a personal style blog by Lauren Pfieffer

Monday, June 19, 2023

Living with Emetophobia

I was 12 when my emetophobia spiraled out of control, but it had existed internally long before that.

If you're not familiar with emetophobia, it's the extreme fear of vomiting. I'll reference it as "getting sick," for the rest of this post because even saying or typing it feels like a bad omen (I'll explain).

The Beginning 

I can remember every instance where I've been sick. My first memory isn't playing with toys or an interaction with my parents. It's when I was sick in the middle of the night around age three.

I've always remembered the instances in vivid detail. Where I was. What I was wearing. The intense fear I felt. Not only have I always remembered every time it happened to me, but any time it happened to others. 

School buses. Playgrounds. Cafeterias. I could recite every kid in my grade, above and below it had happened to. It even happened to me in first grade at lunch. I felt shame for so many years.

But 12 was really when my emetophobia escalated. My sister was two years old and woke up in the middle of the night sick. My mother and myself woke up not too long after -- all of us sick with the stomach flu.

Will I be ok?

Something in me shifted after we were all sick and I started developing strange coping behaviors. I would take the long way in our house to avoid the bathroom I'd been sick in. I felt like if I saw the place again, I might somehow be re-contaminated.

Although not super religious, every night before bedtime I had to say exactly three Hail Mary's to completion, or my brain convinced me I could wake up sick again. If I started to doze off before finishing, I had to start over again. All three had to be fully complete or it wouldn't "count" to mark myself safe. One of the rituals that came out of this period of time is still one I use today. If I am anxious that I'm going to be sick, I ask a love one: "Will I be ok?" They have to tell me, usually promise me, that I'll be ok. Their words are like a manifestation of my fate. Only this affirming phrase quiets my mind.

While all of this was going on, I wasn't eating and was starting to wash my hands obsessively after touching anything. I became afraid to go to school and be exposed to potential sickness again. After months of this, my parents took me to a therapist and she diagnosed me with OCD. It was years later another therapist determined the OCD stemmed from emetophobia.

I started therapy and have continued to seek counseling for my emetophobia and OCD on-and-off for the last 18 years. Although it's a topic I've written about a few times, rarely will I ever discuss it with someone in person.

I usually feel a lot of shame, to be honest.

Day by Day

I cringe thinking of people I know reading about (what feels like) the most vulnerable secret I have about myself. I often feel shame because it feels so silly, of all the things to fear, to be scared of being sick. 

Emetophobia has shaped my life deeply. I didn't drink until I was 21 and even after my first, I was sober for years. I couldn't even swallow a sip of alcohol without panicking over how it was somehow going to make me sick. It took a long time, but I slowly worked my way up to one drink and now I can drink two and relax. I like to have a drink now and then, but sometimes even one drink will cause a panic attack. Sometimes people heckled me about having a drink when I was sober, or even now, push me to drink more. My reasoning feels too intimate to explain, so I prefer to politely shake my head and decline.

For a long time I wouldn't eat out at restaurants because I was scared of getting food poisoning. 

Boats are a big cause of anxiety that someone could be sea sick. Amusement parks are off-limits. 

Flying is what I really struggle with most. I have a very specific flying ritual.

I must hide the paper waste bag in the seat pocket from my sight.

I must take two dramamine for motion sickness. Even thought I don't get motion sick on planes.

I must wear a sea band (a recent pre-caution I've implemented).

I must close my eyes and circle the pressure point on my wrist over and over at take-off and landing.

I must have music playing at full volume during take off and landing in case someone gets sick, I can't hear it.

I used to not eat or even drink water before or during my flight. Thankfully I've been able to overcome that. 

Performing these rituals on a recent flight to San Francisco is what inspired me to write this post. I was reflecting on how often I feel the need to hide these in-flight rituals and the other day-to-day ones I do. 

Healing through sharing

I hide my emetophobia because yes; I feel shame. But if I look deeper beyond the feeling of shame, I can see that the cause of it is that I feel "other." Sometimes I wonder if those with phobias feel shame and otherness because the condition isn't as widely discussed as other mental health conditions -- so it feels like you're in it alone. Earlier this year I read this post from Emily on her emetophobia, and made me feel so seen. It was reassuring to read about someone's similar experience with this awful phobia. It inspired me to be more open about my own. 

I'm coming up on two decades of managing the OCD and anxiety that stem from emetophobia. There have been ebbs and flows in managing it, and I know new challenges are inevitable. I'm hoping that through opening up my struggles, it continues to help me shed some of that shame. 

With much love, Lauren
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