This blog entry is super personal and contains details that I may have never told anyone before. Only my family and closest friends know about my phobia. Only two of my closest friends have any knowledge of how debilitating it was.
Have you ever heard of emetophobia - the fear of vomiting? I didn't know it was a real thing until I was a teenager, though I struggled with it for over half of my life. When I have told some people about it, they say, "Yeah, I hate throwing up too." I just drop it because I don't want to sound crazy. The phobia drove my life for years and years, affecting all aspects of it. It was much more than "hating it".
It started when I was about 10, which is typical for emetophobes. A traumatic experience causes fear and emetophobia develops as a way of coping with (and creating) anxiety for years to come. I don't know how much money my mom and I spent collectively on all the Pepto Bismal I consumed all those years. I used to take it daily. Sometimes multiple times daily. After every meal I felt nauseous. Sometimes I could control myself. Other times it blew up into a full-fledged panic attack, with my body shaking violently because of the surge of adrenaline. It always happened privately. I dragged my mom into it constantly and I will never understand her patience with me. She got frustrated, sure, and she would sometimes make it known. But she always stood by me and never abandoned me when I had those panic attacks.
Violent panic attacks like these happened on a regular basis too. Sometimes everyday, sometimes every week. I began to try to find ways to cope. I always carried around a huge purse. No one knew what I carried in it. If they were to look inside, they would think, "Oh, she's such a kid. I'm glad she's taking her time growing up." But everything inside was a coping mechanism. I had gum, mints, Silly Putty, a Cat's Cradle string, pens, nail polish, lotions, toothpaste, and others. Gum and mints gave me something to focus my attention to. A non-offensive flavor that would provide focus. Silly Putty gave me something to squeeze and to focus sensations on. I tried to ignore the sensations of nausea by filling my mind with other sensations. Feelings, tastes, smells, and mental tasks.
I hated going out to eat. I was terrified of food poisoning. The question I always asked my mom was, "Is this cooked enough? Will it make me sick if I eat it?" After I finished my meal, I immediately excused myself to the restroom to deal with a panic attack (either preventing it or letting it play out, if it was too late) and out came my bag of tricks. I was a skinny kid. I was so afraid that people would assume I was bulimic the way I disappeared after every meal.
It affected everyday life. If you google phobias, almost any phobia in fact, you will find a pseudo-religiosity to it. People form rituals to cope. They fear that breaking rituals will cause their phobia to occur. I'm not sure if I had any like that, per se. But I remember it interfering in ways that go beyond fear and edge into control. Occasionally throughout the day I remember thinking, "If I don't _________, I'm going to get sick". They weren't rituals. There was no regularity to what this phrase was applied to. But things that had nothing to do with being sick were associated with that fear. I felt that I had to do things in a certain amount of time or a certain way or I was doomed.
I remember grotesque would-you-rather scenarios would pop into my mind. Would you rather get sick or (insert something clearly worse here)
Strange thing about emetophobia... If you Google it, you will find that research shows that people with emetophobia vomit far less often than most people. I found the average for non-emetophobes to be about 2 times a year. For emetophobes it varies, but I believe the average was around once every 12 years. What's ironic about the phobia is that we have fear because we believe we can prevent it. And guess what? We pretty much can. People used to ask why I would waste time being afraid about something I can't control. Well, I can control it. And if you ask most emetophobes, they would much rather be emetophobic and deal with this crippling fear that interferes with daily life than to not have it and throw up. That's just true.
On another note, something I always used to find really strange about myself is that I couldn't burp. I burped maybe twice a year and before it happened, I thought I was going to be sick. I haven't known anyone else in person who can't burp. I taught others how to make themselves burp, but I couldn't do it. When I googled "inability to burp", I found others who couldn't, and even more strangely... I found a solid connection to emetophobia. Burping and vomiting both involve the same flap of skin over the esophagus or throat or something. Anyway, as it turns out, people who can't burp experience more nausea on a regular basis than the typical population. This is because all of the gas gets trapped inside and has a longer route to be released, which means you are carrying it in you. Eating more food would aggravate it and make it more uncomfortable and nauseating.
People who are emetophobic control this unknowingly. In fact, after years, they may not know how to relinquish that control. I tried to burp for years and it wasn't able to happen.
I remember starting public high school after being homeschooled. I wasn't afraid of the people. At all. I was terrified of feeling nauseous or having a panic attack or actually being sick at school. Over the years, the daily fear started to go away. It become a bi-weekly or monthly occurrence. I had panic attacks very infrequently. By this point, I knew it was mostly in my head. I still felt nauseous and awful, but I knew I wouldn't be sick, which made it easier to deal with. Only two of my close friends from high school knew about my phobia. Both of them found out by accident. One when I freaked out on her in the middle of a panic attack.
It wasn't until college when I began to feel the fear being erased rather than simply being diminished. Part of it was having multiple times of feeling so sick that I wanted to throw up (something I had never experienced before nor imagined was possible). But the biggest event that happened took place at a University Ministries leadership retreat. I opened up to one of my close friends about my phobia, my regular stomach issues (only loosely related to the phobia), and even my inability to burp.
What happened still doesn't make sense to me. Then again, none of this is "rational". She talked to me about God's love driving out fear. Yeah, I'd known that verse since I was a kid. I'd never thought about it in terms of my phobia though. She talked to me about how easy it is to believe God loves us, so far as we can comprehend it. She talked about how we need to truly trust God's love as incomprehensible. Greater than what we comprehend. Not just know it, but accept it. How much freedom there is in that. We talked in general terms about fear. Of my friends, she's the only one who knew about how my phobia occasionally turned into a battle between God and Satan in my mind. As ridiculous and untrue as I see that being now, it speaks to how much of my faith was influenced by fear.
I tried to control my fear. I could keep myself from throwing up, so I had control. Yet, my phobia controlled me. I didn't know whether I was serving God in my fear or whether I was serving my own phobia. I don't think it's my "fault" that I developed the phobia. I don't think God was angry with me or was thinking, "Why doesn't she just trust me?" It was its own thing that in a way became its own little religion or the lens through which I saw my own God. And man, I saw Him wrongly through that fear.
My friend prayed for me, for my stomach, for my fear, and for my inability to burp (which I had to fight to keep from laughing out loud at). By this point, my phobia was already nearly gone, but its effects on my faith and perception of God still had a residual presence. She prayed that I would truly believe and accept God's love being larger than I could imagine it. That I wouldn't accept only as much as I could imagine, but that I would accept more. I don't really know what happened. But that night I burped. I got excited, then figured "Well, this is probably one of my twice a year burps." Then it happened again the next day. A few times.
I know this is weird. But I can burp now. And it makes a difference in my day to day life. My phobia has slowly dissipated over the years and it hasn't effected my day-to-day life in years. I might even say I don't have that phobia anymore. But being freed to burp has been *huge*. This is one of those stories I don't tell people either. Some don't believe in healing. Some think it's offensive to think of God healing this when he doesn't heal other things. I don't know if God divinely stepped in to heal me in this or not. At the very least, I believe that my trust in Him opened up something in me. Was it physical? Mental? Spiritual? Yeah, something like that.
The whole story of my phobia and my getting over it is so interesting to me. I still don't know when I began to get over my fear. High school was probably the start. It wasn't until my second year of college that I truly began to feel real freedom. It wasn't until that last year that I experienced that healing, if you want to call it that. This whole experience shows me how the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of a person are really closely related. And how closely fear and control are related. There's a whole lot more to examine there. May blog about that another time in more general terms (separate from this story).
I still occasionally have times where I have to fight off what I know could become a panic attack. I still don't swallow pills. I still chew my food way too long and eat too slowly. I still know and occasionally use coping tactics if I think I'm descending to a fear-driven place in my mind. But I know what it is happening. I know what is true. Some of these things may be permanent - like eating slowly. But the fear doesn't have to be. In fact, it is not.
Thanks for indulging this blog that is so focused on me. It is a place of vulnerability that I have not shared with people pretty much ever. Again, close friends, roommates who had to know, and my poor wonderful family who stood with me in it (especially my mom - shout out to her, any response but hers I am certain would have made the phobia worse). Here it is, public. Maybe someone with emetophobia will stumble upon it and be encouraged that there is hope. Many people with emetophobia never know life without that crippling fear. And many people have it even worse than I did. I hope they too may find freedom.