Living With Emetophobia And How To Get Help
One writer describes what living with a phobia is really like...
Ever heard of emetophobia? Jen Leeming reveals what it’s like having a phobia, and why after 12 years it was time to get treatment...
Phobias. There’s a chance you actually might not know a whole lot about them. But that’s where I can help. I’m a long-term emetophobe, which means I have an overwhelming and very acute fear of vomiting. Being sick, seeing sick, feeling sick - the whole hog. Over the last year I’ve finally taken some steps to getting help for my phobia, so here’s the lowdown of exactly what that entails…
N.B. I am in no way an expert or medical authority. Just a person relaying their experience. Treatment (and results) can be different for everyone.
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How do you know when you’ve got a phobia?
Like the great Natasha Bedingfield once said, when you know, you know. ‘Being ‘a bit scared of something’ doesn’t come close. A phobia is an anxiety disorder and affects people in a way that is so much more than just feeling fear.
What does it feel like to have a phobia?
For me, it feels like the thing I’m most scared of. Meaning that my oh-so-clever traitorous brain makes me feel like I’m going to be sick. Actually, no. That undersells it. It completely convinces me that I’m going to be sick. Every. Single. Time.
I’m nauseous, clammy, flushed, shaky, light-headed and can’t catch my breath. It’s a fully-fledged anxiety attack with queasiness tacked on for extra fun.
After eleven years of non-vomiting (I just touched wood even writing that) I should probably have learned to recognise it as a panic attack, but that’s the thing with phobias. The symptoms are so real that I’ve never once doubted that this, THIS was the time I was legit going to be sick.
How does it affect your life?
Oh boy. Emetophobia is an absolute delight and can blossom into a whole other batch of phobias and anxieties. Over the years of tackling it untreated, it gave me:
claustrophobia (‘what happens if I feel sick in this small space?’)
hypochondria (‘oh god my stomach just twinged, what if that means I’m getting ill?’)
social anxiety (‘I can’t possibly stand up and speak in front of all these people in case I throw up’)
hardcore germophobia (‘unless I carry two bottles of hand sanitiser at all times and only eat safe food I’ll definitely get ill’)
I also developed a fully-fledged addiction to sugar free polo mints, to the extent that even going to bed without a packet nearby could send me into mental free-fall.
[This is how many polos I packed to go on holiday]
I fled meetings, ruined plans, had to get off countless tubes and trains. It changed me and the way I lived my life but I was still way too embarrassed to tell anyone.
Why did you decide to get help?
I was exhausted. Dealing with it on my own and rearranging my life around it for twelve years had finally started to get me down.
I’d always viewed getting help as some kind of failure - after all, I could handle this on my own, right? Most emetophobes are pretty much confined to their houses, can’t hold down regular jobs, don’t drink booze… I had a busy job I loved in London, a buzzing social life, so surely I was doing okay?
Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t have to ‘just manage’. Being able to do those incredibly basic things shouldn’t be a triumph - they should be normal. I genuinely believed that because I was able to get to work (even if the ten-minute journey had induced two panic attacks) I was totally on top of things. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t.
How did you get help?
Luck. It’s that simple. Everyone knows that the mental health services are massively under-funded and over-subscribed, often with huge waiting lists to even talk to someone.
I went to see my GP to talk about my anxiety and depression during a particularly bad patch and happened to mention my emetophobia. Not long after, I was contacted by the local mental health services who were running clinical trials on treating people with phobias and thought I might be a good fit.
What does the treatment involve?
SO MANY DIFFERENT THINGS. There was a lot of talking (not my forte) and working together with my therapist to tackle why I feel and act the way I do.
It also involved some exposure therapy. Brace yourselves, this is the fun part. It’s exactly what it sounds like - you’re forced to be exposed to the thing you’re afraid of, and let me tell you that it ain’t no picnic.
My therapist locked me in a toilet while she pretended to throw up. She forced me to spend more than three hours underground in the tube, refusing to let me get off. We spent one morning in a local A&E, sitting near the queasiest-looking people she could see. And that’s to name a few.
The idea is to teach you to ride the wave of anxiety, rather than fleeing from it. When that fight or flight instinct kicks in, flight might alleviate your fear more quickly, but in the long run it won’t help you get any better.
Did it work?
For me - yes. Would I say I’m completely ‘cured’? Absolutely not. I probably never will be. But I cope with my phobia so much better than I ever dreamed I could. I haven’t had a polo in nearly 18 months (which after at least a packet a day for a decade is a massive achievement). I don’t bolt off the tube at the first hint of nausea. Instead, I focus my mind, breathe deeply, and ride that horrible wave. And guess what - it does get better.
It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not fun, but I couldn’t be happier that I did it. One of the most valuable lessons my therapist taught me was rather than doing everything in my power to hide my phobia from others, telling people might just make it easier to handle. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Talking is the most important tool we’ve got in destigmatising mental health. So try opening up to someone. It could be a friend, family member, GP… it doesn’t matter. Just try it. You’re not alone in this, and it might just help.
- Words by Jen Leeming. Follow Jen on Twitter @jenrleeming.
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