Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ugh, I could just puke...

Have I mentioned before that I have a little problem with emetophobia?

I'm pretty sure I have, actually.

Still don't know what it is, hm? Well, here's a definition for you:

EMETOPHOBIA (from Wikipedia)
Emetophobia is a fear or anxiety pertaining to vomiting. This specific phobia can also include subcategories of what causes the anxiety, including a fear of vomiting in public, a fear of seeing vomit, a fear of watching the action of vomiting or fear of being nauseated.

The root word for emetophobia is “emesis,” from the Greek word emein which means “an act or instance of vomiting” with “-phobia” meaning “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.”

Emetophobia is not limited by age or maturity level. There are cases of emetophobia present in children, adolescents, as well as adults.


For me, all of the above applies. I experience major anxiety and fear at the thought of throwing up myself, and at the thought of anyone around me throwing up. I can't see it, hear it, smell it or even KNOW that it's happening anywhere around me, even just on t.v. or in a movie, without instantly feeling nauseous myself. I experience major anxiety and fear at the thought of being vomited on, of possibly vomiting when I'm away from home (whether at work, traveling, out shopping, driving around, etc.), and of having to clean up vomit - mine or anyone else's.

So, pretty much anything related to vomit or vomiting freaks me out. ANYTHING.

What happens when something triggers my phobia?

My palms sweat. My mouth waters. My stomach instantly starts churning even as all my muscles clench up in anxiety. My mind and my pulse both start racing. I can't breathe. I instantly feel sick. And if it happens to be triggered in the evening or during the night, I cannot - CANNOT - sleep once this reaction starts, no matter how dead-tired I might be.

Why am I writing about this again? Because this is one of those stories from my month in virtual absentia that I promised a week or so ago. And because I want to try to help people understand this better, because there are a surprising number of people who have this phobia.

Most of the people who are near and dear to me know about my "little problem" with vomit, but the problem is that I think the majority of them think of it that way - that it's just a silly little quirk of mine and that I "just don't like" vomit or getting sick. And I've unfortunately helped perpetuate that by joking around about it and poking fun at myself over it, in an attempt to not seem CRAZY. But that just makes others think that it's not that bad.

Only it IS that bad. It's worse than "that bad."

And it seems to get even worse over time, not better.

It's embarrassing. Really, horrifyingly embarrassing. Because it's so unusual and most people don't understand it, because they can't relate to it.

As a result of that, there have been a few people who've ridiculed me over it. Which only makes me feel even more humiliated and embarrassed about it.

Thankfully, and surprisingly enough, I've come across about a half dozen others who share my phobia of vomit and vomiting, and they all seem to have it just as bad as I do. That's comforting for me - and for them - to know, because this is such a bizarre and - at times - isolating phobia.

Why do I say that it's "isolating?" Because so few people really do understand it, and because it has actually caused me to avoid going to certain places and being around people, and - more specifically - it has caused me to leave places and people I care very much about. Which leads me to one of my stories from December that I wanted to share.

Super Man, Super Boy and I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning at home this year for the first time since Super Boy was born (we usually travel to be with my family or Super Man's family, but we put our collective foot down on the subject this year and insisted on staying home). It was a lovely experience, and we had a nice, peaceful time.

We had plans to travel to my parents' house on Christmas afternoon, where we'd stay for the long weekend, along with my sister and her family. That was all fine, in theory.

However, I'd been hearing for weeks about the vicious stomach illness making its way around our geographic area, and it was in the back of my mind going into the holidays, wondering if my sister's family was healthy considering we were all going to be staying in close proximity for 4 days and our 5-year-old sons would be playing the whole time (and then picking their noses, sticking their hands in their mouths, etc.).

Now, my sister knows that puke freaks me out, so when we last emailed before Christmas, she casually mentioned that she was glad they were all healthy going into the holiday, which put my mind at ease. I was excited to see them, and happy to know that everyone was in good health.

Then we got to my parents' house. The first day and night were fine. But the next day, my brother-in-law kept saying that his stomach felt "off."

Now I should mention that my brother-in-law has some issues: he's obesely overweight, he eats a lot of fried & fatty foods and junk, and he's diabetic to top it off. And while I'd observed him drinking several regular sodas and eating a lot of cookies and chocolates on Christmas afternoon and evening and early the next day, he certainly wasn't eating as much as he usually does. So I was paying close attention when he said his stomach was "off."

To make matters worse, my stomach was feeling "off" that day, too, so I was already anxious that maybe I had picked up the stomach virus and brought it to the family gathering myself. Throughout the day I nibbled here and there, and avoided anything that would really get my stomach going, just in case. And as the day went on, I actually found myself feeling a little better. I honestly think that, for me, it was just that I had eaten A LOT on Christmas Day, which I'm really not used to doing, and my body was having a tough time keeping up!

But it was obvious that my brother-in-law was feeling WORSE as the day went on. He was sleeping a lot, in the bathroom a lot, and he kept saying he really wasn't feeling well. He sat down to dinner with us (pizza), only to get up and leave the table halfway through to use the bathroom. A long while later, he emerged. I asked if he was sick sick, and he said, "Not yet."

Uh-oh...

My stomach was starting to churn and clench. I was already thinking of packing up and leaving, just to be safe, but the practical side of me - who loves my family and wanted to spend time with them, as planned - told me to chill out and deal with it.

That was all fine and good. Until 9:45pm when my brother-in-law came bolting out of their bedroom (right across the hall from our bedroom, where I was trying to get Super Boy to sleep) and ran into the bathroom (which is right next door to our bedroom) and started loudly throwing up.

Oh. My. God.

My heart started pounding, my mouth started watering like a faucet, and my stomach was a giant knot. I couldn't breathe. I could hardly think. I felt a sudden urge to vomit. It was AWFUL. (God, just writing about it now is making me feel sick!)

I knew there was NO WAY I was going to be able to stay there, sleeping in that bedroom right next to the bathroom, where I was going to have to listen to my brother-in-law be sick all night long.

It just wasn't gonna happen. No way, no how.

I wouldn't be able to sleep, I'd feel sick all night, and I'd be lucky if I didn't make myself sick from the anxiety (I've been known to do that before, sadly). So I did what I had to do.

Within a span of about 15 minutes, I managed to single-handedly pack up ALL of our crap - clothing, toiletries, presents, winter gear. I loaded up the minivan, got Super Boy out of bed and into his car seat and woke Super Man from his "nap" on the couch. And we hit the road to drive the hour and a half back to our house.

At 10:00 at night, in a dense fog advisory.

As all of this was unfolding, my sister came running into our bedroom to tell me that she was going into "the hot zone" (jokingly referring to the bathroom where her husband had puked his guts out) to clean everything - with bleach - so I could rest a little easier. She tried to assure me that her husband is the type who gets sick once and is then fine, and that she didn't think he'd be up all night puking.

She was trying to make it okay so I'd stay.

Only she couldn't make it okay. Hell, I couldn't even make it okay. Because once my phobia is triggered and my mind starts down that path, I just need to get away from whatever is triggering it.

I started bawling. She started bawling. My mom - the only one who really seems to understand just how bad my phobia is - watched all of this with a look of sadness, because she knew there was no way I could stay and "be okay," and she knew my sister would feel awful and guilty about us leaving, even though it wasn't her fault, or her husband's fault, or ANYONE'S fault.

We drove home, in the dense fog, at 10 o'clock at night. We got in to our house just after midnight. Thankfully, I was able to follow a UPS truck the entire time we were on the interstate, so even though the fog was really BAD, I was able to stay on the road by following the truck ahead of us.

I was exhausted, mentally and physically. But once we were in our own home, near our own bathrooms, my stomach finally unclenched and my mind relaxed a little bit. At least if we ended up sick, too, we'd be in our own home where there were enough bathrooms for all of us and we didn't have to pray that one was open when we needed it. I knew I wasn't going to have to listen to my brother-in-law puke all night.

And I felt a profound and ashamed sense of sadness for having left my family after just one day over something as silly as my brother-in-law having a stomach bug.

That's the thing: I KNOW how silly this seems to others - hell, it even seems silly to me when I'm finally able to stop and look at the situation from a rational point-of-view. The problem is that when my phobia is triggered, all rationality and reason disappear: All that exists is a strong and overpowering desire to flee as far from the source as I can get.

And isn't that the case with all phobias? All you can think of is how to avoid the object of your terror. Whether it's spiders, or flying, or bridges, or drowning, or public speaking... it's all about avoidance.

Unfortunately, where a vomit phobia is concerned, it's so unpredictable that you simply can't proactively avoid its triggers - you can only react to them and try to mitigate them as much as possible after the fact. Which sucks.

If there was anything I could do to "get over" this phobia, I would do it. Unfortunately, the unpredictability of it - and the fact that very few studies have been done on this particular phobia - makes it very difficult to treat effectively. A few of the other people I know with emetophobia (all women, interestingly enough) have tried things like hypnosis, but it didn't help. If you think about it, when people have a fear of flying, they can gradually be desensitized to it through gradually increased exposure; but you can't really DO that with emetophobia because you can't control when or where someone is going to vomit (unless you deliberately MAKE them sick, but who wants to go through THAT?!?).

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia's explanation of emetophobia really hits the nail on the head in a number of areas. They say that a lot of women with emetophobia will avoid pregnancy - or they have a great fear of pregnancy - because of the risk of morning sickness. And I will be the first to tell you that the ONE THING I fear about the idea of getting pregnant again is going through the horrible weeks of nausea I felt when I was pregnant with Super Boy. And I even consider myself LUCKY because I didn't actually vomit when I had morning sickness with Super Boy - who knows if I would be that "lucky" again with a second pregnancy! Surprisingly enough, it IS a risk I'm willing - and happy - to take. THAT'S how badly I want another child. ;)

Wikipedia also mentions that this phobia can severely interfere with a person's ability to live their life normally. It can affect their career, it can make travel virtually impossible, and it can even lead to anorexia or overly strict eating habits. I can absolutely relate to all of that.

Where career is concerned, when I was pregnant with Super Boy I was working full-time, and I was constantly afraid that my nauseous morning sickness would eventually become vomiting morning sickness while I was at work. The good news is that my cubicle happened to be right outside a bathroom, which was one of three in the general area. The bad news is that it was often occupied - along with the other two bathrooms - and then I'd feel anxious if my nausea was particularly bad and there wasn't an open bathroom "just in case." I kept a little bucket in my car for my drive to and from work, "just in case." (I still keep a bucket in my car, because I'm always afraid that Super Boy or Super Girl will get sick in my van.) When after a few weeks my boss finally said, "You look AWFUL - go work from home so you can be comfortable," I came damn close to kissing him with gratitude. I felt so much better knowing I was in my own home, near my own bathroom, in the event I did start vomiting with my morning sickness. I should also mention that I sought medical relief from my nausea sooner rather than later, too, after losing 5 lbs. in a week due to the nausea destroying my appetite.

Where travel is concerned, I absolutely obsess about this before and during every single trip I take, whether by car, plane, train or boat. I hate riding in backseats of cars because I've come to feel more and more motion sick the older I've gotten. I have to drive or ride in the front passenger seat, and I can't read while in the car anymore, again because of motion sickness. When I fly, I have to take Dramamine because the side-to-side motion of the plane makes me feel sick. And I always worry that someone around me will be vomiting from motion sickness, so I have to have my iPod or something in my ears to block out sound, just in case. I'm a wreck every time we fly with Super Boy in fear that he'll get motion sick, but so far, so good (knock on wood). I've only taken the train once, and while it was okay, the bathroom situation is similar to an airplane, which sucks. Surprisingly, the motion of the train didn't bother me, so that was a plus. Lastly, I've been on exactly ONE cruise in my life - and I'd never do it again. I took Dramamine around the clock and STILL had horrible nausea at nighttime. I would never again pay that kind of money to go sit on a boat and feel sick for several days when I could just as easily go somewhere ON LAND and NOT feel sick.

As for anorexia and strict eating habits, I've never been anorexic, although I was always very thin growing up and my parents and my doctor asked me about eating disorders more than once. I think the issue for me was more that I was afraid to try new foods "just in case," so I stuck to the few things I knew I liked and that didn't make me sick. Thankfully, I've branched out a LOT as an adult - I even eat things like sushi (and I do so happily, at that!) - and I'm definitely not "very thin" today! But I am vigilant about washing my produce, and I won't eat leftovers that are more than two days old, or food that has been left sitting out, etc.

I've had people ask me what I think caused my emetophobia, and I do have a few theories - but I'm going to save those for another post. This post has gotten crazy-long, and I don't want your brain to explode all because of me and my little vomit phobia. There's plenty to mull over right here! Next time I'll also write more about how I REALLY deal with it when Super Boy is vomiting, or when I myself am sick. Suffice it to say that my mom plays a big part in BOTH of those topics.

How's that for a little foreshadowing and mystery?

So... do you all think I'm a crazy FREAK now? If you do, rest easy - you're not alone. :) But I hope that you don't. I hope it just helps you understand me a little bit better.

You know - so that if we're ever out in public together and someone pukes near us and I bolt from the vicinity white-faced, hyperventilating and shaking like a leaf, at least you'll know why. And that it's not you I'm running from.

Unless you're the puker, of course. Then I'm running as far and as fast as my legs can take me. (Sorry.)

If anyone knows of any good treatments to desensitize someone with emetophobia, I'm all ears. If any of YOU are emetophobes, please know that I'm here for you and I GET IT!

Thanks for reading. And for not thinking I'm a crazy freak.

XOXO
SW

7 comments:

  1. OH. MY. GOD.

    How awful. *hugs*

    Question: how do you handle pukey babies? And if you tell me SuperBoy never spit up or puked as an infant I may have to beat you. I am already green with ENVY knowing you virtually no morning sickness. I was NOT so lucky. But I will spare you the gorey details. ;)

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  2. WS: OMG, Super Boy ABSOLUTELY was a spitter-upper! Heck yes! But for some reason, I processed that very differently - it didn't really bother me much at all. Maybe because I knew he wasn't SICK and wasn't going to get ME sick just by spitting up breastmilk or formula after feeding. HOWEVER, the handful of times he got stomach bugs as a baby/toddler were HELL because he inevitably puked all over me each and every time. And THEN I'd freak. Stay tuned to my next post about emetophobia for more on that. ;)

    Thanks for reading AESW!

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  3. You know what this post almost makes me want to do, don't you?

    :)

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  4. Wow. I've never heard of this before -- and I cannot imagine how hard that must be. I mean, usually the treatment for a phobia is to face the fear, right? Afraid of airplanes? Watch them, go to the airport, board them, fly, etc. How do you cure THIS?

    Hang in there, for lack of something better to advise. :)

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  5. Amy! You know I also suffer from this very real phobia. Last night I was waiting for Megan to get done with ballet and a girl ran out from a studio and RAN full force to the bathroom with her mom calling after her to see is she was ok. I went into full panic mode and almost passed out. A few minutes later the girl came out of the restroom laughing and running again...she only ran to hurry up, not because she was sick. The relief I felt was overwhelming, but I was still jittery all night. Anyway, I feel your pain, Amy!! Thanks for writing about our "condition" so eloquently!

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  6. Oh, Angie - you KNOW I feel your pain! ;)

    It's amazing: Since I posted this and started talking about it with other women in my life at my monthly bunko group tonight, I've realized just how little people know and understand about this particular phobia. Most of the women I discussed it with tonight were very curious about it, but also very understanding, even thought they've never experienced a fear of this particular issue.

    It just feels SO GOOD to finally speak openly about this and be able to admit to it, rather than feeling a need to try to hide it from everyone.

    Turns out that MOST people are phobically (is that a word...?) afraid of SOMETHING. My phobic fear just happens to be of vomit/vomiting. ;)

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  7. I think a lot of people have anxieties and phobias that they just won't admit to, or talk about with anyone. I have massive anxiety about my face being red, and when I think it's happening, well what do you think happens? My face turns red, and then someone asks me why my face is turning red, and I say, I really don't know, if just happens, and that it really bothers me that it happens, and when they point it out, it gets worse because I'm worrying about then. It happens all the time, and not because I'm nervous or anxious or embarrassed, it can happen any time. So, I feel for you!

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