I asked my second-grade teacher to go to the nurse because my stomach hurt. She told me to try and use the bathroom, maybe I just had to go #2. I came back to class defeated right on time for the fire drill. We were almost at our class’s spot outside when I tried desperately to grab the attention of any adult. My teacher abandoned her line leader duties to grab my forearm and pull me down to the nurse. I told the receptionist I threw up twice. Once on the blue line of the blacktop, once by the water fountains at the entrance to the lunch court.
I have spent years replaying this moment over and over in my head. Is this the moment my phobia started? Was it her reaction? Was it how I felt? Did I even feel anxious back then? That brings us to today. I’m almost 21 years old and I can remember not only every single time I’ve vomited but every single time I’ve seen other people vomit. For over half of my lifetime, I’ve had emetophobia: an irrational fear pertaining to vomit.
I was reminded of my phobia when writing a review of Triangle of Sadness which features a less-than-pleasant vomit scene. As I wrote, I couldn’t help but ask myself if it was my phobia that got in the way of my enjoying the Cannes festival feature. As I continued writing the review, it became clear that my strong distaste for the movie was, in fact, due to my phobia. Perhaps before I can finish the Triangle of Sadness article, I should try to explore the experience of my phobia.
Emetophobia is a rare condition that affects about .1% of the population. The fear of vomiting is much more common. That stomach drop and terror when a kid in your elementary school class threw up during school is probably nothing more than a fear of vomiting. Avoiding any circumstance in which something could possibly cause you to throw up… that might be emetophobia. It forces the most level-headed people to abandon rationality.
I didn’t begin treatment for four or five years after developing the phobia when I was about 12. At that point, there was a fleeting moment when I thought I was getting over it. I stopped having panic attacks, I could see others throw up without batting an eye, and I could run around and have fun the way I did before the phobia. The progress stopped when I threw up at age 12. I regressed so far back into my phobia that it was impossible to hide it from anyone.
Today, I am thankful to have the privilege of getting treatment. But, it did take a lot of time to get over the resentment I felt toward my parents for not helping me sooner. At age 20, I’ve accepted that I will probably never get over this phobia. The treatment for phobias is CBT centered. CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy which is a restructuring of thought processes and behaviors. CBT for phobias includes a lot of exposure therapy. And I mean a lot. When I started, I couldn’t even look at google images of vomit. By now I’ve pretty much graduated from exposure therapy and can proudly say that I am more desensitized to vomit in the media (Triangle of Sadness excluded) than the average person.
Obviously, exposure aids in overcoming the phobia, but it can be exhausting to face your fear. Despite my incredible doctors and years of therapy, I am still far from conquering the phobia. When it comes to real-life throw-up, I am still avoidant. In high-risk situations, all I can think about is who is going to throw up, when that might be, and how I can predict it so accurately that I would be able to remove myself from the scenario. I can’t desensitize myself because my brain, and subsequently my body, won’t even let me throw up when I feel sick. This is something I still struggle with to this day. The rational parts of me are in constant conflict with the irrationality of my phobia, causing daily internal turmoil. Despite my therapy, I still can’t bring myself to go on boats, and I staunchly avoid eating until I’m stuffed due to the rare possibility it leads to throwing up. I make sure all food is scorched to affirm that I won’t get food poisoning. I wash my hands raw during stomach flu season. There is a duality to my existence that, despite all my growth and progress, still exists.
Now, I’m anti-pity-party when it comes to my phobia, but truthfully, it is mentally and physically exhausting. No words can express how it affects my mind. I haven’t gone a single day without thinking about vomiting in some capacity as long as I can remember. It’s caused greater social, emotional, and eating problems than any child should have to grapple with.
That being said, there is beauty that has come out of it. Years of therapy have taught me how to emotionally regulate, and such mental growth at a young age has given me a sense of hyper-independence that most people don’t achieve until later in life. For this, I am immensely thankful.
I’m no expert in phobias, but existing in this space for so long has given me a perspective that can’t be described by academic journals and studies. It’s not something I want to be an advocate for, but it is something I wish more people knew about. I have a sneaking suspicion that more people struggle with emetophobia than these statistics show – it’s difficult to come to terms with a phobia and report it. If there is any takeaway from this, it’s that phobias are much more complex than we think. If you’re reading this and feel like you might be struggling with a phobia, just know there is a whole community out there with phobias who want to share their experiences. I know it’s cheesy to say, but you really aren’t ever alone in this world. And if this article resonates with you in any way, I encourage you to try exposure therapy! Below are some emetophobia resources that helped me feel less alone when I started my own recovery.
When A Child’s Anxiety Takes Over (Book)
Facing Your Fear (TedTalk)
Lessons Learned from Emetophobia (TedTalk)