Through the Poppy Fields
A narrative (in progress) on chronic illness, friendship, and pregnancy.
Written by Kayla Erb
His knuckles were cracked from the nip winter air and the heat radiating from the cast-iron units in our 19th-century apartment. With a soothing touch, his hands held my face, gently coiling my day-old curls of yesterday’s productivity. His freshly shaved upper lip never felt so soft against my sweat-beading temples, thanks to his newfound skincare routine of the local, trendy barbers.
“Would sushi make you feel better?” He asked.
For the last week, I have been dazed with nausea. It’s nothing new to me. Vomiting and nausea have always been my body’s way of protecting me. If the food can’t get to my intestines, it can’t inflame them. Communicating with my body that what I am trying to ingest is safe has proven a chore. I have a few safety foods on the go- your standard BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast), but there’s nothing quite like fresh sushi. It’s something I can eat a lot of, digest well, and come out feeling adequately fueled. I would love nothing more than a salmon avocado roll with spicy mayo on the side, but I can’t eat raw fish for the next eight months. I just found out I am pregnant.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be proactive in managing my flares. Every morning, I wake up and assess my body’s situation. What hurts? Are we too fatigued? Maybe we should skip the coffee. The left hip is stiff today. Which muscles need stretching? My colon is tender. I should probably eat bland today. Where is the Tylenol? Maybe I'll need several laters today. How bloated am I? Can I tolerate jeans? From head to toe, I listen to what my body is telling me. We’ve gotten good at communicating our needs over the years. These days, my pain scale largely depends on the things I can’t control- the weather, stress, how well I slept, etc. Still, I have my bathroom closet filled with drugs, heating pads, foam rollers, massage guns, and acupressure pads to manage my symptoms. The pain and discomfort I wake up with are abnormal, but I have the tools to nip these symptoms in the bud before they snowball into a flare. Every day’s goal is to prevent a hospital visit. None of these tools are accessible to me anymore. The goal isn’t to make myself feel better; it’s to protect the poppy seed-sized baby I am carrying.
“But- can’t I do both?” I thought to myself.
Crohn’s or Can’t Hang?
The morning sickness started in Arlington, Virginia. It was Girls Weekend. As I dry heaved over the spare bathroom toilet, I recalled the last time I vomited- also in Arlington. It was the 4th of July weekend, and I paired wine tasting with charcuterie- a safe bet for most people, minus the 7/11 turkey sandwich I added. It was a classic combination of late-twenties drinking and a sensitive Crohn’s stomach.
Six months later, I woke up at 4:30 AM to intense cramping. I was six weeks pregnant. At this stage in the pregnancy, I felt tugging on and expanding of my uterus, gastrointestinal cramping, gas pain, pressure- you name it. My nipples were hard for a week straight, and I needed a sports bra to fall asleep. I had a doctor’s appointment for a urine sample to confirm the pregnancy a few days after that, but there was no denying it- I was absolutely pregnant.
By dawn, there was nothing in my stomach to vomit but bile. I held my head upon my chin over the toilet with one hand, and I tried to remove my glasses with the other. Have you ever tried to dry heave quietly? I think it makes it louder when your head is in the toilet. The dome of the bowl just amplifies the retching. My symphony of gagging woke up Claire, who greeted me with a fresh cup of water and a wet towel for my neck.
“Do you want company, or do you want me to leave you alone?” She asked.
I wanted to be alone, but knowing she was in earshot of my expelling, I felt at peace. We were sharing an air mattress that night. Neither of us slept until after I vomited. When we woke up, before I could even apologize for disturbing her slumber, she expressed gratitude for sharing the moment of my first morning sickness.
Later that day, the girls met with the boys, and Claire passed the vomit-watch torch to my husband. I offered to drive to the wineries that day since I wouldn’t be drinking. Our close friend, Phil, assumed the worst between the vomit, not drinking, and boldly expressing a distaste for cured meats and soft cheeses.
“Do you want to tell him why you have so many restrictions right now?” Ricky asked.
“Oh no, 7/11 turkey sandwich?” Phil asked.
He held onto my shoulders, waiting for bad news. It was past 10 PM, twenty-something degrees, windy, and I was hunched over, trying to retain warmth under my quilted coat. I looked up at my friend, the person who officiated my wedding, the boy from middle school who performed in the Sound of Music with me, and the reason my husband and I started dating. I held his hands and told him, “I’m pregnant.”
His eyes welled with tears like the night we asked him to officiate our wedding. On a rare occasion for our dramaturgical friend, he was speechless.
It’s easier to tell friends. They worry, but they don’t worry like your parents. At this stage, I needed positivity, excitement, and talks about the future of my little poppy seed. To tell my parents this early would include those things, but they’d be surrounded in fear and doomsday narratives of past acquaintances who had an adverse experience in their pregnancy. I am not sure if I am ready to answer all of the questions I will receive about being a disabled mother.
“Will your kid have Crohn’s too? What happens when you’re too sick to care for them? Is this safe for you? Is it safe for them? Why are you still on that medication? Is it going to poison the baby? Are you really that sick that you can’t work in an office and get some paid leave? Where are you going to buy a house? Are you going to have more children? Are you going to breastfeed? What is your birth plan? Did you start your registry? What do you mean gender-neutral? You can’t have men at the baby shower! How often am I going to see the baby? Can I be in the room with you? That’s now how I would do things. You should……”
These are good questions. They’re rooted in love, but I want the chance to discuss them first. I need time to think about how I want to parent. Would it be weird to create a PowerPoint presentation to answer these questions on my terms when we announce to our families? Sharing this miracle of news to our families will be a treasured moment, but there will be no turning back. I have more work to do with myself before letting anyone else in.
The relationship with my body is complicated. For years, it betrayed me. It literally did too much. My body took healthy cells and maimed them to inflammatory, full-body responses of agony. Now, through pregnancy, this discomfort and nausea are supposed to happen. It’s working the way it’s supposed to. The pain is good. The morning sickness is an inherited, historical response of my body to protect my baby from harmful foods. There is a reason why I find cheese, alcohol, and raw meat to be revolting. The cramping is making room for my expanding uterus as my little poppy seed grows to the size of a blueberry in a short three weeks. My breasts are growing to soon feed my baby with the fuel it automatically knows how to create and when to dispel it. I’m fatigued because my body is doing everything it possibly can to create a home for my child, and the best way for me to say thank you is to rest.
Every morning, I rub my bloated belly and express gratitude to this body. It didn’t always do what it was supposed to, but after years of getting to know each other and finding the right sources to mend its flaws, we are finally working together.
Gag Me With a Spoon
I thought going food shopping while nauseous would help me figure out what I would be willing to eat. Instead, I just gagged through each aisle. Remind me of my food aversions when I have a picky eater toddler. Today, my husband served me grapes from the store-bought bag.
“They need to be in a bowl. One bunch. In a bowl.” I said.
“Are you serious? It’s the same grapes.” He replied.
I now understand why toddlers need their chicken nuggets served on their favorite plate and why their sandwich needs to be cut a specific way. Any other options are vomit-inducing, obviously.
I was told pregnancy wouldn’t be a risk to my health, Crohn’s wise, and in fact- it would improve my symptoms. It’s snowing today. Wet, heavy snow that started as rain. The weather report reflects a low-risk day for allergies and a high risk for arthritis. I don’t feel any pain. When you’re pregnant, your body naturally suppresses the immune system, so you don’t reject the parasite-like object growing inside you. It makes sense. The baby is connected to you, feeding off your nutrients. It’s like the tapeworm every network joked about quick weight loss tips. I’ve lost ten pounds since getting pregnant.
I don’t blame the morning sickness entirely, though. No one told me how much work my body would be doing this early on. No one ever talks about the first trimester. I only know of wobbling-can’t-see-my-vagina pregnancy or the trauma and beauty that is labor and birth.
I feel like I am recovering from a cold. I am not in any pain, and I don’t have any intense symptoms; I am just tired. I feel my body working hard to adjust to its new plan. The tingling fatigue of your cells doing everything they can to protect you. I am grateful for it, but it’s burning all of my calories. I found a probiotic that helps with morning sickness when paired with your prenatal vitamins by week eight. It certainly helped my nausea, but I don’t think there is a medicine to cure the metal taste in my mouth. That’s still lingering. Nothing looks appealing, everything tastes warped, and the postnasal drip is only trigging my gag reflex. These last few weeks have been lonely. I rely heavily on my social network of chronically ill women. It’s so easy to post an Instagram story asking for recommendations or sharing an experience and receiving replies validating my feelings. It wasn’t time to share yet.
“I’m going to bring you options. You tell me yes or no.” Ricky said.
Slowly, he went to and from the kitchen to the couch with options hidden behind his back. Maybe if I don’t have to think too hard about what I want to make, I’ll be more open to eating, but even crackers made me gag. Too tired to make a decision, Ricky tucked me under my hand-knit blanket, turned on Modern Family, and brought me a chocolate protein shake.
“Do it for our schmoop,” he said.
The next day, I woke up and rubbed my belly. “Please, let me eat something today. This is for the both of us,” I said to Poppy. Later, I went to the store. I swallowed my vomit down each aisle until I found options that didn’t make me sick. With my diet of mashed potatoes, Eggos, ice-cold grapes, frozen Go-gurts, and Rice Crispie’s cereal, I gained back two pounds.
Spice Up Your Life
I once read that a woman becomes a mother when she’s pregnant, and a man becomes a father when the baby is born. Heteronormativity aside, I identified with that sentiment, and I thought that would be me. It wasn’t until I was spoken to like a mother that I felt like a mom. Friends called me ‘mama,’ and I certainly felt pregnant, but I didn’t feel like a mom yet. Doctors treated me as a pregnant patient, not a mom. It has all been medical until now.
After eight weeks, I had my first appointment for bloodwork to check for the genetic factors of the baby and evaluate my overall health. Needles never bothered me. Neither did blood. I was nervous about what I would find out about the baby and me. I wasn’t scared to find out if they have Down Syndrome, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, or any of the other genetic disabilities that they are testing for. I know well enough that they are not definitive of my child’s health and that disability can come at any moment. Disability does not scare me the way it does other people. I was worried about myself. What if I am too sick to care for this child? How will I do this alone?
"I'm so excited- I'm so scared.."
My independence complex clouds my mind amplifies when it’s flooded with intrusive thoughts. I am not a single mother. I have an incredible, involved, empathetic, and compassionate caregiver of a husband with a large family to back us up. We’re surrounded by friends who would welcome me with open arms if I ever asked for the slightest piece of help. Why do I keep acting as if I will be in this alone?
“What if he dies?” is the most frequent intrusive thought. It worsened over the pandemic, and now, as a 28-year-old woman, I have separation anxiety when my husband takes his skateboard out to grab an iced tea on a beautiful day. I’ve always had these thoughts. In elementary school, if I heard an ambulance, I would assume it was for my mom- and it was only minutes before the social worker would call me to tell me she was dead, and I would be taken away and put with strangers. When these thoughts come, rationale does not matter. It didn’t matter that I had a father, a stepmother, grandparents, and ten aunts and uncles who would take me in before a stranger. In my anxiety-ridden little brain, my mother’s fiery, burning death was the only reason why an ambulance would be outside.
I used to imagine the worst, so I would be emotionally and tactically prepared to handle the situation when the devastation would come. It’s not healthy- but it worked so many times. My intrusive thoughts are a product of past trauma, but it’s time to move forward. With the help of my therapist, these intrusions have improved. They’ll always be there, but I have the tools to deflect them now. It seems so simple, and I don’t know how I never thought of it myself, but when these anxieties arrive, I simply imagine a stop sign, and I start singing The Spice Girls.
“Stop right now; thank you very much
I need somebody with a human touch
Hey, you always on the run
Gotta slow it down, baby, gotta have some fun.”
I redirected the intrusive thoughts as I sat in the sterile chair with my sleeve rolled up, waiting to have my first labs drawn. To my right hung an “Employee of the Month” sign. My legs bounced, and my hands clenched as I answered her questions.
“My husband’s insurance-yes”
“I thought it would be way more blood this time around,” I said,
“It usually is; you’ll be back for plenty more. How are you feeling?” She asked.
I expressed my nervous excitement and apologized for my weak vein. We talked about morning sickness and dehydration. She didn’t have morning sickness- she had migraines and craved ice chips.
“Do you have any advice?” I asked.
“Take all of the help you can get,” She said as she placed the cotton ball over my vein. “It’ll be hard, but you’ll need it.”
For the first time, two moms conversed over the joys and perils of the first trimester. She had no idea how badly I needed to hear those words.