This is the third part of a six part series called Finding #Fearless. It’s the story of my life, my journey and the struggles I’ve endured that have made me who I am today. All names and places have been changed to protect the people involved. To read the rest of the series, please click below:
That’s a pretty common response when I tell people about the phobia that has been a part of my life since essentially birth.
Emetophobia, the irrational and intense fear of throwing up, is a very common, but generally unknown, panic disorder and phobia. People who suffer from emetophobia fall into one of the following categories: afraid of just themselves throwing up, afraid of just others throwing, or afraid of both themselves and others throwing up.
I have the pleasure of falling into the third category, and being afraid of both forms of throw up. But the journey with this phobia has been strangely rewarding, despite all the hell I went through to get to where I am today. I consider myself essentially recovered and cured, spending about 98% of my time anxiety and panic free in this realm.
Of course, the road to get here wasn’t always easy.
The earliest memory I have of being terrified of throwing up was at the tender age of 4 years old, when a botched tonsillectomy left me throwing up blood for two months. I have vivid images plastered in my brain of being terrified and crying because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. As a 4 year old, I feel like I handled it as well as I could have, and to be honest, I think even normal adults without this fear would probably be slightly uneasy about prolonged vomiting with blood.
I spent the next 14 years of my life in a state of almost constant hyper awareness. As I grew, the phobia also grew, and in its wake I was left with a very debilitating anxiety and panic disorder.
Due to a fear of food poisoning, I had a very restrictive list of “safe foods” that were made up of predominantly carbs and starches. I was underweight, extremely picky when it came to foods, and constantly heard the whispers asking, “Is she anorexic? Is she bulimic? Why doesn’t she eat more? She’s so skinny!”
Due to a fear of small children being walking germ time bombs, it meant I gave up my dream of becoming a teacher, and it started making me wonder if I could ever have children or maintain a meaningful relationship with them. Between the morning sickness, the risk of vomiting in labor and of course the uncontrollable nature of a child’s immune system, it seemed completely out of reach.
Due to a fear of throwing up myself, or seeing others get sick, I had a very limited amount of friends. I didn’t like traveling in the car with people I didn’t know (what if someone got sick in the car? what if I get sick in the car and can’t pull over because I’m not driving? what if we get trapped somewhere and we all get struck with a terrible virus?). I never attended parties with alcohol because it was too risky (what if I drank too much and got sick? What if someone there drank too much and got sick? what if I didn’t drink too much but I shared a drink with someone who was sick and then I got sick?)
This phobia also manifested itself in a variety of other phobias, like flying on a plane, the dentist, doctors offices, taking medication, and having surgery. But by far the most damaging fear that comes from emetophobia is the fear of oneself or others. While avoiding others who are sick is slightly easier, it should come as no surprise that vacating your own body when you feel sick is completely impossible.
These are just some of the quirks, fears and anxieties that go along with emetophobia, ones that I lived with for years and years before I realized it was real. In fact, early on I didn’t have a name for this phobia, so it made explaining it extremely hard. People commonly misdiagnosed me with an eating disorder, while others assumed it was hypochondria, germaphobia or simply something I was making up all together.
When I turned 19, it was the first time I had opened up about my phobia to someone other than my boyfriend. After a trip to visit my grandparents ended in an anxiety and rage filled gas station detour where my mom threw up, I realized I not only had a problem but I needed to start telling people about my fears. I confided in my mother, who did the one thing I never thought of doing: consulting Google. One quick “afraid of throwing up” search later, and my mom forwarded me an article on emetophobia.
My entire world stopped in that moment.
Everything I had experienced throughout my life had a name. I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t making it up. I really had a problem, there were others like me, and this meant I could get the help I knew I needed.
I literally cried uncontrollably when I read the article. It was the happiest moment of my life, and the relief I felt was almost indescribable.
I started therapy soon after that, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy through my university counseling services. After two years of constant uphill battles, I finally started making some headway. I had to deal with small exposures that usually resulted in more panic than progress, and I suffered a real identity crisis about 6 months in. After I stopped CBT I took a 6 months hiatus from therapy before pursing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). After two years of that, I saw tremendous improvement that far overshadowed the progress I made in CBT.
As I began to eradicate the fears, my confidence grew, and I began to realize I could help others the way my mom had helped me.
I started a blog, I started a support group on Facebook, and I began educating people that this phobia exists. It has been an absolutely crazy ride, and when I think back on this journey, it seems unfair to shorten that experience to just a couple hundred words. But, like with most of these posts in my Finding #Fearless series, there’s not enough space on the internet to truly do this journey justice.
Emetophobia was my first, real struggle with mental health. It holds a weird, but special, place in my heart, the way only a panic disorder could. It has been the gateway to meeting so many wonderful people, and of course beginning to understand more about myself. When you struggle with anxiety for so long, it strips away who you thought you were. When you finally begin to rid yourself of that, you open your eyes to an entirely new world, painted in opportunity and the ability to fulfill the life you’ve always wanted.
My goodness, I can’t tell if that was astonishingly poetic, or just downright cheesy. Either way, it’s staying in the post.
While I wouldn’t wish this phobia on anyone because of how difficult it can be to manage, I also recognize that this phobia is a huge part of my story. It’s set me on a path to self discovery, and for that I’m thankful. When I first started recovering from emetophobia, I always wondered who I would be without emetophobia, but I think the better way to look at it is: Would I be who I am today if I hadn’t had emetophobia?
I’ll never know, but what I do know is I’m thankful for the trials emetophobia put me through. And I hope you know that if you’re struggling with emetophobia too, there is light at the end of that tunnel.
After all, we’re in this together, I promise.
If you would like to email me, you can send any questions, concerns, comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will do my best to respond to you within 48 hours, but if for some reason I cannot get back to you in that time frame, I promise I will always respond as soon as possible. You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram!
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.