By Jennifer Malcome
#Fearless Family Writer
I seem to be the same as others in that I can vividly remember all the times in my life when I got sick or someone around me did, and most of those times in all honesty weren’t traumatic enough to generate a phobia. Except for one time, when I was 13. I was staying with my sister and her family several states away. Something traumatic happened to me during that trip, and also my sister’s husband (whom I was spending time with for the first time) turned out to be a complete jerk whom I was afraid of.
Coincidentally, he suffered from migraines, which of course made him sick at his stomach. That’s the first time I remember feeling panic and running away when someone around me was ill, even though I knew it wasn’t contagious. Also I have suffered from IBS from age 9. Between becoming afraid of nausea and vomiting (an imagined problem) and of an IBS attack that would give me severe cramps and diarrhea (a real, recurring problem), I had the perfect recipe for emetophobia.
I became afraid to eat out or to eat food prepared by anyone whom I didn’t completely trust to do it safely. Any time someone says they have/had the flu, my first response is, “The stomach flu or the real flu?” with follow-up questions if they give the wrong answer. I would much rather be sick for a week with influenza than for 24 hours with norovirus. I lie awake at night worrying about getting sick. Whenever my mom or my husband have surgery, the anesthesia makes them sick, and every time I flee the room, begging the nearest person in scrubs to go help them. (But there’s an interesting and encouraging development on this I’ll mention later.)
And on and on it goes, you know the drill. As I mentioned, I’m 38, and I have no children. My husband and I have honestly never desired to be parents, but even if we did, the thought of going through morning sickness or kids bringing viruses into my home would be enough to shut that desire off completely. If I found out I had cancer, I would just have to die. No way would I have the courage to take chemo.
At age 18, I made friends with a woman who was a psychologist, and I felt comfortable enough with her to mention my issues. She gave me a few tools to help me understand my problem and to keep it from completely overtaking my life. One thing was, she helped me see that my fear of vomiting was actually a fear of losing control. That made sense to me, because at what other time do we have less control over our own bodies? The other was a caution against allowing this fear to become part of my identity, something that I ironically wouldn’t want to part with. She advised me to reach out to find other ways to identify myself.
Over the years I’ve managed to be pretty successful with this. I am now, among many other things, an amateur ice dancer (yes, I fear falling on the ice and getting a concussion with its dreaded side effects). I am an international traveler (yes, I fear being trapped on a plane next to a contagious person or coming down with something awful over the Atlantic Ocean). But here’s the real kicker.
I am not a squeamish person. Blood, guts, brains, urine, poo, bring it on. I’ve always loved anatomy and dissection. So much so, that four years ago I went back to school to become a surgical technologist! Here’s the cool part about that. In this line of work, I get exposed to anxiety-producing stimuli, but it’s in controlled doses and forms that I feel have helped me become stronger.
For example, I work in labor and delivery helping with Cesarean sections. The moms get sick very frequently during the surgery, but they are behind the drapes where I can’t see them, only hear them; I am completely covered in a gown, gloves and mask; and they aren’t contagious. I have to stay put, but I feel safe. After doing this for a year, I have gotten to the point where I don’t feel the urge to flee. But I knew more was to come. I’m surrounded by pregnant women, after all.
Until recently, I’d refused or avoided going into any patient’s room who was actively throwing up. But one night on third shift, one of the nurses asked me to come help her assist a patient to the bathroom who was on magnesium sulfate to stop contractions.
“Mag” makes people very ill and too wobbly to walk on their own. Sure enough, the poor lady got sick. I had the urge, but I didn’t flee. I backed away a little until she was done, but I stayed and helped her to the bathroom. No one but me knew what an accomplishment that was. I knew she wasn’t contagious so I was able to convince myself that I was safe. I have hope that the next time my husband or mom has surgery, I’ll be able to draw on that same strength.
For “VOMO” (Vomit of Mysterious Origin) though, I’m still hopeless. I’ve been trying to get my husband on board with me on the wash-your-hands-as-soon-as-you-come-in-the-house-from-a-public-place rule, but he only complies sporadically. And there he lies in the other room, with The Ailment, and who knows if he’s contagious or just ate something bad.
Fortunately (or unfortunately? not sure which) I’m off work the next couple of days so I can stick close to home in case I come down with it as suddenly as he did. And he’s not getting kissed for at least a week. I have considered getting a hotel room, but haven’t gone that far yet. So there it is, my phobia getting in the way again. I hesitated to write this because in a way I’m afraid that the more attention I give to this problem, the more I’m feeding it. I want to improve, but improvement also means letting my guard down against viruses and food poisoning, which is something I’m not willing to do.
I have one more brief story to share. After 20 years and almost four months of not vomiting once, I got the stomach flu the night before our surgical tech certification exam! I was so panicked I made my husband drive me to the ER after only being sick for a couple hours.
So here’s the irony: I had spent almost 20 years of my life worrying constantly about something that only happened once at the end of that period, and hasn’t happened since (check with me again in a couple days, though). But had I not been phobic, would I have been less diligent, and thus gotten sick sooner? As I write this, I’m becoming aware that I feel a similar sense of twisted pride as, for example, people with anorexia do who compete with each other as to who is the better anorexic.
As we talk about our issues, we have to be careful not to take pride in our identity as emetophobes, competing with each other as to who is more phobic. This fear is an enemy, not a protector. It will always be part of who we are, but that part can become smaller and smaller over time. It’s ok to let it go in stages as you find the strength. We are much more than our fears. We can be diligent about germs and take reasonable precautions and still be emotionally and physically healthy.
After all, the reasonable precautions, the ones that don’t interfere with living an active life, are the ones that are most likely to protect us from illness. I’m telling myself this as much as I’m telling anyone else!
Thank you to Jennifer for sharing her story!
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Lastly, I run an Emetophobia Support Group on Facebook. Emetophobia is the intense and irrational fear of throwing up, and it is one struggle I am passionately engaged in. The group is a closed, by request only group to help facilitate sharing and support by all members. It is also private, meaning that the posts you and others make will not show up publicly in your newsfeed.