Hyperemesis gravidarum is Latin for “Hyper-emphasis-on . . . never-come-near-me-again”. . . and “come” is to be understood with dual meanings.
Actually, that is the figurative meaning for the women who endure it. The literal meaning is . . . “hyper” means frequent, “emesis” means vomit, and “gravidarum” means pregnancy. So it is “frequent vomiting during pregnancy.”
The vomiting was bad. Really bad. Have you ever vomited when you hadn’t eaten anything? I did . . . a lot. But it wasn’t just individual bouts of vomiting, my entire relationship to food changed.
Experiencing hyperemesis gravidarum is somewhat like being Tantalus . . . you remember him?
Tantalus was a Greek King who, after being killed by Zeus and sent to Hades, was made to stand waist deep in a pool of water beneath a grape tree with low branches. When he would try to eat the grapes, they would pull away from him. When he would try to drink the water, it pulled away from him. He was starving and dehydrated but because he was already dead . . . he couldn’t die . . . he just remained perpetually hungry and thirsty.
What is different for someone experiencing hyperemesus gravidarum is the grapes look rotten and your body considers the water bleach and yet, you know you need to eat and drink it not only for yourself, but for your growing child. Rather than the food and water receding from you . . . it feels like there is a hand coming out of your mouth shoving the food and water away from you. Even now, when I move two magnets with the same poles close to one another, it reminds me of how I felt when Rob would bring me food to eat . . . absolute repulsion. He would bring it in and I would shrink under my blanket, having to work up the courage to even look at the food.
After doing the hard work of putting the food into my mouth, chewing and then swallowing . . . all of which my body was telling me not to do . . . I would pause and remain absolutely still hoping that this time, my body would accept it . . . but no . . . my body would reject it, vomiting all the effort out. It felt like a Sisyphean task but I kept going because I knew I needed to. This . . . for at least 2 months . . . but really, I didn’t know when it would end, particularly the first pregnancy.
The word “tantalize” originates from Tantalus’s punishment. Something is tantalizing when it is desirable but remains just out of reach. Hyperemesis gravidarum is when something is not desirable, but you know your body needs it so you force yourself to eat and drink, only to vomit it up . . . so it is out of reach because your body rejects it even though it needs it.
That is hyperemesis gravidarum.
Even the smell of food made me vomit. So I wore a nose plug all day so I wouldn’t smell the food other people in the house prepared.
The sight of food made me vomit. With my first pregnancy, I watched Court TV from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep . . . hiding under the covers during food commercials. I watched the entire Jack Kevorkian case which was probably not the best thing to watch because I would say I was passively suicidal. I wasn’t going to actively take my life but at some point, I really didn’t care if I lived. I didn’t know if the nausea would last the entire pregnancy but I worried that if it did, I would actually die due to lack of nutrients and hydration. I received no medical care during this time. At a certain point, I became too weak to care or to even request and I couldn’t imagine having the energy to even leave the house.
I saw this piece of art on the campus of Carnegie Melon a few years ago and my first thought was that this is what I wanted to do in the middle of my pregnancies . . . leave this Earth and walk up to Heaven to be rid of the pain.
And it was not only the food. Movement bothered me too. When Rob would get in and out of bed, he had to go very slowly because when the bed would move slightly, I would feel like I was on a ship on a stormy sea. When we discovered I was pregnant again, I saw a commercial for a Tempur-pedic bed and how the wine glass didn’t fall when someone was jumping on the bed . . . we purchased it right away, with a loan, and when we missed a payment on that loan, we paid a lot more in interest than it already cost . . . it was worth it.
And sounds . . . Rob wore pants that would scratch against each other when he walked and it bothered me. I asked him to wear only soft clothing. I seriously felt like a tyrant and I hated it.
With my twins, I finally received home healthcare. Our house was on the military base and the hospital was across the street. Had this not been the case, I may not have received the care I needed. I was so dehydrated that the nurse had to try several times to find a vein that worked. Being hydrated through IV allowed me to go outside and lay there with my IV bag, watching the kids play rather than wasting away watching TV to make the time pass before I could escape back into sleep.
Being dependent on others and being so needy taught me a lot.
First . . . that it is incredibly difficult to be dependent on other people. It is not easy to ask for or receive ongoing help.
Thankfully, my symptoms slowly lifted around month four. One day, I remember catching a glimpse of a food commercial and not being as grossed out. I started thinking . . . eating doesn’t seem so gross anymore. I think I might try. The next day, I tried and it actually tasted good. I remember that it was Minestrone Soup. And then I slowly regained my ability to eat and drink. The rest of the months were without incident, thankfully, and none of my babies were preterm or under-weight. The nausea just lifted and I was a foodie once again.
Hyperemesis gravidarum changed me.
When Anna was one, I was pregnant with Bethany. I did not have much help. Even people from our church didn't help and at a certain point, I stopped having the energy to ask. Rob would feed Anna before he left for work, I would nurse her during the day because I was just laying on the ground and she would crawl to me, then Rob would feed her again when he returned home.
One day, she needed her diaper changed and I didn't have the energy to move. I asked her to get her diaper, not thinking she would understand me. To my shock, she did. She crawled over, got her diaper and wipes and brought them to me. I then realized that she understood way more than I realized. This made a significant impact on my parenting. I no longer assumed she didn't know or couldn't understand . . . I assumed she could and did until proven otherwise.
An un-schooling mentality arose out of this sickness. Not only because my one-year-old understood more than I realized . . . but because I came to realize how stifling it is to be dependent on another person for a long period of time. Independence is what we all long for. To be able to assess our own needs and meet them as they arise . . . as we deem necessary.
Having someone else hold the power to assess our needs, tell us what we need, and then provide it for us is not consistent with how we were created. It is incredibly disconcerting.
Another thing that hyperemesis gravidarum taught me is that I could have died had it continued throughout the entire pregnancy. I didn’t receive the care I needed. Duchess Katherine was admitted to the hospital for hyperemesis gravidarum. On my third round with it, and upon learning that I was having twins . . . so excited to have two babies for one horrible pregnancy . . . my physician said . . . “Well . . twins . . . that explains the sickness.” (Because we were military, we had different physicians, thus, no continuity, which was a complicating factor in my care as well.) I insisted to my physician that I was this sick with every pregnancy and asked her not to note that it was due to twins. It was this bad with every one and when it gets to a certain level, there really is no worse or better, it is all worse than you ever thought pregnancy could possibly be.
Had I had no support system . . . had I been a single woman . . . had I had to work through the pregnancy . . . it would not have been possible. I would likely have aborted after knowing what the first pregnancy was like. In fact, I was determined after the twins to never get pregnant again.
You know where we moved next? To Toledo. You know what church we went to in Toledo? A church where a large portion of the church had six or more children. What was the first thing the pastor asked my husband when he first met him right outside of our van as we were getting our four children out of the car, with twins not even one year old? He asked my husband how many children we planned to have. While I was not part of this interaction because I was on the other side of the van, I heard my person, my body, being discussed and I wanted to answer his question about me, made to another man about me, the person who would do the hard work of enduring another pregnancy with likely not the help necessary . . . “no more.”
But you can’t in that world. That is not for you to assess and decide. It is for others . . . for the men . . . for God.
I wanted to tell him what pregnancy was like for me and ask him . . . if I have more kids, would you take care of my other children while I danced with death?
I have learned that people long on ideals are often short on help.
When I had finally regained enough strength during my first pregnancy to boil beans, I was so happy to have the ability to enjoy food, even if bland, and to cook it for myself. I left the pan of beans on the stove for a meal later as I could only eat small portions and was still pretty weak. A woman who knew what I had just been through, later came across the beans, was bothered they were left on the stovetop, poured them into the trash and when I returned for more beans, told me what she had done and asked me not to leave food on the stove . . . just take a moment to let that soak in . . . because I had to when I was weak and was absolutely disgusted that this woman claimed to be “pro-life”.
Hyperemesis gravidarum helped me align with reality which is what wisdom is. I saw human limitations more clearly . . . my own and others’ and I make decisions accordingly now.