Living with Hyperemesis Gravidarum: It's Not Just Freakin' "Severe Morning Sickness"

Casey Young

I was supposed to be a regular writer for this magazine. I was looking forward to sharing everything I knew both in parenting and in my horoscope column, one month at a time.

Then, I got pregnant. And the day I hit 5 weeks, I started vomiting. Daily. Then, multiple times daily. Then, up to 30 times a day. Today, I’m sitting up, for the longest time I have in a few weeks, so I can share this experience with you.

My life now is ruled by a condition called Hyperemesis Gravidarum, and it occurs in about 1% of all pregnancies. If you have it once, you’re more likely to have it in subsequent pregnancies. Clinically, it’s defined as “severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy,” but every woman reading this who has suffered from it will tell you it is so much more than that.

Morning sickness is one of the most widely-known symptoms of pregnancy. We’ve all seen the TV trope of a woman waking up, running to worship at the porcelain throne, and, suddenly, the “oh no” moment hits her and wham! she realizes she’s pregnant. After that, we may see her vomit once or twice, just to remind us she’s with child. A person with hyperemesis, however, doesn’t have a chance to forget.

My routine goes a little like this:

I wake up, and I can feel the tightness in my jaw and the pulling feeling in my stomach. If I’m lucky, I’ll make it to the bathroom, but most of the time the trashcan by my bed catches whatever water I may have in my stomach. I’ll dry heave for up to half an hour because even though there’s nothing in there, my body is saying it has to GET IT ALL OUT. Sometimes, I’ll yell for a drink, just so I have something to chunder. Near the end of my puking spell, I’ll sometimes have tinges of blood from a busted capillary in my throat. Almost always, I barf until I see bile.

Any smell could trigger a vomiting episode. Sometimes, even sounds will make me nauseous. Pictures of food I have thrown up before can get me queasy (RIP my love of lasagna... ugh). And if the toilet area smells bad when I go to upchuck? That adds an extra five minutes of fun before I can get myself under control again.

Well-meaning friends and family always suggest things that could help:

Have you tried eating smaller meals, more often?

You should get some ginger ale/lemonade/cola!

Eat crackers/a banana/pork rinds before you even get out of bed.

Smell peppermint oil/alcohol prep pads/celery, that always helped me.

And I promise, promise, promise, I appreciate that you care. But for a person who has done everything they can to stop spewing, it comes off as condescending. It can make a sufferer feel a little more helpless because they know that there is little they can do but wait it out.

That, in itself, is the hardest part. A person with HG can lose 5-10% (sometimes more) of their body weight as a result of all the technicolor yawning. It’s very common for us to be hospitalized: with my first HG pregnancy, I was admitted twice due to dehydration and acidosis. Our teeth crumble as the enamel is worn away. Some develop eating disorders after their pregnancy ends. Almost all of us develop some form of depression. Many require PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter) lines to get any sort of nutrition to help our babies grow. We have trouble taking care of ourselves (yesterday, I brushed my hair for the first time in two weeks. It took half an hour.) So many sufferers have to leave their job. We can’t go in public as often as we need to, because what if something at the grocery store makes us upchuck in front of everyone? At its worst, I have had friends terminate due to not being able to live with their hyperemesis any longer. Yet nearly every single one of us, at some point, will be chided and told that what we’re going through is normal.

You may be wondering, “If I can’t offer solutions, what CAN I do to help?”, and I’m glad you asked.

The biggest thing we need is HELP. Around the house. Washing the dishes, helping with the cat box. Cleaning the toilet because we really can’t stand to get up-close and personal with it anymore. Cooking is one of my worst triggers, so check with them to see what they may like to eat (or at least, what they may be able to keep down), or maybe something for their older kids that won’t require any preparation. Even taking their kids out to the park for a little while would give the family some much-needed normalcy in this hectic period in their life, and this year, that would honestly be the best gift I could ever receive.

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