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Emetophobia and Me

I am petrified of publishing this article. I’ve come a long way on my journey with emetophobia. A year ago, I was too scared to address it out loud. Today, I’m sharing my story publicly with you. As terrifying as this article is to write, if it can help just one individual, that’s enough to outweigh any reservations I may have. Here goes…

A phobia is broadly defined as an intense, irrational fear. In the UK, around ten million people suffer from an array of simple to complex phobias. From the age of thirteen, I have suffered from emetophobia, also known as vomit phobia. It’s a pathological fear of vomit, which manifests itself differently depending on the sufferer. It’s true, most people dislike the sick. But emetophobia is so much more than that. It’s debilitating, crippling and impossible to live with. I was terrified of being sick, seeing someone vomit and feeling nauseated. It stopped me living my own life. According to Anxiety UK, an estimated 1.7-3.1% of males and 6-7% of females suffer from emetophobia. Despite this, emetophobia remains largely undiagnosed. If you read this article and recognize any similarities between my experience and your own, I urge you to reach out and get help. Receiving therapy changed my life. 

In the twenty years of my life, I can count the number of times I’ve been sick with one hand. I can remember them all in specific detail. From the foods I ate the night prior, to the clothes I was wearing. When I was thirteen, I attended a school trip to France and Italy. Whilst there, some of the students contracted food poisoning. To prevent myself from also contracting it, I started to restrict my food intake and what I ate. At first, this felt like a rational behaviour to protect myself. But after I came home, I found myself keeping up these behaviours. At fifteen, I attended another school trip to Italy. To protect myself, I only ate plain foods which I regarded as ‘safe’ i.e. pasta, bread, rice etc. However, to my dismay, all my roommates simultaneously contracted a stomach bug.  I was petrified to be around them all. It was an unbearable situation, I constantly felt sick and on edge. I restricted my food intake even further, refused to sleep near any of them and held my hands over my ears every time I heard one of them be sick. I became obsessed with cleanliness. I was surrounded by my worst fear and couldn’t escape. After coming home, I became convinced the bug was still ‘going to get me’. It felt like a monster, always lurking around the corner. In time, my dislike of sick turned into emetophobia. If someone told me they felt sick, it would immediately make me feel sick. If one of my friends had been sick, I would refuse to be in contact with them, even if their illness had passed. If there was a scene on television that involved vomit, I would have to close my eyes. 

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Fast forward to 2018, I was in my first year of university. Up to this point, I was still performing my safety behaviours but kept them hidden from others. However, within the first few months, I felt my phobia spiralling out of control. On nights out, I was constantly confronted with people being sick. In halls, I found it hard to keep up my cleanliness behaviours. I kept finding myself adopting more extreme behaviours to keep myself ‘safe’. To my horror, one night, I became sick myself. To ‘protect’ myself, I stopped eating all the food that I’d ate the night before. After recovering, I couldn’t wear the clothes that I was sick in anymore. The television shows that I watched the night before, I could no longer watch. All of these reminded me too much of being sick.

Following this episode, my phobia and safety behaviours worsened. By 2019, in my second year of university, I was having daily panic attacks. I felt nauseous all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about vomit. It occupied my every waking thought. I stopped being able to leave the house and socialise with my friends. I stopped attending seminars and lectures. If someone said the words ‘vomit’ or ‘sick’, I would feel sick. I was constantly trapped in a loop of negative thoughts and catastrophic thinking. ‘Safe’ foods no longer reassured me. I was convinced that whatever I ate was going to come back up. I refused food and stopped eating. I lost weight, developed disordered eating patterns and became food phobic. I wasn’t living, I was barely existing. As it progressed, I was forced to admit to myself that I needed help. I put it off for a long time, but eventually told my sister. After a lot of tears, she asked me if had I thought about therapy. I knew it would be beneficial, but the thought of confronting emetophobia was terrifying. Nevertheless, I submitted a self-referral form and waited to hear back.

After a few weeks, I received a call from a therapist, who offered me Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Within a few weeks, with the help of an amazing therapist, I started to take back control of my life. We challenged my ‘fear foods’, my negative associations with vomit and traumatic memories. In time, I started eating properly again and regained weight. I stopped performing my safety behaviours and regularly started to attend university again. I stopped having panic attacks and learned ways to control my negative thoughts. It was an elating feeling, I felt in control of my life for the first time in years. I cried, a lot. I cried for everything I couldn’t say, the opportunities that I had lost and for a future free from emetophobia. As I write this, in 2020, I’ve undergone a transformation. I’m still on the road to a full recovery, but I’ve never felt better. 

All of this couldn’t be possible without the help I have received along the way. My family and friends have provided me with invaluable support, which I will be eternally grateful for. For years, I was embarrassed and humiliated by this condition. Today, I’m no longer frightened speaking out. If you are suffering, like I was, I cannot urge you enough to get help. It may seem scary initially, but it will be the best thing you will do for yourself. Emetophobia stops you living your life, don’t let it steal any more of your time. 

If you have any questions, or want to find out more, find me on Instagram: lucy_intheskyy

Photo: Lucy Sproat

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