Hi, I’m Sally and I have a phobia of being sick, or to use the proper, medial term I suffer with Emetophobia. If you know me you will probably have no idea I struggle so much with this, I’ve got pretty good at hiding it over the years. If you’re my husband, a close family member or a very close friend you’ll be well aware of how much this has affected me over the years and how it still affects me now – although I’m now much better at dealing with it.
It started when I was about 14 and in high school, a friend of mine asked me if I was ok because I looked pale. This triggered something in me which had obviously been there, underlying, waiting to come out. I panicked, OMG I was pale, I was almost certainly coming down with a sickness bug I needed to get out of there fast. I went to the school nurse complaining of feeling ill and was sent home. I spent a lot of that afternoon feeling very sick with anxiety but I wasn’t actually physically sick. From then on, out of nowhere at my young age of 14, when I was least expecting it, crippling panic would grip me. I would be out and suddenly panic that I was away from home, away from my comfort zone – what if I was sick in front of everyone – I needed to go!! At first my parents thought I was actually suffering from a bug – the only way I could describe my feelings to them was to say I felt sick. I did feel sick but it wasn’t because I was ill it was because I was having a panic attack. My panic attacks usually involve me feeling sick, weak, feeling breathless and shaking uncontrollably. All this began around Christmas time and it was easy to think that perhaps when Christmas was over things might calm down and I’d start to feel better. I didn’t…
From then on, I would still have the panic attacks and the fear of being sick began to creep into how I ate. I would avoid certain foods, worry about best before dates, how things had been cooked and whether I’d eaten something ‘bad’ without realising. I also began to eat less believing that the less that was in my stomach the less likely I’d be to throw up and I started to wash my hands excessively for fear of germs. People began to notice that I was eating less and losing weight and given my age tended to assume that it was some kind of teenage body image related eating disorder – in reality body image couldn’t have been further from my mind.
I saw the school nurse for some counselling, it didn’t really help. Mental health wasn’t so well talked about or understood at the time – I’m so grateful that things have changed now.
Probably reading this you might think I’m crazy. If ever I have tried to explain this fear to someone I’m usually met with a response along the lines of ‘Oh yes I hate being sick too’ I get that – we all hate it, it’s not nice, but this phobia – any phobia – is more than just a dislike of something it’s completely irrational. It controls your life in a scary way and that’s what makes it so difficult to explain to people. The irrational bit is of course that in the grand scheme of things vomiting is nothing. For crying out loud there are people starving out there, actually seriously ill and of course going through much worse but for me when I’m having an attack, being sick feels like it’s the worst thing in the world which in turn makes me feel pretty rubbish because how can I possibly compare this silly irrational phobia with a ‘REAL’ illness or crisis.
I could ramble on for ages about the next few years and how this phobia affected me on and off but I’m so thankful to say that with a supportive family, my Christian faith and one or two very close friends who knew what I was going through things did get much better over time and I began to live a more ‘normal’ teenage life but I still had awful flare ups of this phobia.
As I grew up the phobia would come and go and manifest itself in different ways. I struggle with crowds, I feel claustrophobic if I’m ever confined or feel trapped anywhere (flying is still a difficult one), I avoided to the best of my ability, anyone who had had a bug or going anywhere that bugs might be around. Hospitals, doctors surgeries etc.
I was terrified that I would never be able to have children even though being a mum was something I’d always wanted so much. There was the possible morning sickness, sickness in the birth not to mention how much babies and children can be ill– plus all those germy nurseries, soft plays etc I’d have to deal with.
You’ll probably know now that I have two gorgeous children – thankfully I managed not to let the phobia stop me from being a mum. I didn’t vomit AT ALL through any of it, so it is possible. I prayed A LOT through both of my pregnancies 🙂
However, I do know of people suffering from this who will go through life wanting kids but not being able to have them and it breaks my heart to think that this phobia could ruin someone’s life like that.
Having my children has actually changed me and my focus on my phobia. I have had some extremely difficult times but on the whole having my children has somehow put things a bit more into perspective for me. It’s also made me brave. I’ve done things I never thought I could have, I’ve pushed myself into situations I never thought I’d be able to be in. I’ve been to the soft plays, I’ve been there with them when they’ve been ill and I’ve coped. It was always my fear that I would run if they were ill and not be able to be there for them but I did it and I managed.
The more I push myself the more I know that I will not let this phobia beat me. It will always be there niggling at me in the background, I’ll probably always be funny about use by dates and hand washing and will probably keep my distance from you for a while if you or your children have had a bug, I’ll go vegetarian in a restaurant rather than risking how the meat has been cooked but I don’t like a lot of meat anyway so that one’s not too difficult. I’ll always keep myself ‘safe’ in my own little ways, which is why I think if you know me now you would probably never know that I suffer/suffered so much with this – or maybe reading this makes a few things about me a bit clearer, who knows! It’s true to say though that I don’t tend to talk about this unless I really have to.
I know a bit more now how to manage it and what I need to do to talk myself down. Getting outside is a major thing for me, as soon as I’m out in the fresh air and in nature I feel so much better. Having my dog has helped me a lot with my anxieties in this way too – walking him makes me get out into my happy place and feel a lot calmer. Knitting and sewing have of course been immensely helpful to me too, knitting particularly brings a sense of mindfulness to me that just brings me calm and I think it’s because my hands are busy and my mind is focussed but I can sit on the sofa and watch TV with it at the same time. I knitted through my teenage years too and it helped me so much! There’s also prayer of course, I wouldn’t manage without my faith which is probably something else I don’t talk about enough here – I’m pretty reserved without even really realising it half the time.
My husband also knows my triggers and symptoms which is a great help and he won’t pander to me if I need to be told to pull myself together which is actually more helpful than I’d like to admit sometimes.
I’m not completely over this, I probably never will be, but I know that I never want it to have control over me like it once did again and I’ll do everything I can to push myself away from it when it tries to stop me living the life I want to lead.
I would love to hear from you if you suffer or have suffered from something similar. Writing this all down has felt extremely vulnerable but also extremely empowering because I can look back and see how far I’ve come.
The best thing we can do for our mental health is to talk about it and if my story helps even one person out there to know that you can learn to deal with this then it’ll have been worth it.
Lots of love