I have a phobia. The technical name is Emetophobia. Go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait for you here. Apparently I’m not alone since it affects millions of people. But most days, it feels like something I am very much dealing with alone.
Explaining it to anyone in my life has usually been done in a humorous manner, to make me seem a little less “crazy”. If you haven’t thrown up in a solid twenty years, you are my people. I’m referred to lovingly (I think) as a “germaphobe” by most who know me. But a fear of germs doesn’t even scratch the surface. And, in truth, it isn’t about germs. It’s about fear. This is a medically diagnosed phobia. I’ve seen too many professionals to count trying to erase this flaw in me. And it does feel like a flaw. This thing that makes me harder to love. Among the many treatments and therapies I’ve tried is cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, EMDR, and hypnotism. And the phobia remains. Hello, old friend.
Most people with this phobia have experienced some level of trauma in their childhood. In my many years of therapy, a few things came up over and over. My mother had a boyfriend when I was just a little girl, maybe nine years old, whose name I’ve long forgotten. He threw up loudly, violently, and messily every morning. That I have not forgotten. That is locked somewhere in my brain. I didn’t understand alcoholism or drug use at that time, and all I felt in those moments was fucking terrified. By the sounds, by the mess he left behind, by the unknown. I became scared to use the one tiny washroom we had in our apartment. I had no one to explain it to me and no one to reassure me that it would be okay. All I wanted was to run. But I had nowhere to go. I don’t know how long he was around, but it was long enough to change my life. As well, my mother was violently ill several times when I was young and she wouldn’t let me call anyone to help. I can remember her throwing up blood and I remember thinking she would die. And I was alone. Some experts also link it to loss of control.
Today there are so many things that trigger that same intense feeling of fear. And a lot of avoidance behaviors. Things that no one else would think about or feel scared of. A car pulled over on the side of the road makes my heart race. Someone may be getting sick. I have to look away. I bird box it. I enter every public washroom with a feeling of anxiety. I kick open the stall doors before entering to check for any signs of vomit, and I flee if anyone coughs or breathes heavily. I have bolted out of a public washroom, heart racing, too many times to count with my pants undone. My brain tells me only that I must GO. My children being sick when they were little triggered obsessive cleaning rituals that are mentally and physically exhausting. My hands have cracked and bled from over using Lysol and bleach. My mind will not shut off in those moments. That continues now if I even hear that someone I may have had contact with in the last week has had a stomach flu. I have a mental inventory of every food that I, or my children, have eaten prior to them being sick, and even some random strangers I’ve overheard talking in a lineup at the movies too. Those foods are forbidden in my house. There will be no sweet chili heat Doritos. Ever. There are about 543 other things that can trigger an immediate feeling of fear and panic. A splotch on the pavement that looks like vomit. My children know to reassure me and quickly say, “It’s just spilled coffee, Ma.” And then I feel guilt that my children have had to learn to help make me feel safe.
My kids know that they can’t tell me if a friend has been sick, or if someone at school, or on the bus was sick. It will spin into no less than 42 THOUSAND questions about where they were when it happened. When was the last time they were near the sick person? Do they feel sick? Check forehead. Monitor food intake. Times 1000. And my anxiety does not stop when they answer. So, I’ve asked them not to tell me. They can tell their Dad, but I cannot manage the things that go on in my brain after I know they have been exposed to vomit.
And yes, I know it sounds insane.
The steps I have to take just to feel safe in most situations are completely draining. There’s really no place where I can completely relax. Vomiting can happen anywhere. With anyone. Malls, work, schools, restaurants, doctor’s offices, hospitals, parks, anywhere that there could be unpredictable drunk people, the fair, amusement parks, every place is a possible danger zone and I am always on high alert. If someone touches their stomach, breaths deeply, coughs loudly, chokes, looks pale, I am afraid. I wish it were socially acceptable to wear a hazmat suit. Even vacations are hard – the airplane is one of my most feared spaces. I am okay with plummeting to my death if my time is up but I don’t want to be stuck with someone vomiting into a little paper bag with no way to escape. This is not an exaggeration. I can’t get away from it at 40,000 feet. Going to the movies, which is one of my favorite things to do, causes anxiety. I need to sit where I can quickly leave. Do you know where most people want to sit? In the middle, up high, surrounded by people.
Food is a huge issue for me. I check expiration dates repeatedly. I throw food away days before the “best before” date. I smell food and “check” food repeatedly. If I am at all unsure, I start over and don’t let my children eat it. Sometimes I will only eat a food after someone else has eaten it and not gotten sick. There are some safe foods and long lists of unsafe foods that take up far too much space in my head. I can remember every single place I’ve ever heard that someone had food poisoning, but I can’t find my keys on the regular. There are safe places to eat and unsafe places. I would never eat at a buffet. I barely eat at all-inclusive resorts. And that food looks incredible. There are food combinations that feel very unsafe to me. I don’t eat if I’m travelling. By plane, train, or automobile. And I typically don’t eat before any meeting or social event. I would never force my children to eat even one bite more than they wanted to. Sushi can suck it. I had a date recently take me for sushi, I attempted to sway the restaurant choice but failed, and I didn’t want to let my crazy out on a first date. I don’t know that I’ll ever eat romaine lettuce again since the e-coli outbreak. Which was months ago. Oh how I miss you romaine lettuce. But the anxiety is too much. For many years I couldn’t have any meat in the house. That’s one of my less safe foods. My husband would yell “changing spoons” when he was cooking meat so that I knew the raw meat utensil didn’t touch the cooked meat utensil. I would hold each bite up to the light and I would have to ask several times if he was sure it was cooked thoroughly. He patiently assured me it was. And still sometimes I had to “phone a friend” to double check. My mom. My sister. Then my therapist told my husband to stop doing that. To stop enabling me. I really hated her.
Aside from my sisters, my ex-husband, and one of my closest friends, who truly do understand that this is not something I can always manage alone and who know how to support me, no one really seems to get it. Most people look at it so simply: well, duh, no one enjoys vomiting. But it is not that I simply dislike the unpleasantness of vomiting or of seeing someone vomiting. My body responds exactly the same way it did when I was a child. Immediate panic. I physically shake. I feel sick. I have an overwhelming need to flee the situation. My heart races. I can’t catch my breath. I can’t focus. I can’t think. I cry. I feel weak and pathetic. Sometimes it affects my work and sometimes it affects my relationships. I have several friends and family members who I can’t follow on social media because they share when they are sick or when their children are sick. Even reading about it causes me anxiety.
And all times it makes me feel flawed.
I have come a long way over the years. Especially since my divorce. When I was married, my husband never made me feel bad for this part of me. (Thank you for that, if you’re reading this, my lovely ex-husband). I was scared to have children because of my phobia. I seriously considered not having children because of my phobia. Would I have morning sickness? Thank goodness I didn’t. Would I throw up during labor from the drugs? I ask to have no drugs during all medical procedures when most people are put to sleep, just to ensure I won’t throw up. And what about when our kids get sick? Kids are completely unpredictable little vomiters. My husband would say “This is just one thing – one little thing you need help with – and I will be here to help you.” And he did. And he still does. Many times after we separated, when our kids were smaller, I would call him and beg him to come help me when one of our kids got sick. And there he would be, knocking on my door to help a few minutes later. To stay with our sick child while I tried to calm down or, more often, to take over completely and take our sick child to his house. And then I would begin my cleaning rituals while berating myself and feeling like a total failure as a mother.
Since my divorce, there has been no one who I’ve loved, or who has loved me, who hasn’t looked at my phobia in terms of how it complicates their life. Because it does complicate their life. If their child is sick, or if they are sick, I need a buffer zone of time away from them to feel safe. So that I don’t get sick. So that I don’t then make my children sick. During that time I am in a high state of anxiety. I have to take medication to settle my thoughts just enough to be able to function. To go to work. To get groceries. To eat. To be “normal”. I’m not over here living it up while they’re sick. I want to be able to help but I can only support them from a distance. Need a drive by Gravol and Popsicle drop? I’m your girl. Kicking up rocks as I fly by. Need someone rubbing your back, helping you clean your child’s vomit? I am probably not your girl. The hardest part is that there’s no set time that I need to be away from the potentially contagious person to feel safe again, it depends on my anxiety level, and that creates confusion. It’s frustrating for them, and for me. It makes people angry and upset. Imagine not knowing when you’ll see your girlfriend again? A few days? A week? More? It makes me feel terrible. It makes me feel unloveable. It feels very much like I am not worth the hassle. It makes me feel like being alone is the safest place to be.
My mother died of cancer, and when she was very sick near the end, I did my best to be there for her. And I was there. There were times when she was screaming in pain. Times when she was crying. Times when she was vomiting. Times that I had to run from the room into the hospital hallway to not have a complete breakdown. I remember people passing me by, as I was bent over sobbing because my mother was dying and I should have been able to be right there with her. I’d watch their feet go by, while I was crunched down in a ball, my hands pressed over my ears. Those moments are burned into my brain. That feeling that I couldn’t help her still makes my chest hurt. This phobia has kindly gifted me with a lifetime of guilt and a feeling that I am just not good enough.
It’s something I’m still trying to navigate.
Of course, I have taken care of my children when they’re vomiting and I’ve been all alone. I had no choice in those middle of the night moments. The scream of “Mom” in the night sends me into immediate panic mode. I can’t really think about those moments when I was woken up to a vomiting child. And the exhausting aftermath that goes on in my own head long after there are no traces of the sickness is sometimes even harder than getting through the vomiting. Thankfully both of my children don’t seem to have this fear. My daughter has always been super chill about vomiting. It’s strange to admire that quality in a person, but I do. My son is a bit less chill but it is more of a ‘no one likes it’ kinda thing. They both know how to help me through when I’m anxious about it, which is a lot, and they do it with compassion and humor. I sometimes wonder how much therapy they’ll need when they’re adults because of my phobia. So far, they tell me they won’t need any. I’m pro-therapy, but I hope that’s true.
Sometimes, I feel really angry that my mother allowed people in my life who were not good people. But she’s not here anymore and I have grown to understand her life choices, albeit some real doozies, and I know that I will continue to manage this part of me as best as I can. This one thing, that maybe does make me harder to love, and adds a degree of difficulty to my life every single day. This one thing that affects my children. And affects the people in my life. And I will continue to take steps to get better, to feel better, and to do better.
I can now share a drink with someone. Even let them sip right off my straw. I remember the first boyfriend after my divorce that I shared a drink with. It felt insanely intimate to me. I had never shared a drink with my husband. In twelve years. That’s no exaggeration. And I never let my children share a drink with each other. Just in case. You never know when stomach flu may hit. Now I will share drinks. I let my kids share drinks. I let my kids bite my food. They even share each other’s food. If it’s not flu season, that is. Let’s not get all crazy. I know that seems ridiculously silly, and it’s such a part of normal family life, but it is a HUGE victory for me. My mind still goes through 32 different scenarios as they take a sip of my drink, but I force myself to allow it. Be normal, be normal, be normal, plays on repeat in my head.
Sometimes I don’t even kick open the bathroom stall door. Sometimes I open it like a semi-normal person (with my sleeve) before I do a vomit scan. And I can watch vomiting on television now. Well, from a crack between my fingers which are mostly covering my eyes. My daughter’s best friend has given me warnings that in episode whatever of whatever show we are watching someone throws up, so I can brace myself. I love her a little extra for that.
And I cook meat at my house now. There are a lot of “rules” around it. But I do it.
There are some perks to this phobia, believe it or not – – I won’t ever become a binge drinker or a drug addict – – so, there’s that. Ummm…on second thought, there’s only that one perk. But I suppose if I had to look at my phobia in a positive way, I have learned to protect myself after feeling unprotected. There has to be some strength in that, right?
People close to me know I have “germ issues”. But I don’t think everyone knows it is a phobia that impacts every part of my life. And this last week has been particularly hard. I would say I’m at a low point right now. So I’ve chosen to write about it, to hopefully help me get out of this dark place, to faced it head on and to help people close to me understand it a bit more. It is not something that is easy, it is not something that is funny, it is not attention seeking (as a previous partner suggested), although I do try to use humor to get through (mostly after the fact), and it is something I find very, very hard to live with. There have been times I thought maybe I couldn’t live with it.
If you’re struggling with fear or a phobia, please know you are not the only one. I know how difficult each day can be and I’ll be holding you in my heart on the days that are extra hard. Please know that living with panic or fear isn’t all of who you are. Please remember that you are stronger than you feel, and much braver than you think.
I hope someday I can believe that about myself as well. And I hope sharing this part of myself will help someone else out in the interweb feel a little less alone.
With high fives and cussing,
The quote on my photo is from the song Heavy, by Birdtalker.