaming at this thing inside me; this thing that was doing nothing but make me ill. I wanted it out. I was hysterical. That was when I knew I needed help.
My first stop was my GP. I didn’t realise my husband had made this call for help until I was being bundled into the car for an appointment. A tiny flicker of hope stirred in my stomach, amongst the bile, until - after taking the doctor through my symptoms - he said to me: “And what is it you’d like me to do?” My response was to break down, which made him consider me a case beyond his comprehension and swiftly passed me off as someone else’s ‘problem’.
I was ultimately referred to my nearest Pregnancy Mental Health unit, and thank goodness I was. Without judgement or question they took me under their wing, and quietly let me know there was someone there who was ready to break my fall. I would sit for what felt like hours, sharing my darkest thoughts with a person I didn’t know, and they listened. Finally, a professional who was taking me seriously. After so many months of feeling like I was suffering in silence – fending off comments that I should be “grateful” for my pregnancy from people who couldn’t understand, and struggling to get the help I needed from a society that still stigmatises mental health – things started to feel lighter.
Nine months eventually passed, and some days played out better than others. I went back to work to take my mind off my symptoms, although my sick days were frequent. Then, at last, the baby was here. I had an emergency c-section in the end, and the first thing I said to the anaesthetist sitting beside me was, “I’m not pregnant any more”. He could see the glee on my face as he laughed and told me that was the first time he’d ever heard that said as someone was handed their baby. I was euphoric with relief.
I went through this mental and physical agony twice (I had hoped it would be different with my second - it wasn’t), each time facing the torment of decisions I couldn’t cope with having to make, but this tale has a happy ending. My healthy children are here because I eventually got the help and support I needed. I’m very fortunate to be able to write that. There are women living with the guilt and sadness and feelings of failure at not being able to see through what is actually a healthy pregnancy, all because of Hyperemesis Gravidarum. With more awareness and support for those with the condition, hopefully one day that will change.
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