This will be my last post about my personal issues for a while! I’m honestly not self-obsessed, I just think a bit of background might be useful in my future posts!
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This entry is about my struggle with emetophobia.
Emetophobia literally means a fear of vomiting, but it can involve a fear of nausea, other people vomiting, and even the mention or sight of words connected with vomiting.
People who do not have this will find it hard to understand. The best way I can translate it is to ask you to think of the thing you fear most. Almost all of us have some irrational fear or other, whether it is of being trapped in a lift (my husband will walk up ten flights of stairs rather than take the lift), or crashing in an aeroplane, or dogs, or birds or whatever. Most of these phobias are quite common, and people are usually quite sympathetic to a fear of closed spaces, for example. Now imagine that every day you faced the possibility of being forced into the situation you fear most, and having to endure it for several hours, possibly even days. That is what life is like for an emetophobe. Germs lurk everywhere – a trip to the library can be a source of great anxiety; all the hands that have touched the books, the tables, the chairs … how many of them were washed properly? The supermarket, the school, church, the park … each of these places and more contain hidden danger to the emetophobe.
Responses to my admission to having this phobia illustrate how misunderstood it is. “What are you afraid of?” one person asked. I couldn’t possibly put into words my answer – the physical sensation, the panic that accompanies it, the taste, the smell, the nausea, the sense of being out of control, the fear that I won’t make it to the toilet or bucket … and a shapeless, nameless fear that hangs over the entire thing.
“No one likes being sick”, is another common response. Of course not. But most people would probably not fear it so much that they would rather suffer excruciating pain than vomit. It’s not as simple as not liking it. I don’t like getting a cold, or bumping my head, or going to the dentist, but I can rationalise my dislike of these things, and manage any fear so that I can face them. I cannot rationalise the fear of vomiting. It just is a part of me.
I don’t want to overanalyse it. Sometimes people develop this fear because of a traumatic childhood experience involving a vomiting incident. But I think more often it is just part of their makeup. For myself, I am a very sensitive person. I feel things (emotionally and physically) very keenly. I have a low pain threshold, and a high sensitivity to smell, taste and sensory stimulation. This can be wonderful – I go through life in awe of the beauty around me, while most people become immune to it. But when it comes to unpleasant experiences I really struggle. And the act of vomiting, with its unpleasant stimulation of all the senses, is overwhelming, particularly for a small child who cannot minimise or rationalise the event.
By the age of ten I remember being very afraid of being sick. In university I reasoned with myself that I had to stop letting my fear be in charge. I stopped washing my hands so much, and ate things without worrying about the date.
Then in 2005, shortly after getting married, my husband and I both caught a nasty bug. I think after that I began to get more worried about vomiting.
What rocketed my emetophobia to unprecedented levels, however, was having a very premature baby. My first son was born at 30 weeks gestation, due to pre-eclampsia. He came home five weeks later in a very fragile state. He weighed only 5lbs, and we were warned by the nurses that if he caught a cold it could lead to major complications, including pneumonia and rehospitalisation. Rotavirus could cause major complications, and even kill him, as his immune system could not cope even with commonplace germs. We were told that supermarkets and other public places were dangerous for a preemie.
We took extra precautions, naturally, but for someone like me, with a predilection to anxiety over germs (and post-natal anxiety due to our traumatic birth experience) this was all I needed to allow my emetophobia full control. I had an excuse to worry now – my son could become dangerously ill.
I would wash and re-wash all his bottles, and sterilise them carefully. I washed my hands until they bled. When I finally thought he was old enough to cope with a supermarket trip I wiped the trolley down with antibacterial wipes. I wiped restaurant high chairs, and refused to let my son play with toys in a public place. I washed his hands after visiting the park, church, and friends’ houses.
I became more and more withdrawn. Going out of the house became stressful and emotionally difficult. I went to one or two toddler groups, but I was so anxious the entire time that I could barely carry on a conversation. I wouldn’t let my son eat a biscuit without putting gel on his hands. I was terrified that he would catch anything for a while, but eventually it just became stomach bugs. I couldn’t cook chicken for several months, afraid of food poisoning. I was afraid to eat food that other people had cooked. I was afraid to visit friends’ houses in case one of their children had a bug and they didn’t know it.
I knew that my fear was an overreaction. I knew that my phobia was controlling me to an unacceptable level. I was isolated, depressed, anxious and lonely.
The anxiety worsened after the birth of my second son. My health declined at this point, and I was too afraid to go to toddler groups; I would only visit friends who I felt confident were healthy. I was afraid to let my son go out with other people, or go to play centres or play groups, and so I turned down a lot of the help I could have received. I even struggled to trust my mother’s cooking, and would check that she had cooked the meat for long enough, and defrosted it correctly, before unwillingly eating.
I became badly depressed and that first year after my second son’s birth is a black hole in my memory.
I became really exhausted, trying to cope with this phobia. It was holding me back, and it had changed me into a different person. I used to love trying new things, new foods. I had wanted to travel. Now I could barely leave the house without it feeling like a huge expedition into the unknown.
You probably think I was being utterly ridiculous, but this fear is insidious. Germs are invisible. You cannot predict whether you are going to ingest them or not, or whether they will make you sick if you do. Germs can lurk anywhere. The cause of vomiting can be many things. If my kids were sick (which they were frequently, and usually not because of a bug) I would spend three days in absolute terror, bleaching everything in sight, and hardly daring to eat in case I would need to vomit myself.
(Just as a note – exposure does not work as therapy. I have been sick more often in the last seven years than I have in my entire life, and my phobia only grew worse, not better.)
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I prayed for release, for my own sake, for my family’s sake, and so that I could be free to serve God without fear.
Eventually I heard of a consultant in a nearby hospital who specialised in treating people with anxiety, Crohn’s disease and phobias. No one knew quite which department to put him in, so he was in physiotherapy.
I had a year of sessions with him. I learned to manage my breathing in a way that naturally calms the body down. I learned to practice mindfulness, focusing on the moment rather than imagining what might happen in the future and panicking about that. Slowly my thought process altered, so that I no longer focussed on the possibility of getting sick. I felt calmer, less anxious, I slept better. And my Crohn’s improved, no doubt because I was no longer under such tension.
I am not fully cured – I am not sure I will ever reach the point where the possibility of vomiting does not fill me with terror. The sensation of it is bearable, but the moments before fill me with such fear and loathing that I would rather be writhing in agony. In an earthquake or an outbreak of flu I would be fearless, calm and collected. But if norovirus is about I turn to jelly.
But I do not obsess about it every day any more. I do not agonise over my sons’ safety while they are in school or nursery. I can bring myself to let them go out to a friend’s house, or just out of the house generally, without worrying overmuch.
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If you suffer from this condition, to whatever degree, know that you are not alone. You are not weird – this is a very common phobia. Part of the difficulty with treating this phobia is that, very often, patients do not want to get better – getting better means opening themselves to the possibility of getting sick, and this is something they fear above all things. It is not the same as fearing closed spaces; a person can reasonably expect to go through life without having to spend too much time in a confined space. A person cannot reasonably expect to avoid vomiting through their entire life. In fact, as a mother, I have had to be brave and love my children many times when everything in me was telling me to run in the other direction.
If you are a fellow emetophobe, take heart – I have endured three bouts of severe morning sickness, Crohn’s disease, and numerous stomach bugs. Most of the time, the act of vomiting was not as dreadful as I imagined it would be. A couple of times it has been, but it is over in moments, and I hardly think of those moments now. They are insignificant, compared to the joy and pleasure that I have received from my children.
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I sometimes wonder what God is thinking, giving an emetophobe severe morning sickness and Crohn’s disease … but I know that my phobia has made me walk closely with him when most people would have just pushed through in their own strength. My phobia, my weakness, has made me strong, because in scenarios most people would just get on with (like a bug hitting the family for example), I am forced to depend on him utterly for the strength to carry on loving my family, when all I want to do is run.
Fear makes us brave.