It was a relatively average day. My emetophobia (fear of vomit) was playing up no more than usual; I was out and about with just the odd niggling feeling. I was sitting on a bus en route to my flat when a news article caught my attention:
“Norovirus Outbreak in East London”
My entire world shattered instantly.
The emetophobia was no longer a manageable niggle. The thoughts inside my head began to race as I quickly tried to recall every encounter, every step, and every potential point of contamination that day. Who looked pale, who hadn’t I seen the day before, what had I eaten and where had I been?
The physical effects of anxiety were also starting to build; I started to sweat, and felt dizzy, overly warm and, worst of all, nauseous. In that moment, I wasn’t able to make the connection between physical symptoms and anxiety. I went straight to thinking the worst: I must have caught this virus.
I managed to keep my shit together on the bus while continuing to fall apart internally. I got myself back to my little London flat (a box room with no windows) and crumbled. The world as I once knew it had suddenly transformed into the most terrifying and dangerous place. Everyone was carrying a virus, everything had the potential to make me vomit, and I was convinced that I had already caught it.
My thoughts were racing. What if I’ve got it? What if my wonderful, darling fiancé has got it? What if I get it? I’m going to die, I feel sick, I can’t cope, this isn’t fair, I can’t do this anymore! But I’d rather die than vomit.
I was getting restless, pacing, bordering on violent. I didn’t want anyone near me and I didn’t want anyone to touch me. I wanted to be soothed, but my absolute fear of contamination meant that no-one could get near me. I was still trying to track my entire day, but I was also trying to track my fiancé’s, my neighbours’, my colleagues’, and every random stranger I may or may not have brushed past. My whole world began to cave in, and at that moment I wanted nothing more than to curl up and die.
“But no one likes being sick!” is something I hear quite often whenever I mention my vomit phobia – and they’re probably right – but they also aren’t suicidal at the thought of it. The thing is, phobias aren’t rational. In that situation, that panic-stricken, thought-racing, sweaty situation, you can’t rationalise it. I know that vomiting is a natural body function, a helpful one that can actually save your life. But wrap that function up in personal feelings of abandonment and trauma, and you’ve got yourself something terrifying.
Phobias can become all-consuming dictators. They can team up with other mental health problems like depression and anxiety. They are debilitating, restrictive, and often completely misunderstood. The whole “no one likes being sick” thing is just like saying “oh just snap out of it” – the thing is that you can’t, because you cannot rationalise a phobia.
Years on from that night in London, the night I almost got sectioned threatening to kill myself because I was convinced I had a stomach virus, I can honestly say I’m in a much better place. On that incredibly dark night, I could no longer see a way out. I could no longer see light through the fog of my racing thoughts, and I wanted so very much to make the world go quiet. My fiancé almost lost the person he loves to a vicious phobia. If it hadn’t been for him, and two incredibly patient and reassuring paramedics, I highly doubt I would be here to share this story with you.
It’s not been an easy ride. It’s taken multiple different therapy treatments, but I can promise you that it can and does get easier.
The therapy that worked the most for me (and equally puts the most fear into an emetophobic person) was graded exposure therapy. I’ve said before that I would rather die than vomit, and that’s not uncommon for someone suffering from emetophobia. However, exposure therapy gives you a safe space to explore those feelings, face your phobia head on, and gradually build up a resistance to it. I’m not going to lie, it was incredibly difficult to actively face my fear bit by bit, to stare it right in the face and say ‘but I’m ok, I’m safe’. But it worked!
On the very last day of my therapy, I sat in a room with my therapist next to me and watched a video (with audio) of a person vomiting. Years ago, this would have induced panic attacks, made me isolate myself from the outside world, and triggered suicidal thoughts. But as a result of that experience, I can now watch a TV series and (providing I know that a difficult scene is coming up) watch something triggering without being all-consumed by it. I can walk past a pile of sick in the street without immediately having a panic attack. I can read about an outbreak of norovirus and not want to kill myself.
Yes, I still have bad days. I still sometimes relapse and have anxiety attacks, but recovery from anything – including a phobia – is not linear. It takes time, it takes a lot of effort, and it’s bloody tiring but my God it’s worth it! If you take anything away from this post today, please let it be this: a phobia is not a life sentence. You can learn to manage it, you can get your life back, and you can look it right in the eye and live to tell the tale.
If you want to know more about what it’s like to live with the condition, ‘Geek Magnifique’ by Melissa Boyle comes out this October. Pre-order it from Trigger now!