By Laura Ackerman
#Fearless Family Writer
I don’t tend to keep secrets about myself. I’m one that believes revealing our personal vulnerabilities and challenges, open us up to authentic relationships with one another.
Here, I am going to tell you about a phobia I have that has impacted my entire life in so many debilitating ways. Nobody knows the true intensity of my phobia. This will be the first time I have ever discussed it openly.
Everyone who knows me well, knows I don’t like vomit. Most people don’t, but I have emetophobia, which is the irrational and paralyzing fear of vomiting, seeing someone vomit, fear of vomiting in public, stomach bugs, nausea, and anything that could even remotely result in nausea and vomit/vomiting.
I’ve had this phobia my entire life. I can’t even tell you when it began, because I don’t remember ever not having it. Up until a few years ago, when I randomly came upon an article that listed some unusual, yet common phobias, I never knew my phobia had a name. I was relieved the fear which controlled my everyday life for the past 40 years existed and there were others like me. I wasn’t alone as I thought in my emetophobic world.
When I was a child, if one of my brothers were sick, I would go outside and beg my mother to let me stay out there and sleep. Our house was small with only a thin wall separating my bedroom from the family bathroom. I wanted to be far away from the offending noises of someone vomiting and even farther away from the germs that could possibly bring me the same demise. My mother would always tell me how ridiculous my behavior was and force me back inside into my personal hell disguised as my bedroom, where I would lay awake in bed all night, shaking uncontrollably from the anxiety and fear of hearing the sound of sickness. It would have been more welcoming to lock me in a room full of venomous snakes.
I was always an anxious child. I had severe separation anxiety when I entered elementary school and my shyness and inability to make friends easily only worsened my social anxiety and emetophobia. I was in a constant state of anxiety and fear. I feared my daily life, but mostly I feared my body and my stomach because they were the most unpredictable.
For many of my younger years I suffered a form of anorexia that manifested from my emetophobia. Not because I had a poor body image or wanted to be thin, but because I wanted to limit the amount of food I ate to almost nothing. In my emetophobic mind, limiting food intake ensured that if I did get sick there would be nothing in my stomach to come back up. Anxiety and obsession about the possibility of me or someone else getting sick, also kept my appetite at bay.
I was emaciated and starving to death. My phobia was taking a toll not only on my physical health, but my mental health too. During the most intense period of my anorexia, my family took a vacation to Disney World. I was extremely weak from a combination of anxiety and malnutrition, I didn’t even have the physical strength to walk around the amusement park. My dad had to drive me back to the hotel room where I spent the rest of the afternoon in the hotel bed watching T.V. while the rest of my family was out having fun. This was the first time I entertained the thought of physically ending my internal torture.
The intellectual part of myself knew something was wrong. I was not normal. I knew my fear was out of control and irrational, but no matter how much I wanted it to, I couldn’t make it stop. My mind entertained the idea of vomiting from the moment I awoke, until I lie down at night. Was this the day I would vomit? Or someone else? Or a family member may get sick and then I would get it? Is that nausea I feel? It was an endless loop in my mind and each day I took the extreme and irrational measures to ensure my safety. Emetophobia consumed my mind, body, and soul. I was living in an earthly hell and I had no idea how I got there or how to get out.
As I grew older, and was able to get a job and get out of my house more freely, my emetophobia subsided in intensity for a few years. I started recreationally smoking marijuana and drinking. The marijuana worked two-fold by both stimulating my appetite and alleviating my anxiety. I was always extra careful not to drink too much because we all know what happens when someone over-indulges. I was expert in knowing just how much to drink without over doing it. The pot and booze helped me do what I needed to do…RELAX my compulsive thoughts about vomit and calm my anxiety.
In my early twenties, I met my first husband and we got married. It wasn’t long into our marriage before the stress of a new relationship started to envelope me. We lived in an old, mice infested trailer in the middle of nowhere. My husband worked out of town a majority of the time. I felt lonely being so far away from my family and friends.
Anxiety began to take hold of me again, but thanks to the marijuana I smoked on a daily basis, I was able to keep my emetophobia manageable, until the day I contracted some type of stomach bug or food poisoning that sent me into an overnight prison of a combo of simultaneous vomit and diarrhea for 24 hours straight. I’m sure that was the first time my husband viewed me as a crazy lady, as I ran around in a panic screaming and shaking in terror before each vomit/diarrhea bout.
After that horrible night, my food aversion reared it’s ugly head again and stayed with me until I got pregnant with my first born son. At my first pregnancy checkup, I was 5’6″ and weighed a whopping 72 lbs. Luckily, I didn’t have any morning sickness and my appetite picked up as I entered into my second and third trimester.
Twelve years after my son was born, I got pregnant with my daughter from my second marriage. Again, I was lucky enough to be spared morning sickness.
I believe having children helped me with my emetophobia. I still would tremble and panic when they vomited, but my compassion and love for them helped me muster up the courage that helped me trudge through my fear and focus on doing what I had to do to comfort them. I had no one that understood or even knew about my emetophobia, so I was on my own in tending to my sick children. Looking back, that was most likely a blessing there was no one to rescue me from my fear. I was forced to face it.
At 52 years old, I can now say that my emetophobia is reasonably under control. I now have no aversions to eating and my thoughts are only minimally consumed with vomit.
That said, I still have daily thought patterns, rituals and avoidance behaviors that are connected directly to my emetophobia, but I’ve learned to manage them with thought diversions and other tactics I’ve learned along the way.
I write this in hopes that one day this phobia will be recognized as a serious one that impacts the sufferer’s life in extreme ways and that others will find comfort in knowing they are not alone.
Thank you to Laura 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.