TRIGGER WARNING: This blog post may contain topics, words, and experiences that may trigger anxiety or panic for those with emetophobia.
I think it would be safe to say that winter is the worst time of year for someone with emetophobia. Flu season is in full swing and it seems like everyone around you is sick. Catching a stomach virus and vomiting seems like an inevitability, and my anxiety is always telling me that my luck is running out.
I’ve been living with a fear of vomiting for almost 20 years now. It was something that I developed as a child and continue to struggle with on a day by day basis. For the longest time, I thought I was crazy. I was the only one I knew who had this fear. I didn’t even know there was a name for it until I was in college.
Imagine my surprise when I suddenly stumbled upon a website (this one to be exact) that opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t crazy or alone in the world. As Anna S. Christie states on her website:
It is a fairly common phobia, manifesting mainly in women and more acutely in adolescents than adults…symptoms range from mild disturbance to acute panic attacks (rapid heartbeat, rush of adrenalin, difficulty breathing, choking sensations, derealization, dizziness, fear of dying, numbness, sweating, trembling). Most emetophobics….would rather die than vomit…In severe cases, emetophobics will show symptoms of OCD and agoraphobia. Since the phobic fears her own body, this disorder tends to be particularly debilitating. Avoidance of the stimulus is impossible, and thus without treatment the emetophobic is continually re-traumatized, ritualistic behavior intensifies and the condition worsens.
Imagine fearing something that is a normal bodily function, something that your body does to remove toxins from your system to save your life. You can’t run away from your fears like someone who may be afraid of mice or clowns. Your fear is your own stomach, your own mind.
On this website, there is a list of common traits that emetophobics have. I have bolded the items that I have experienced over my many years. Thankfully, quite a few are no longer relevant, as regular therapy sessions have helped me get over some of these hurdles.
- excessive cleanliness
- fear of eating outside of one’s home, or eating food one has not prepared (in case it may lead to food poisoning which would cause vomiting)
- nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea a great deal of the time. (While these symptoms should be checked out, they are usually due to anxiety.)
- fear of taking any prescription medication that may have nausea or vomiting as a listed side-effect.
- fear of animals who vomit
- fear of all children (as they vomit more often, sometimes without warning, and they are more prone to viruses)
- fear of pregnancy (due to morning sickness, or vomiting at delivery)
- fear of anesthesia – due to vomiting as a side-effect
- fear of hospitals and nursing homes
- fear of traveling (in case they are motion sick, or someone else is)
- fear of alcohol consumption, or parties where alcohol is consumed
- fear of amusement parks where people may be sick on rides
- fear of television and movies (more and more, vomiting is becoming commonplace in the media)
- fear of psychotherapy (lest it involves exposure therapy they feel they can’t handle)
- fear of a number of jobs, limiting career choices. (Emetophobics also often have difficulty holding down a job, due to the number of sick days they take.)
- fear of sick or injured people no matter what they have, as vomiting can be a symptom of every illness.
- fear of public toilets (as someone may come in there and vomit)
- fear of others’ coughing, burping, touching their stomachs, looking pale, saying they don’t feel well
- nightmares – particularly about vomiting, but night terrors are common as well
- refusal or inability to actually vomit. Most emetophobics do not vomit at all but for exceptional circumstances.
- anger, frustration and despair at not being understood, believed or supported – especially about the severity of the feelings of terror and horror.
It doesn’t stop there. When encountering someone who is feeling ill or vomiting, we may:
- panic immediately, often with incredible immediacy (The panic attack will not necessarily rise up slowly – so inserting cognitive “tools” is not always a possibility. Again, this depends on the severity of the disorder.)
- become dissociative and completely irrational, often crying, screaming, and sometimes harming themselves or others.
- feel nauseous themselves and be convinced they will also vomit
- run away at high speeds, despite risk to personal safety or the well-being of their children
- refuse to remain in the house, car or enclosed place with the sick person even if it is their own child or a family member who “needs their help”
- if trapped, close their eyes and plug their ears (sometimes for an entire night)
If emetophobics feel nauseous, or believe for some other reason they may vomit we will often:
- refuse to eat or drink (they think they can’t vomit if their stomach is empty)
- assume all gastro-intestinal feelings are nausea, which will lead to vomiting. (This may also extend to mistaken feelings about dizziness, headache, body temperature, etc.)
- refuse medical help (in case they are trapped in a hospital with more sick people)
- refuse medication (in case the side effects are nausea/vomiting)
- panic, and continue to have a series of panic attacks over long periods of time (as they are unable to avoid the stimulus which is their own body)
- assume (incorrectly) that a symptom of the panic attack itself will be vomiting
- pace, cry, beg others to help, run from others, scream, become dissociative, self-mutilate (scratching skin, hair-pulling, cutting), bring harm to others.
- insist on being alone, or insist on having a significant other with them.
- refuse to go near a toilet or other receptacle, or refuse to be anywhere else for unusually long periods of time.
- try a number of over-the-counter medications to control vomiting (Pepto Bismal, Dramamine, Peppermint, Ginger). Some emetophobics ingest large amounts of these remedies over time.
It’s enough to make you feel crazy, isn’t it?
When it comes to my experience, I’m pretty vocal about it. What started off as something I was ashamed of, I now own as a part of my being – it made me who I am today, and while I’m sure there are parts of my life that would be benefited if I was never afraid of vomiting, I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.
So, I wanted to take a moment to share my story with all of you. As I mentioned in my disclaimer at the top: I will be describing moments of my life that have been defined by my phobia. But I promise, I will not share any photos, videos, or audio that may be triggering. Even I can’t quite handle that just yet.
The first story of me throwing up that I can recall is when I was still a baby. I had eaten a red Popsicle, and had apparently projectile vomited across the room and took to the air from the force. Dad thinks it’s a very funny story to share at random times. I find it a bit triggering but can brush it off considering I don’t remember it.
However, my first memory is still burned into my mind quite clearly. I believe I was in first grade, so roughly six years old – a common age for this phobia to begin. My mom was sick with the flu, and I had stumbled into the bathroom as my mom was throwing up into the toilet. The image of vomit coming out of her nose and mouth is still very clear, and it scared the shit out of me. I thought she was dying. Mom assured me that she was okay. Then two days later, I was vomiting and I thought I was dying.
This caused me, a six year old first grader, to stop eating completely. I lost 15% of my body weight (which is a lot, considering I was already an underweight child) and I became afraid to go to school. It took about two years for me to “get over it.”
That’s when my second bout of the flu hit. This time I recall staying up all night sitting in the bathroom, throwing up multiple times before eventually going to sleep on the couch while watching late night cartoons. Whenever I watch Rocko’s Modern Life, Garfield, or Double Dare, I remember these nights.
At this point, I’m now eight years old, and I am once again not eating properly. I also developed the healthy habit of washing my hands after everything. I ended up washing my the skin off my hands until they were raw, cracked, and bleeding. I needed to go to a dermatologist to get a cream that healed my hands and helped me break the habit of over-washing.
Around this time, I have vague recollections of other times that I’ve thrown up, but I can’t place them in the timeline of my life. I know they happened, because they helped me develop strange habits and irrational fears that I can link back to my overwhelming fear of throwing up.
Growing up, I obeyed these obsessive habits religiously:
- What to eat: I became a very picky eater. I refused to eat foods that I deemed unsafe (meat that isn’t well-done, for example.) Toast, blueberry muffins, and mac and cheese became my prominent “safe foods.” If I ate a food before I got sick, I often avoided it entirely. To this day I still choose to not eat cucumbers due to getting sick at a party where I ate cucumbers beforehand.
- When to eat: No eating after 8PM, as I always seemed to get sick in the evening. This may be from the time I ate orange M&Ms, cheetos, and an orange slushie and then getting very sick.
- Where to eat: This was a huge one. I was scared to eat at school, at another person’s house, and ESPECIALLY in the car. If I ate something, I wouldn’t get into a car until 30 minutes later when everything was settled. While I’ve never gotten sick in a vehicle, I somehow believed that I was prone to motion sickness like my dad.
- No carnival rides: I stopped riding carnival rides altogether. This stemmed from throwing up after riding a spinning barrel ride at a festival and drinking Sprite.
- No sleepovers: I once had a bowl of Lucky Charms with skim milk that made me feel queasy at a sleep over. Since that moment, I refused to sleep over anywhere. I was also afraid of people sleeping over at my house, in fear that I would get sick around people other than my mom.
- No movie theaters: I once felt sick at a birthday party at a theater after eating popcorn. I didn’t become afraid of the popcorn, but refused to go see a movie until it came out on VHS/DVD.
- Pets: I couldn’t have my cat lay on me any more, after an incident at my grandma’s where I had the flu while sleeping over (this pertains to the “no sleepovers” rule as well.) Her cat kept laying on my stomach and making me feel worse, and it stressed me out to have an animal on me when I kept having to run to the bathroom.
- Toilets: ALWAYS AIM FOR THE TOILET. I have had instances where I threw up in the middle of the hallway or in a trash can. This was much harder to clean up and made my anxiety worse. Being able to “flush away” the evidence made it more tolerable. Speaking of toilets…
- The bathroom: If I feel sick, I sit in the bathroom until it passes. This can be just a few minutes, but most of the time it is several hours of sitting by the toilet and shaking uncontrollably.
- Where to sleep: Because most of my sickness happened at night, I was afraid to sleep. So, for many years I slept in my mom and dad’s room, to the point that my dad just started sleeping on the couch. Their room was the closest to the bathroom, and i felt safe with mom right by my side to help me in case of an emergency.
I’m pretty sure this covers all of my childhood memories of getting sick. So, fast forward to high school, where I hadn’t gotten sick for seven years. By high school, I had forgotten what it was like to be sick, and couldn’t remember why I was so scared.
I thought I was cured the day I was over at my friend’s house and her mom came home from work and promptly threw up in the garbage can. I felt grossed out, but we just left and went to my house instead. I recall feeling so relieved that I didn’t panic at the sound of vomiting in the next room. I thought, “maybe I got over the childhood fear.”
I was very wrong.
My junior year of high school I got the flu during winter break. This is the clearest of all memories, as I was a young adult and not so easily distracted as my younger self. I was hanging out with all of my friends, and we were eating spaghetti for dinner. I remember not feeling 100%, but I often had a bad habit of overeating at parties and ignored it. We went over to my other friends house to hang out, and that’s when I started feeling really sick.
For several hours I ignored it and hung out with my friends, but by 10PM I was ready to go home. I called my dad to pick me. I was supposed to sleep over that night, but explained that I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to have anyone over. Thankfully my friend understood, and when I finally did get home, I got into my pajamas, laid down in mom’s bed, and then had to run to the bathroom to vomit.
Then I remembered why it was so scary. First of all, it was never just a “one and done” deal for me. I didn’t throw up once, feel better, and go to sleep. It was several hours of painful vomiting, sitting in the bathroom terrified to move. Eventually I fell asleep on the bathroom floor, and later moved into Mom’s room. For the rest of winter break I laid on the couch, forced myself to eat toast, and avoided people at all costs.
My life was never quite the same from that point. I stopped eating at school – switching out my notoriously massive lunches to sharing some fries with a friend and eating a granola bar between classes. I stopped hanging out with friends (for the most part) and instead went home to be on the computer all day. I carried Tums on me at all times (my doctor told me that Tums were a “magic pill” that would stop nausea when I was a kid.) I was terrified of my graduation, which was going to be in a massive auditorium. I actually did flee from a big ceremony where I won an award for my art – I only stayed because my mom forced me to walk back in to received my award.
However, there were moments of strength that helped me remember that I was better than I once was. I wasn’t washing the skin off my hands. When I wasn’t anxious, I was able to eat spaghetti despite having it be a triggering food. I still went to school instead of calling home sick. I still went to Homecoming and Prom and even went on a trip to New York City where I flew for the first time.
Since then, I’ve gone to college, graduated, met my fiance, and bought a house. I have a job, published a book, and have had many panic attacks that I survived.
While my overall anxiety has gone down, I still have rough days where I feel like I’m taking one step forward and dozens of steps back. On a rare occasion, I will return to the bathroom to sit until my anxiety lessens. More often, I struggle to decide what to eat a restaurant or overthink how I’m feeling before going out. But I’m surviving and making improvement. Looking back at who I once was, I can see how strong I have become.
There is a lot more that I could share, but this post is already very long and I won’t bore you anymore with my life story. I’m awful with wrapping up thoughts, but just know that if you discover that you also have this fear, please know that you’re not alone. Learning that I wasn’t the only person with this phobia helped me own it and is helping me overcome it.
And if you need someone to talk to, I’m always here.