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I recently did a school project where I had to go around the school and interview my fellow peers on their worst fears. I learned about so many interesting fears, but the one I did not come across was a personal fear of my own: Emetophobia. It’s actually a very common phobia, but it’s not often heard or talked about, and not very highly known. So I decided to have someone interview me instead to educate further on the phobia, and explain the situations I've had to deal with my whole life.
Interviewer: Can you tell me exactly what Emetophobia is?
Me: Yes absolutely. It’s the fear of vomit or vomiting. That’s the literal definition of it, but for most emetophobes, it’s actually beyond that.
Could you elaborate on that a little bit further?
[Nodding]. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me personally it’s the fear of not being in control. I hate being out of control of my body, and I’m afraid if it happens it won’t stop. It's really an atrocious fear because it subcategorizes into multiple things for different people, like the fear of being nauseous, the fear of seeing and hearing it, the fear of someone else vomiting, the fear of being stuck in that situation and you can't get out of it, or the fear of anything that could potentially trigger it.
So was there one specific instance that triggered your fear?
I don’t remember. I’ve just always been terrified of it. My earliest memory would be when I was like three-years-old running down the hallway vomiting and my mom trying to chase after me. I was trying to get away from it because I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to my body, but I don’t know if that’s what traumatized me.
So you’ve been dealing with this almost your whole life. What was that like growing up?
Awful. It’s more than what people think. I’ve gotten questions like “Why are you afraid of something that’s natural?” and sometimes it made me feel like a freak. I've missed out on a lot of opportunities in life because of it, like riding a roller coaster, going to a friend's sleepover party, or traveling. My mom used to have to check me out of school everyday because I would have major panic attacks if someone were to so much as cough next to me. I had a really hard time being around my siblings when they would get sick (like the stomach flu), and would quarantine myself until I knew it was over. Sometimes I would stand outside in the cold for hours just terrified of being inside where someone was potentially vomiting. I wouldn’t even eat in fear of myself vomiting. My sister was one of those kids that would get sick (like vomit) a lot and I dealt with multiple situations that I couldn’t escape.
Oh, like being stuck in the car on a long drive home. That happened multiple times and I just remember shaking and crying and not wanting to get back in the car. I would plug my ears and close my eyes and wish I could just disappear from the world.
Wow that sounds horrible.
[Laughing] Yeah, it was. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
What was the worst situation you had to deal with?
I don’t think I can name just one. I mean, obviously being stuck in the car was horrible. Especially when I was young and couldn’t drive or couldn’t control what was going on. But my situation is very unique as well, because my mom has severe Crohn’s Disease and would vomit all the time, and even have to be hospitalized for it. I think that may have been the hardest part. There was one time when I was 7 or 8 and my mom and I were out shopping at an outlet the day before Christmas. While we were inside the store standing in line my mom grabs my hand and pulls me outside, just like all of a sudden. That’s when my brain clicked and I knew what was happening. Needless to say, the situation did not end very well. A tiny 7 or 8 year old who is in panic mode trying to run away from her mom vomiting in public is not exactly the situation anyone wants to be in. It took a long time to get me into the car with her and I think I just bawled and hyperventilated the whole way home.
Did people ever give you looks in a panic situation or question why you acted the way you did?
All the time. I’m walking around with a fear of a natural human occurrence, and as irrational as it sounds to most people, it's not irrational in my mind. It's very real, just like depression and anxiety or eating disorders, and it took a major toll on my mental and physical health. When I was younger I wouldn’t talk about it because kids would mock me by making fake vomiting sounds around me or pretending to be sick. I had my friends and the parents of my friends question it and not understand what it meant to be emetophobic. They would just say things like “well NO ONE really likes vomiting, do they?” and I would just have to brush it off and act like it didn’t bother me. But it really controlled my everyday life. I had one situation with my aunt actually, that was baffling. She announced at dinner once that she threw up the night before and thought it was like food poisoning or something…
Why would she announce that at dinner? That’s kind of gross. I don’t think anyone wants to talk about that when they’re eating!
Trust me, [laughing] I wondered the same thing! But, my mind and body immediately went into full fight or flight mode and I didn’t want to be anywhere near her.
Even though you couldn’t catch it?
Even though I couldn’t catch it. It’s something I really didn’t have control over. I quarantined myself outside on the balcony and wouldn’t go anywhere near her. She later came up to the door crying and was like “I don’t understand why you’re being like this. I threw up last night and it makes me feel horrible that you’re acting this way towards me now.”
Whaaat! She really said that?
It was definitely something along those lines. It’s because she didn’t understand, and that’s how majority of the reactions were, and the situations I had to deal with. Some people just took my phobia way too personally [laughs].
What about a situation where you’ve thrown up? How do you deal with it?
I’ve actually only vomited like three times in my life, that I can remember. I (eventually) gave in to it and just let it happen. The build up of not wanting to vomit and the fear of what’s going to happen I think is actually more agonizing than the act in itself. I think that’s the worst part about the fear, is dreading the unexpected (or expected). But I haven’t thrown up since I was like 12. [laughing].
So you seem like you can really laugh and speak about all of this now. Have you gotten over your Emetophobia as you’ve grown older?
I haven’t fully gotten over it. But I can definitely say that with people (including my mom and siblings) not understanding what it was, I had to come up with my own tools to get through everyday life. Especially because of my mom’s Crohn’s Disease. That was tough.
Can you tell me about some of these coping methods?
Breathing exercises for sure! [laughing]. Um, really though, it depends on the situation. Before going out anywhere like school or general public I would map out escape routes IN CASE anything were to happen. I also always had Tums and Pepto Bismal on deck for nausea, but those are some of my more intense coping methods. A lot of the time it was really just a matter of taking back control of my mind. Talking myself out of panic attacks, telling myself I was going to be okay, things like that.
So you’d say now you have more control over your fear?
Definitely. That’s something I take a lot of pride in, too. I went through a really horrible period when I was 18, where I literally wouldn’t eat anything, I wouldn’t go out in public, I didn't want to work, I was just terrified of dealing with that sort of situation. I dropped down to 92 pounds and people really thought I was anorexic. It was such a touchy subject and it bothered me so much that one day I looked at myself in the mirror and told myself I didn’t want to live like that. I really took those extra baby steps to start eating and not let it control my mind anymore. It took a long time, but I’d say I have more control over it now than anything. Don’t get me wrong, I still go through bad days, but it’s always mind over matter.
What's something that you've done and you are most proud of in regards to overcoming your fear?
There are a couple, actually. But the biggest one would be becoming a surgical dental assistant. I had no experience or knowledge whatsoever, and going into it they trained me to assist in oral surgeries. Being in people's mouths, especially when you're cutting open their gums and they are continuously gagging and spitting blood (sorry for the gross details), is not an ideal situation for someone who is emetophobic. I think it's not an ideal situation for a lot, but especially for what I dealt with my entire life, I surprised myself. I remember after a couple months of working there and getting through it day by day, I had this epiphany on what I had accomplished and just sobbed so many happy tears.
What about having children? Are you afraid of going through pregnancy and your kids throwing up?
For now, yes. I mean, I’m only 23 so I’m personally nowhere near ready to have kids. But it’s definitely something I think about all the time. I’d love to be a mom someday, but I really need to set myself up for that position and know I’m in a good place. Having a partner who understands it and is willing to help in situation where I need him to is key, as well. I would never want my children to see me in a state of panic or let alone have Emetophobia themselves. I’ve watched a lot of videos and met people who have dealt with Emetophobia and then ended up having a ton of kids, so I have hope!
What is something that you’d like to tell people who are dealing with a situation like this or similar?
I think that I just want to tell people, whether you’re dealing with Emetophobia, or some other fear, know that you’re not alone, and you’re not a freak. Everyone has fears, but everyone also has the ability to work towards overcoming those fears. You just have to tell your mind you’re willing to work through it. Otherwise you’re just going to suffer and life is too short to allow yourself to suffer.
Thank you for speaking up about this. I actually had no idea that’s what it’s like.
Of course! I only hope this educates people and helps them as well.