Seven months ago, I gave birth to a healthy boy—my second—and tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. I would be lying, though, if I said those tears were solely about the beautiful boy. The truth is, I was also quite glad that the pregnancy was over.
The horrible, painful, shameful, physically weakening and emotionally enraging pregnancy was over. I don’t know if telling my story will validate me or retraumatize me, but one thing I do know is that almost nobody I’ve talked to has a sweet clue what it’s like. And that is as good a reason as any to write about it.
I had hyperemesis gravidarum (HG)—the same complication that plagues Kate Middleton. The illness she is currently, at this very moment, suffering from. It’s funny, because there is never much detail in all the media around her pregnancies. Oh sure, they mention the disease, that she is forced to cancel her engagements and that she is being hospitalized. Then, we are all awash with relief when her babies are born healthy. But, what nobody realizes is that we skipped over the most important part of her pregnancy story, the part that the media and Kate Middleton’s publicists keep securely hidden. The part that would bring a princess down to our level, if anyone ever found out—HG is morning sickness on steroids.
HG takes hold of your body and fills every inch of it with an impulse to writhe. You need to writhe and sway back and forth, and maybe even hum a little, to distract yourself, if only slightly, from the constant agony. It is nausea, but not nausea like you’ve ever felt before. It’s not like motion sickness, or the flu. It is an entirely original beast and it doesn’t leave you alone, not to sleep, not to work, not to take care of another child and not after the typical three-month range of normal morning sickness. The worst part is that the exact cause is unknown, and good treatments are hard to come by.
It was right around the time that Santa Clarita Diet came out on Netflix that I started having my nausea. Seeing Drew Barrymore vomit in the way that only a campy horror-comedy web series can accomplish was actually soothing for me: someone gets it, I thought.
It was the HG that informed me I was “with child.” Before any test, I experienced the attacks. I would wake up at about 1 AM doubled over in the fetal position. I would race to the bathroom, my hand tight over my mouth. More often than not, I’d be too late and vomit would spritz out the sides of my hand, through my fingers. I would return to bed, only to be woken up again about 30 minutes later, to repeat the same ordeal. I choked down water, because I was faint with dehydration, but even the water made me ill. Around 7 AM my one-year-old would wake up. On more than one occasion, I remember carrying him down the stairs and throwing my head over my shoulder so that my flying barf wouldn’t hit the poor kid. One particular goofy day, I thumped downstairs to the same rhythm as my percussive, heaving stomach and projectile vomit. I am proud to say that only once did I actually puke on my son. And he was in the bathtub at the time, so I feel like the HG gods were helping me out with that one.
There was a French fry plant that filled the air with a molten potato-y smell on my way to work (I live in PEI obviously), and I routinely pulled over to puke on the side of the road. I also puked in the parking lot of my kid’s daycare. I felt bad about that.
Midday was my best time. I was one of the lucky ones who had some variation of the illness that allowed me a few, mostly pain-free hours, most days I was expecting. During those hours, I would eat and drink fluids, though still mostly just Gatorade and protein bars. By 3 PM, I would start to feel the ache again.
It got so bad that I ended up with laryngitis. When the doctor looked at my throat, she determined the cause: my esophagus and voice box tissue were shredded from all the stomach acid that would swoosh by them in the run of a day. My throat remained raspy until only a few months ago.
When the nausea didn’t let up, my nurse practitioner wrote me a sick note to help me justify my absence to my boss (who was very supportive) and a prescription for diclectin. It was the first time I saw the words “hyperemesis gravidarum.” No one explained it to me. I didn’t see a specialist. I was left to research on my own.
The day I woke up at about six months pregnant, so dizzy that I fell with my child in my arms, was the first and thankfully only time I had to go to the hospital for an intravenous injection of fluids. My partner was at work, so I tearfully reached for my phone and called my dad to come get me.
My emotional state matched my physical one. I used to shudder with anxiety at bedtime, because I knew what was coming to me in the middle of the night. I was embarrassed because despite how badly I felt, I couldn’t explain the gravity of it to co-workers and family. I worried they thought I was just a wimp. The worst emotional side-effect was the heartbreak I felt when, in my weakened state, I couldn’t be as engaged as I wanted to be with my son. When I wasn’t able to respond to him because of the laryngitis, he looked frightened. I cried and held him.
You would think that if someone famous like Kate Middleton (or myself) had a serious, incurable illness, scientists would try to find out more about it. There have been a few studies here and there, but none strong enough to draw any conclusions about HG’s causes or a possible cure. One thing we do know is that HG has a tendency to get worse with each subsequent pregnancy, which is why I won’t be having a third baby.
While reading about HG, I was reminded that, historically, women’s health research has lagged behind studies geared toward the health needs of men, and HG is no different. But the lack of scientific knowledge is not the only obstacle to helping sufferers. In order to get people to see HG research as a priority, we need to understand women’s experiences. The real story of what HG does to a woman is not the the scant description provided on its Wiki. We need to hear about all the gritty, unglamorous globbiness.
The irony is that even a fucking Duchess cannot use her status to raise awareness about HG, because the sloppy disease is so off-brand. I guess that is the one thing that gives me a bit of power to tell my story: I, being an already gross regular person, have a lot less to lose.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.