This is probably one of the hardest posts I’ve ever written. In fact, I’d say it is. But I want to use my experiences for good. I want to keep the conversation going about mental health. I want to let other knows that they aren’t alone in their struggles.
My advice to you before you read this? Grab a cup of tea or something because this will be a long one. I’m sorry there’s no pictures to break up this massive block of text but I figured I wouldn’t be able to find an appropriate picture for the topic. The topic of vomiting/OCD may be uncomfortable for some, so if that’s you and you’d prefer not to read it, that’s totally cool.
I don’t look like someone who has a phobia of vomiting. But I do and have done for as long as I can remember. Everyone has a phobia of some kind. Spiders, heights, enclosed spaces. The list is endless. As with most phobias, they’re fairly distressing when you’re in those circumstances but having emetophobia is distressing all the time.
Anxiety UK describe emetophobia as
“…a fear of vomiting or seeing others being sick. They may also fear the feeling of being out of control while they are being sick or fear being sick in public which can trigger avoidance behaviours”.
Naturally, nobody really likes being sick; being nauseous is unpleasant enough but having the contents of your stomach come out your mouth is nobody’s idea of a good time. But for those living with emetophobia, it’s hell on earth.
Emetophobia isn’t really talked about. No one really knows what it is but it’s fairly common. As someone who is pretty much an open book when it comes to her mental health, I figured that I should be open about this part of it as well. I’ve briefly mentioned it in my post ‘It’s Time To Talk’ but I’ve never openly talked about it until recently on Twitter.
Every time I’ve been sick has been somewhat of a traumatic experience. Writing about this is actually really difficult for me because it brings back a lot of memories and feelings of embarrassment that I’ve repressed but I think it’s something I have to address in order to try and progress with it.
No one wants to read about every time I’ve been sick in my life but I’ve decided to mention one that I believe contributed to the development of emetophobia and in turn, OCD. Or maybe it’s the other way round; I’m still not sure.
The last time I remember being sick was when I was 14. I think I’d been at a friend’s and either I ate something that disagreed with me or I had simply eaten too much (that was a problem for me, lol). I went to bed feeling pretty sorry for myself but next thing I know I’m jolting up out of bed and running up the hall. It was too late and I didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. I was unbelievably embarrassed. My parents were totally fine about it, they just wanted to make sure I was okay, but I was so ashamed. I felt at that age, I should’ve been able to know my body well enough to know when I was gonna throw up. I had a fear of being sick by myself or in front of people in any kind of situation…that’s kind of where my OCD story began.
All of my OCD story is detailed in my post I mentioned above; It’s Time To Talk. I don’t want to take up the whole post detailing my compulsions as I discuss it all over there but basically I would go out of my way to avoid contamination; compulsive handwashing/sanitizing because I constantly had an ‘unclean’ sensation on my hands, avoiding meat and other foods, overcooking everything, avoiding restaurants because I couldn’t see how my food had been cooked or what it touched. I couldn’t touch door handles, trollies or shopping baskets; everything I bought was wiped down. If I knew someone had been sick, I’d do my best to avoid them, I’d hold my breath around them, try not to talk to them. I remember one weekend I had been home from uni and my mum was sick. I think I was home for approximately 2 hours before I went travelled back to uni because fear of getting sick was too much for me to cope with. I was ashamed of myself for that.
Despite the fact I’ve had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, I still have emetophobia. I think I probably always will. CBT was perfect for combatting my OCD, for helping to me develop a more rationalised way of thinking but it didn’t work for emetophobia. My therapist explained that it might be helpful if I try and visualise being sick as something positive; obviously there’s something in your body that shouldn’t be there and so being sick helps to get rid of it. That’s fine for when my brain is rational but when I’m at risk of being sick, that theory goes out the window.
Whilst it’s easier for me not to carry out my compulsions on a daily basis because of what I learnt through CBT, if there’s a risk I’ll get sick, they increase tenfold and it’s difficult to stop. Let’s take a few days ago as an example. A colleague of mine called in sick; they’d been throwing up all night and they weren’t fit to come in. Alarm bells began to ring in my head and this was my thought process:
“What did I touch that they touched?”
“They sorted out the paperwork yesterday and I lifted it this morning, my hands will be covered in germs.”
“You’ve touched loads of things since then; your own files, your phone, your office phone, your keyboard, your mouse, your coffee cup, your breakfast, your face, your mouth.”
“How are you going to clean all that? You’d have to wipe down every single thing you’ve touched and people will notice. You don’t have time for this. You don’t even have any hand sanitiser left.”
Rational Thought: “They weren’t sick yesterday in here, only when they went home so you should be fine, nothing is ‘unclean’.”
“But what if I do get sick? What if they come in tomorrow and they end up close to me? You’re supposed to be clear for 48hours before you come back to work.”
This went on for quite some time but work ended up being busy and thankfully I was distracted by my thoughts for a bit. But the worry of work yesterday began to creep in. I was really panicking about them being near me, handling things I would end up handling too. I felt myself slip back into my old habits. When the tea trolley came round, I made sure I was there before them so my hands were clean when I poured myself tea. When I went to the bathroom and hand to touch the handles, I washed my hands before and after I went and pulled the handle out at the top where I thought no one else had touched it. Even today, I’m still on edge. This morning when I came in, again I thought about things they might’ve handled yesterday and how those germs would be on my hands and then on everything I’ve touched so far.
I have made progress, don’t get me wrong. I don’t find it uncomfortable to talk about people being sick and I can cope with hearing people be sick. If I feel nauseous, I try to rationalise what it could be (IBS, something I ate etc) and most of the time, I just try to go to sleep so my brain isn’t overwhelmed. If my mum is sick, I can be there to help her but only if I know it’s not something I can catch. That makes me really ashamed of myself.
I’m ashamed because if there’s potential for me to get sick, I won’t be there to support her, or anyone for that matter. It’s selfish, I know. But I can’t help it. I have tried my hardest to get over the phobia and it just hasn’t worked. I have done all I can, short of shoving my hand down my throat to make me vomit. It makes me scared for the future. If I ever want kids, I’ll have to face morning sickness. If I ever have kids, there is no doubt they’ll pick something up at some stage and it’s my duty to care for them. I can’t imagine I’ll be a good parent when it comes to things that like, and that makes me upset. Some say that the ‘maternal instinct’ in me will override that but I’m doubtful. I guess there’s no point worrying about that until it might happen.
Emetophobia and OCD more or less rule my life. They determine what I eat and drink. They determine my actions. They determine where I go and who I socialise with. They determine how many times a day I wash my hands. They determine items that I touch and medication that I take. They send my mood crashing down in an instant. They cause intense fear and anxiety, feelings that last for days until I deem my environment to be ‘safe’. But I’m fighting. Every day I’m fighting.
One day I will beat it. I don’t know how or when but I will.
I’m not quite sure what the point of this post was, other than to open up about it. I think my aim was to raise awareness of emetophobia, something that effects more people than we think.
The lovely Rachel at No Space For Milk and the amazing Mel at Geek Magnifique talk about emetophobia and what we sufferers would like people to understand. Please, please take some time to read it. You can find it here.
So there you have it, my story as an emetophobia sufferer. If you have this phobia too, please know that you’re not alone, in any way. There are more of us than you think. You can find me on Twitter if you wanna talk about it.
I hope this hasn’t bored you too much. If you have, I’m sorry but I can’t give you back the 10 minutes you wasted reading this!