Living with the Intense Fear of Vomiting

No seafood, no school trips – since I was seven years old, my life has been governed by a phobia of sick.

by Hurly Chunks, Illustrations by Tom Scotcher
19 February 2015, 1:16pm

If you let an average person in on your phobia, chances are they're gonna rinse the irrational factor of a fear and bring you face to face with yours whenever they can. I've laughed at middle-aged people flipping out over a clown, and at that video of the guy who's afraid of peaches. I've even seen a guy I know who is afraid of cheese have liquidised camembert shoved up his nose.

This might be why I've never actually told anyone about my phobia of vomiting. It'd either turn the people I know into puke-crazed tyrants hellbent on making me catch the norovirus, or, even worse, make my weirdness about something seem even weirder to them.

At times, having emetophobia has felt like a debilitating illness. Phobias really do have the potential to ruin your life, especially if you're lumped with a fear that confronts something universal like agoraphobia. One of the main things about the fear of being sick is that, just because you might not be feeling sick or being sick, that doesn't rule out someone else around you feeling ill. Emetophobia isn't just a fear of bringing up your own breakfast –it's the constant uncertainty that someone else might.

It was only around the age of seven that I began to have an issue with vomiting, supporting the belief that every phobia has a root, or a kick-off moment, as opposed to being genetically engrained. I was at home jumping around on the sofa with my sister when I burped, violently, ran into the kitchen and spewed, aiming for the bin but missing by a matter of inches. My dad was making some food, sniggered a bit and said, "Ah, dear." He took me upstairs to my mum, and she consoled me as I threw up about three more times. The next day, I gipped after an effort to put away some toast, but managed to keep everything down. Then I got better.

Weeks after that illness went away, the memory of it stayed with me. I was inexplicably freaked out by, or anything pertaining to, vomit. More so than the average kid. It seemed a mere four pukes was enough to instil a contempt and dread that has somehow stopped me from throwing up ever again. I'm now 21.

Unlike certain other bodily reliefs, vomiting is a physical compulsion – and that's what freaks me out, the lack of control. The majority of the time, you can refrain from shitting your pants. With vomit it's irrepressible and unanticipated, and, with that, comes the disgust and frustration of other people, friends or family, who can impart a sense of shame and guilt comparable to that of trouser-less nightmares.

"To be honest with you, it's fucked my life up in quite a few ways. Just cause I wasn't being sick all through the 2000s doesn't mean I wasn't dreading the possibility of it every single day."

To be honest with you, being terrified of vomit has fucked my life up in quite a few ways. Just because I wasn't being sick all through the 2000s doesn't mean I wasn't dreading the possibility of it every single day. There were school trips that I avoided purely on the off-chance that I'd see someone get travel sick. And I don't mean day trips but the big weekenders. How pathetic and weird you come across telling your family that you, a young lad, are "not really into quad-biking, canoeing and rock climbing," or whatever else they got up to on those trips.

School was puke hellfire. Kids don't always tell someone when they feel ill, so that overturned-bucket-of-water ripple was something I'd have to deal with every few months. Either that, or I'd see someone who was visibly feeling shit, watch them put their pen down, take greedy breaths, raise their hand and fail to get the teacher's attention in a frenzy of nausea. If they did seize their focus, they'd get a considerate "just go sit by the window for a second." By the time they'd even made it there it would be too late. And then came the domino effect and the lingering smell in the corridor.

Emetophobia goes hand-in-hand with claustrophobia and agoraphobia, because you're not just afraid of puke, you're afraid of germs and places with no escape-route, in case you need to puke or get away from someone who is puking. Rollercoasters are a no-go. Your seafood intake will stretch to strictly fish and chips only – such is the fear of putting anything potentially "dangerous" into your body that might make you sick. You'll be incredibly anxious and have panic attacks and any nauseous episodes you do have will leave you in the foetal position, shaking so much your ankles are doing a drum-roll.

Emetophobia is an obsessional phobia defined by superstitions, routines and avoidance behaviours. Sufferers often avoid engaging in anything that was once linked to someone vomiting. When I was in Year 2, my mate threw up in class as he was making his way out of the door to the toilet. I could only think that it must have been the milk cartons we'd been given that morning, and I never touched the stuff again. Long-jumping over that pile of sick with my jumper masked across my mouth, was the first "moment" of many. My life would be dictated by patterns of avoidance.

Eventually, at the end of my school years, I searched online for any explanations for having a fear of vomit and realised I was, to a degree, emetophobic. I recall my mum telling me around that time about when my auntie was having chemotherapy, and how she would "get worked up because she hated being sick". She remains the only other person I've ever known to have it, too. There are a few celebrities who have come out as emetophobes - Charlie Brooker being the most noted. Joan Baez and Cameron Diaz are known sufferers and so, apparently, was James Dean.

"I often find that there's two reoccurring statements brought up by people without the phobia to people with it: the first is that, 'Well, no-one likes being sick.' See: 2 Girls 1 Cup and secondly 'Being sick isn't going to kill you.' See: John Bonham and Jimi Hendrix."

When I try and talk to people about my phobia, the response is usually either: "Well, no-one likes being sick." See: 2 Girls 1 Cup and secondly, "Being sick isn't going to kill you." See: John Bonham and Jimi Hendrix.

There's a certain fatality to having emetophobia rather than, say, a peach phobia. Sickness reinforces the idea that you don't have a body but you are a body and it could give out anytime. It's an irrational distrust of your body and a fear of, ultimately, losing control.

There's a certain fatality to having emetophobia rather than, say, a peach phobia. Sickness reinforces the idea that you don't have a body but you are a body and it could give out anytime. It's an irrational distrust of your body and a fear of, ultimately, losing control.

Phobias, like the majority of anxiety disorders, can't be magically "cured" as such, but they can be tamed and made liveable through therapies like CBT and, often, medication. Usually, anti-anxiety medication is recommended on the basis that emetophobes tend to have baggage disorders like agoraphobia, OCD and depression, and due to our dubious attitude towards side-effects, antiemetics are designated before that.

These can come in the form of simple antihistamines. There are things that can be done to make life better and break down the barriers and obsessional behaviours and avoidance tactics that might stop you from getting a job or starting a family. Like hypnotherapy, for example. Personally, it took a specific event to change my outlook. By my mid-teens, I'd become so germ-savvy (washing my hands 25 times a day, pressing bus bells with my sleeve pulled over my hands, flushing toilets with elbows et cetera) that I managed to avoid not just being sick but feeling sick altogether. During those years I'd only have to feel a slight glitch in my throat and that was enough to make me freak. I'd completely forgotten what it felt like to be nauseous.

Then, one day when I was 15, I had my first experience of sickness in years. I recognised the warning signs immediately – the flushed sensation, the crippling stomach pain, the dry mouth. Somehow, though, I managed to burp my way out of actually vomiting. Moments like that have come and gone since then and they've been great, because they've proved that a sickness does not always lead to or conclude in being sick. And even if it did happen, it's entirely survivable.

I'm aware that might sound strange if you haven't experienced a phobia, but that kind of confrontation, for me, was the best way to get a handle on a fear that began with one terrible episode. If a specific experience can give you an irrational fear of something, logically, a good one – or one that makes you catastrophise the outcome far less – should be able to alleviate it. Exposure therapy is something undertaken differently depending on the severity of a disorder to make sure each step is consonant with a person's capacity for treatment. Coaching in relaxation and the nature of anxiety attacks is also provided so that patients can begin to understand that throwing up is not associated with mortality.

I am, these days, lucky to have friends who puke very often and very casually. I have one that throws up as if he's gobbing on the pavement on his way to the Co-op. It's comforting to watch them deal with it in a rational way, like they're just getting something out of their system. The other week I crashed on a mates couch and saw that there was a washing up bowl full of his sick next right to it. "Sorry about that," he said, before taking it into the kitchen and rinsing it out. He put it beside me incase I needed during the night and then left me to it. And I did need it: not to be sick in, but because it was a reminder that I've come a long way from where I used to be.

I'm lucky to have acknowledged so early on that a phobia's seize on you is psychological as opposed to physical, and that these issues can be treated. The track record of therapy is continuously good and you deserve to be in on that. Don't buy into the stigma of weak upper lips and contact your GP. All too many people confuse their illnesses with idiosyncrasies, especially a phobia of something like puke, which grosses most people out. You might not want to tell your mates about your phobia, but you should definitely tell your doctor. No-one deserves a life without smoked salmon.

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