Expecting and the Unexpected // Hyperemesis Graviderum and the Darkest 9 Months of My Life
I am really excited to introduce this new series to you. The road to building a family for so many of us is not what we thought it would be. We often have expectations for what our family will look like or what our pregnancies will be like and when our experience is so far from what we initially though it can leave us as women feeling confused and even at times isolated. My own pregnancy was the darkest and most difficult 9 months of my life. I have also watched as so many of my friends have dealt with miscarriages, infertility, complications and disabilities. I have seen so many women I love struggle through trials they never thought they would face. I have also seen the strength these women carry and have had the privilege of witnessing the joy that comes in and through their persevering. I wanted to provide a place for these stories to be shared so they could provide a sense of hope and community for others who may be struggling with the unexpected trials life has thrown their way as they seek to grow their families. It takes a lot of courage to share such intimate details of ones life and I am truly thankful to everyone who contributes to this series. I know if I am asking others to share openly about their experiences, I need to do the same, so here is my story.
I sat on my bed, hands shaking, adrenaline rushing through my body. In my hand I held an informational packet about a missions program in South Africa. A friend had asked me to pray about the program for her as she and her husband were considering participating in it. I could not mistake that still small voice that had all the power of an earthquake in my soul as I heard the words from God, “this is for you.” What? How could we just quit our jobs and move across the world? My husband was just finishing up his master’s degree which, need I say, had left us with little savings. What would we do with our dog? A million other barriers to why this would be impossible rushed into my head. Again, I asked God, how can we do this? And then all the fears were quieted with the response from God I knew was true: “I will provide.” And that was that. My husband agreed that he felt God calling us to go and three months later we found ourselves, feet on the ground in South Africa. We spent our 3 months in South Africa working with a homeless population there and being trained to do missions work in Thailand with women in human trafficking. Working with this population had been a dream of mine since getting my master’s degree in counseling a few years prior. Before we knew it, our small team was off to Thailand and I could not have been more excited.
Traveling has always thrown my body off a bit so I initially chalked up my period being late to jet lag, 48 hours of plane rides, layovers and sleeping on airport floors. Now two days after arriving in Thailand I was 4 days late and I decided it was time to take a pregnancy test. I had casually thrown one in my suitcase back in the US before leaving “just in case” but we had no plans of trying and always took precautions. I will never forget the rush of terror and excitement I felt standing in that hostel bathroom as I saw the second line turn pink. This was NOT part of the plan. We had talked about trying for kids as soon as we were home and found steady jobs again but THIS was not the timing we had planned on. My husband was stunned but excited and I remember how I just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for days. Sure we didn’t have paying jobs and sure I would be pregnant in another country but this would a great story one day, right? I knew it wasn’t the timing I would have chosen but after the initial shock I felt such a calming sense of peace wash over me and I was delighted to have this tiny third party join us for the rest of our adventure. We started our work in Chiang Mai and everything seemed great for the first two weeks we were there. I could not have been happier… until it hit.
I was getting ready for bed and when suddenly that warm rush of heat covered me like a winter blanket and nausea slammed me on my back like a sledgehammer. Out of nowhere I began throwing up every 20 minutes until I couldn’t anymore. My face was puffy and covered in broken blood vessels. I kept thinking “Oh no! I got food poisoning from the street food! I hope the baby is ok!” but the nausea did not stop. Every 20-30 minutes around the clock I was throwing up or dry heaving. I didn’t know why it wasn’t getting better. Then the thought hit me. “What if this was from the pregnancy? This could not be morning sickness. There is no way this could be morning sickness.” By day 3 I asked my husband to help me get to the hospital. Bucket in hand, I loaded myself into the back of a tuck-tuck, the metal carts pulled by motorcycles, and we asked the driver to take us to the nearest hospital. At the hospital they gave me a prescription for Zofran, which they said was the strongest anti-nausea medicine they had, and they sent me home. I hated the idea of taking medicine but I couldn’t take the nausea anymore. I decided to take the Zofran and had high hopes that I would be back to normal. I took the pill, laid in bed and waited for relief to come, but relief never came. The Zofran perhaps took a tiny bit of the edge off and I was able to go from throwing up every 30 min to throwing up every 45-90 minutes. The marginal relief I felt was less than comforting as I realized this would not get easier. I called my dad who is a doctor and shared with him what I was going through. He said there was little more they could do in the US aside from an IV form of Zofran.
I did not want to ask my husband to leave 3 months early as I knew the work he was doing was so important for these women. I decided if there was nothing more that could be done aside from giving me Zofran (which I could get in either location), I would just lay in bed and be sick in Thailand as opposed to the US. I kept telling myself I just had to make it to the 12-week mark and then the nausea would go away. I kept hoping that maybe I would even be able to work with the women for the last month and a half of our trip if I felt better soon enough. But the days seemed to get darker and darker for me and the nausea seemed to get worse and worse.
For weeks on end I laid in that hostel throwing up every hour. I grew so weak I could hardly stand up. I would crawl to the shower and I remember crying because I was too weak to stand up. I would sit there on the tile throwing up into the drain trying to find the strength to lift my arms long enough to wash my hair. I remember wanting to get some water from the cooler on the first floor and being unable to walk down the steps to get it. I laid in bed crying for an hour until my husband came back to check on me and could bring me the water. I was utterly helpless. I needed my husband to do everything for me. He was working such long hours and in between would have to ride a bike 3 miles roundtrip from the hostel to the café every time he would bring me a meal (which I really couldn’t eat anyway). I saw how exhausted he was and how my needs were wearing on him. He would walk or ride a bike 9 miles every day just to take care of me and make sure I had watermelon or a smoothie (The only two things I could minimally keep down). Now nausea was not my only constant companion but the increasing guilt I felt at depending so heavily on my husband grew thick and dark around me.
I grew to have a whole new understanding of the psychological aspects chronic and unrelenting pain has on a person. The joy I had experienced at the thought of having a baby seemed to be swallowed up into blackness. I had so many dark thoughts laying in that hostel room. After weeks of throwing up every 45 minutes I clearly remember one day when I was praying and telling God that I just wanted to die. I remember begging for him to take my life and asking if I could just meet my baby in heaven. While it is hard to admit it, I had many thoughts of abortion and many thoughts of what a terrible mother I was for even thinking of it. I so badly wanted a family and a baby but I didn’t feel strong enough to endure this. Abortion felt like my only way out and I later found that 21% of women with Hyperemesis Gravidarum (what I would later be diagnosed with) that deeply want their baby end up aborting. I have nothing but compassion for those women and my heart truly breaks over their loss. I wish I could hug each one and tell them that I truly understand. I daily wrestled with feelings of guilt because I no longer longed to meet the sweet face of my daughter and cover her with kisses but I only longed to stop suffering. I felt selfish and the pain was blinding, pushing me past what I thought I was capable of enduring. I kept the 12 week mark in my mind like a beacon of hope. “If I could just get to 12 weeks the nausea would go away.” My first trimester came and went and the nausea did not relent. I had no break, no relief.
One day when my husband took me to the hospital to get an IV to replenish some fluids, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror in the exam room. I had not looked in a mirror in weeks and what I saw terrified me. My hair was falling out, my eyes were sunken in and when I stepped on the scale I realized I had lost over 10% of my body weight. Being naturally petit to begin with it didn’t leave me with a large buffer to lose that much, especially while growing a baby. At that point I was diagnosed with Hyperemesis Gravidarum. HG is a debilitating and at its worst, a possibly life threatening form of morning sickness that affects 1-2% of women. Until the 1950’s when IV fluids became available it was actually the leading cause of maternal death and today, almost 20% of women diagnosed with HG experience the full criteria of PTSD after childbirth.
People often ask why I did not go home sooner. The truth is I was so sick I had very little will to live no less make a trip on a plane across an ocean. The thought of getting myself to an airport and flying home was more than I could bear. I would have rather laid in that hostel bed and let my life slowly slip away. When I received the diagnosis and realized the nausea would stick around most of the pregnancy the dark thoughts flooded my mind again. I remember thinking that I could not do this and again begging God to take my life. Again I found myself fantasizing about abortion and hating myself for it. I remember as I was talking to God about all of this I had the clearest picture of the cross of Christ, and as if thoughts that were not my own had been “downloaded” into my mind in a second. I was given this crystal clear understanding of what it meant that Jesus had suffered to adopt me as his child. He went through tremendous suffering so that I could be adopted into his family and while he could have stopped his suffering at any point he clung to his cross to be able to call me his daughter. I had this picture of my daughter on this altar to be sacrificed and me, so weak and sick, crawling over to it, gently taking her off of it and laying myself down instead. For me becoming a mother was not just about laying down my life for my daughter, it meant being willing to live, and suffer for her. Death has never scared me. I deeply know where I am going and can not wait to be in eternity with Jesus. Suffering, and persevering and pushing on when you want to give up… that was something different altogether. That was a kind of love I had never had to experience before. It’s what got me on a plane back to the US and gave me strength to hold on each day. I told my husband if we didn’t leave I was afraid our baby or both of us would die. He made arrangements that night and we left 2 days later.
Once I was home I was not any less sick. It was not until I was about 7 months pregnant that I was able to get out of bed. The nausea got better and the throwing up grew less and less. The dark cloud lifted a bit as I had moments of relief. The nausea unfortunately never left but like music playing in the background it grew quieter and was no longer threatening to drown everything else out. There was not a moment I did not feel some level of nausea and I never went more than 3 days without throwing up even at the very end of the pregnancy. I did not believe it would go away after I delivered but like magic once I had Ayla the nausea was lifted. I can not tell you the relief I felt holding her in my arms and realizing we had made it. There are no words for the joy I experienced looking at her tiny face. I remember after she was born whispering to her “you were so worth it. You may never understand the sacrifice I made to hold you in my arms and you may never truly know how deeply I love you but looking at you now, you need to hear me say that I would go through it all again just to be with you.”
Some of my friends have asked what was the hardest part emotionally for me going through my pregnancy. To be honest it was the isolation I felt as I realized no one understood what I was going through. I can’t tell you how many “helpful” tips about eating dry cereal when you wake up or drinking flat coke I received from people. I also got a number of comments like “Yea, I had a hard pregnancy too. You just gotta keep going”. I know most of these tips and comments came from well-intentioned people but it made me feel like I was either crazy, completely alone in my experience, or possibly both. I remember going home after being diagnosed with HG and googling it. I quickly found www.helpher.org and found a wealth of stories that were so similar to mine. I sat there reading story after story and just sobbed. I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t alone. I think that feeling of relief is actually a huge driving force for me wanting to start this series. Just knowing you’re not alone in your struggles can be such a powerful thing. Looking back, I think what would have been most helpful would have been to have a friend lay on the couch and watch Netflix with me, not talking, but just letting me know that I’m not alone. I didn’t need anyone to try and fix me, I just needed to know someone cared and they were there.
If you are going through a difficult pregnancy, struggles with infertility or struggles with parenting please know you are not alone. I hope the stories you read in this series are encouraging to you and give you strength to keep persevering on the road you’re currently walking down. Please always feel free to reach out and send me a message. I would genuinely love to hear your story. Thanks for taking the time to read mine!