She wouldn’t stop throwing up. It was almost midnight and we were all exhausted. I stared down at my 14-month-old daughter, her tiny face pale, her body warm with fever. My mouth was dry—a symptom, I thought, of the visceral fear I had about what could be wrong with my baby. My husband finally hung up with the triage nurse for the third time and said we needed to take her to the emergency room.
Two mornings later, she lay against me, unable to keep her eyes open. Though she was presumed to just have a bad stomach bug by her doctor, I was so anxious I could barely stop myself from calling an ambulance, even though we had already been through the ER rigamarole once. Then she vomited again and seemed relieved.
She would go on to get sick like this every two or three months for the next year. I brought her to a pediatric GI specialist but everything was ruled out and the doctor thought she was just prone to GI bugs. It had been a particularly brutal season for them anyway, according to my friends with kids. She always bounced back.
But I didn't. I was developing an intense, irrational fear of vomit and I had no idea what to do.
I felt awful that my daughter had to experience this discomfort, but in my head, I was struggling with the worst terror I'd ever had, one that tied my stomach in knots and caused me to lose sleep. Every grunt and sigh from the nursery meant a potential vomiting episode. And then I said out loud the words I had been thinking for months: “It’s so bad that I wish I could go back and not have a baby.”
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Who says that? Of course I didn’t mean it. But it was at that point I knew this was more than what I could deal with alone. The anxiety nearly felt like panic. During one episode, my vision went black as I held a towel for my daughter to vomit into, her fourth sickness since that initial one. I swallowed an expired Ativan—left over from an ER visit two years ago—and started feeling the anxiety melt away.
I started therapy the following week. I saw someone who specializes in anxiety, with plans to see an expert in phobias later on if she deemed it necessary. I had had no idea emetophobia, the fancy term for fear of vomiting, was even a thing.
Growing up, I always freaked out when someone around me threw up. As an adult, hearing or seeing someone (who isn't my daughter) vomit causes me to reflexively clamp my hands over my ears or squeeze my eyes shut, and to make the quickest escape possible.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, once vomit phobia starts, it can escalate fairly quickly: “Step by step, you avoid places and things you associate with vomiting, you become increasingly more hypervigilant, and the fear soon dominates your life.”
I was never diagnosed with emetophobia because anxiety was also showing up in other areas of my life, so my therapist is treating me for generalized anxiety. I’m learning to function with this fear using cognitive behavioral therapy and reframing and restructuring my thoughts. After starting therapy, my daughter had two more vomiting episodes, and by the second one, I was no longer spiraling out of control. I was facing it, taking care of her, and remaining in control of my anxiety instead of letting it jerk me around.
Phobia disorders are actually among the most common anxiety disorders and are characterized by “avoidance of exposure to the feared stimulus,” says Ashwini Nadkarni, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “In cases where exposure does occur, people experience symptoms of panic, including shortness of breath, heart racing, trembling, and a strong desire to escape.” In my case, I was doing everything in my power to avoid my daughter throwing up, and when she did, I panicked—since I was without the option to escape.
It took me almost a year before I even considered the possibility of therapy to help me cope with this anxiety. I remember kicking myself once I started, because I had suffered too long without getting help. Why do people not immediately seek help for these phobias?
“Part of the reason people will delay seeking treatment is that phobias are characterized by avoidance,” Nadkarni explains. “As long as people aren't exposed to the stimulus they fear, individuals with phobias will function just fine. So treatment doesn't always seem necessary.”
I couldn’t deny that. When my daughter was healthy, the anxiety subsided enough that I thought I was fine. I was, at least, fine enough to think I could function without outside help. Still, it was curious to me how my generalized anxiety disorder relates to this phobia I have. "Anxiety disorder can co-occur with a specific phobia," Nakdarni says. "In fact, anxiety disorders are frequently co-morbid with other anxiety disorders.”
I wish I could end this piece by saying I’m cured, and that therapy and medication have taken away the panic I feel when my daughter is sick. But I’m still a major work in progress and have a long way to go in winning this struggle over my anxiety. I can say, though, that I've taken a step in the right direction. Therapy has given me the chance to process my reactions. So while I may never be nonchalant about other people's puke, at least I won't be blacked out somewhere, completely consumed by the fear.
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