January 11th: Emetophobia? What the hell is that?

The seventh installment of January guest blogs: “Your scary, crazy, amazing goal you would accomplish in 2015 if you could do absolutely ANTHING!” If you would like to participate find me on Facebook– I would love to share your story!

January 11th: Claudia: Emetophobia

Emetophobia. Ten points to anyone who knows what the hell it is. Anyone? It’s OK – I’ve met two psychologists who had never heard of it either. But I know, because I’ve been living with it for over 15 years. Ready for the answer?! It’s a fear of {drumroll, please} vomiting.

Now, I think a normal reaction would be, There’s a phobia devoted to that? Really? I mean, no one likes throwing up, but it’s just something your body naturally does — it sucks, you maybe cry and then you get over it. Unpleasant, but necessary, like a colonoscopy or happy hour with your boss. And how many times does that really come up — once, maybe twice a year?

But for me, the phobia, and its accompanying anxiety, has managed to worm its way into every facet of my life. I never drink because I’m afraid it will make me sick (I tell people I don’t like the taste of alcohol). I eat very, very little meat because I’m afraid it won’t be cooked properly and will make me sick (I say I’m veggie because I love animals, but that’s really only part of it). Everywhere I go, I have to know where all the bathrooms and exits are, and if I’m meeting people somewhere, I insist on driving myself, alone, so I have an escape. If I hear a story about someone having a stomach bug, I have to wash my hands.

It’s a bit weird writing all this down, because I’ve never spoken about this with anyone, really. But this year I want to focus on bringing anxiety disorders, and all mental illness, into the light, and why not start by speaking out myself? Here goes …

When I was a senior in college, I had a lot of shit going on. Taking 18 class hours, working 30 hours per week, planning my wedding, looking for jobs after graduation … it was overwhelming. That fall, I began having crippling episodes of nausea. It got so bad that I basically stopped eating, my rationale being that if I didn’t eat, I wouldn’t have anything in me to throw up (let’s not look too closely into my intellectual abilities, agreed?).

See, here’s the kicker — I’ve had emetophobia since childhood, I just didn’t realize it. It had lain latent in my subconscious for years. And whatever it was that was causing these bouts of nausea — I still don’t really know what started them; I assumed it was stress from college — had awoken that sleeping phobia and sent it clawing into my everyday life.

The nausea persisted, daily, and my weight plummeted until I was dangerously thin. I attributed it to college stress, but then it continued. For years. And all throughout, I willed myself not to throw up, no matter how sick I felt.

Case in point: I haven’t let myself be sick since I was 11 years old. That’s nearly 27 years.

For a long time, I muddled through. I went to a doctor, who did a ton of tests on me and found nothing physically wrong. I got worse. Because, as if the nausea wasn’t bad enough, I developed crippling anxiety as well, because I never knew when it was going to hit me, and I became paralyzed with fear that I might end up being sick IN PUBLIC (gasp!) or that people might find out I was hiding this weird phobia and terrible panic attacks (oh lord, no, we mustn’t let anyone know we’re NOT NORMAL!).

Then one day, I read an article about anxiety disorders. I found it entirely by chance, but it was like this article was speaking to me. This was something other than depression, but still just as real and debilitating. I got myself a new doctor, booked an appointment and within a week had my first real diagnosis: severe panic disorder and agoraphobia. Medication and therapy followed, and now I have some tools to help me deal with my anxiety when it does happen.

Probably the biggest lesson I learned from all this is: Don’t hide. Don’t be ashamed. It’s OK to admit when you need a minute (or an hour). Your mind screams, “But people will think you’re CRAZY!” And you just have to tell it to shut the fuck up. If people want to judge me, that’s fine. They don’t understand how utterly exhausting it can be — trying to “look normal,” to smile through your kid’s band performance even though you feel like you’re about to die, to drive them to school despite being in the grips of a panic attack because there’s no one else around to do it for you.

I hope that through my kids, I’m helping to raise a generation that is compassionate, understanding, nonjudgmental. My kids have been around my anxiety disorder their whole lives (they’re 14 and 10 now). For years I tried to hide it from them, but eventually I learned that that was doing them a disservice. They love me, they want to support me, and why not let them?

I found out just how much they really “get it” on a recent plane trip. I often don’t travel well (What if there’s turbulence? What if I have a panic attack? What if the “fasten seatbelt” light is on and some bitchy flight attendant won’t let me get up?!!), and on this day I was feeling particularly anxious. We were sitting in our seats, about to start taxiing, when my eldest, Maddie, looked over at me.

“Are you not OK?” she said.

I shook my head no. She reached out for my hand.

“Mom, just remember, everything ends eventually — this flight, your panic. It’s not forever.”

And I really felt better. All I’ve gone through — maybe it has done some good.

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