While I missed the boat on Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada (May 6-12) May is Mental Health Awareness MONTH over here in the US. Jarrah’s bravery in opening up about her experience with Trichotillomania (Hair-Pulling Disorder) inspired me to speak up about my emetophobia.
Emetophobia is a strong fear or aversion to vomit. I know, most people don’t like it. But for emetophobes like me, it’s a constant fear that warps into a daily struggle. Some don’t even type or say the word “vomit” out of superstition. Here is a pretty neat infographic on the subject. Wikipedia also has a nice summary:
Emetophobia (from the Greek εμετός, to vomit, and φόβος (phóbos), meaning “fear”) is an intense, irrational fear or anxiety pertaining to vomiting. This specific phobia can also include subcategories of what causes the anxiety, including a fear of vomiting in public, a fear of seeing vomit, a fear of watching the action of vomiting or fear of being nauseated. Emetophobia is clinically considered an “elusive predicament” because limited research has been done pertaining to it. The fear of vomiting receives little attention compared with other irrational fears.
This fear has also caused me to indirectly be afraid of several other things, like traveling by boat (never tried it, too scared!), roller coasters, crowds, hospitals, dental exams, new medications, new foods, drinking or being around drunk people, pregnancy or being around pregnant people, and little children, because they vomit like it’s their damn job. I will avoid all of these things things to varying degrees just because the possibility of feeling slightly nauseated or hearing someone talk about being ill exists.
This phobia has also caused me to fear a lot of other things because they are connected to a concern or incident specific to me, including cashews, McDonald’s, Vicodin, multi-vitamins, intense exercise, and even just being at the gym.
If you tell me you or your children are recovering from a bout of the flu, I’m going to insensitively ask, “What kind of flu?” and if it’s The Bad Kind, I’m going to rudely keep my distance, and take shallow breaths until I can leave. If we’re on a road trip and you tell me you get carsick, I will let you ride shotgun and do everything in my power to make you feel comfortable and obsessively ask if you’re all right – but only if it’s impossible to not sit by you. I know – I’m the worst. I’m sorry.
Another side effect of this phobia is guilt, because it causes me to act like a jerk in situations where I would really not like to act like a jerk. If one of my siblings was sick growing up, I would avoid them or obsessively ask if they were feeling better. If they were in the process of being sick, I would end up having a panic attack and make the situation all about me. I still do this. Once I visited a friend who had just had a baby– she had just pushed a tiny human out of her body, and I came to congratulate her on this effort with the chocolate shake she had been craving during labor. But her pain medication made her sick, and instead of doing whatever it is normal people do when someone is ill, I stood in the corner and mentally tuned the whole thing out. (Seriously, what is the polite thing to do in this situation?)
I’ve been getting panic attacks since I was about eight. Until I was in college, I thought the panic attacks themselves were an indication that I was going to be sick, which made them worse, which made me think that I was about to die, which, surprisingly, did not help. I have become so afraid of any physical symptom that could in any way resemble nausea that I’m not sure I even know what genuine nausea feels like. And I don’t want to find out.
I’ve gotten better at coping with my panic attacks, but it still doesn’t take much effort to set one off. I’ve developed several nervous habits as a result, including compulsive throat clearing, touching my face, swallowing and clicking my throat, and jerking my head. Sometimes I’m so nervous and self-conscious about a panic attack or the related behavior that it’s just easier to stay at home and be strange in private.
But even then I’m not safe. For some reason movies and television shows think it’s hilarious to portray realistic vomit, so any media could turn into my worst nightmare. I’ve gotten good at reflexively looking away from the screen. My awesome, supportive partner has also gotten good at reflexively covering my eyes.
Eventually this reached a point where it was difficult for me to function. I would wake up several nights a week with panic attacks. I was nervous about all of the food I ate, and would compulsively chew Pepto Bismol tablets. I stayed indoors as much as possible due to fear of contracting the Norovirus. And I would worry. All the time. That, my friends, is no way to live.
I tried a few internet forums and support groups. While it was helpful to know I was not the only person in the entire world who had this phobia, they were never any help. We were all in the same predicament, and the discussions mostly revolved around being afraid and hating it. I was hesitant to bring this up with a doctor because I didn’t want to 1) be dependent on anti-emetic medication, 2) be dependent on anti-anxiety medication or 3) undergo any therapy where I would be exposed to images or forced to actually vomit.
But I also didn’t want to live in fear for the rest of my life. After some searching I found The Emetophobia Recovery System by Rich Presta. It’s a book and some other materials that you can download right from your home without having to go out into the germy world. The sales pitch sounded too good to be true, and the price was a little steep for me at $97. But, again, I was desperate. So I gave it a shot. And if you’re suffering like I was, I would say it’s worth the money. It hasn’t cured me. But it has helped me manage my fear and cope with it in a way that doesn’t ruin my life. I learned some techniques to help shorten the length of my panic attacks, and I’ve gotten to the bottom of why I’m so afraid.
After a certain point I had to ask myself, “What am I really afraid of?” Even if “the worst” happens, and I’m subjected to this traumatic event, what is really so terrifying? I learned that for me, it’s about being in control. It’s the idea that my body could turn on me and subject me to something horrible and embarrassing against my will. So, to compensate, I try to control all kinds of other stuff, like how thoroughly my food is cooked.
Like I said, I’m not cured, but I’m working on it. And more importantly, I can function, which is almost as good as being cured. Maybe someday I’ll be able to ride on a boat.