This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Michelle and her struggle with emetophobia – the fear of vomit.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m 28 and live in London with my boyfriend. I work as a freelance web designer, from home, which suits me well. There’s not much I do for fun these days, because of my phobia, but I used to love traveling throughout Europe and attending gigs all over the UK.
For those of us who don’t know, can you explain emetophobia?
Emetophobia is an intense fear of vomiting. Some sufferers may only fear themselves or others vomiting, but most, including myself, seem to fear both. Many people don’t seem to understand the phobia and will say, “well, nobody likes vomiting”. Of course, it’s far from pleasant, but a phobia is far greater than a general dislike
Despite it being listed as one of the most common phobias in the world, people don’t seem to know much about it. Unlike many phobias, you can’t run away from it as you would do from, say, a spider.
When did you first begin to have trouble with this? Was there a specific incident that triggered it?
Frustratingly, I can’t pinpoint an event that triggered my phobia of vomiting. I wasn’t a sickly child and I haven’t vomited since I was five years old. Even during my childhood and teenage years, I didn’t witness someone else vomiting or experience a traumatic event which would be connected to the fear. In my twenties I became more aware of a general dislike of vomit, but it wasn’t until I lost my job just over two years ago that the phobia really took hold. I think that was because I’d grown accustomed to staying at home and not having a reason, or money, to go outdoors. So things like getting on a bus to go to a job interview felt so much harder than a commute I took daily for years.
How does this affect your daily life?
The phobia has made a huge impact on my life. I try to avoid going outdoors in case I feel nauseous or am confronted with my fear. The further I travel from my home, the more anxious I feel. Situations where I feel trapped are what I try my best to avoid – for example: bus journeys, the cinema or simply queuing in a supermarket. I can’t remember when I last traveled on a bus and I took my first train journey in seven months last weekend. I’m lucky that I work in a field which enables me to work from home, because I definitely couldn’t face a commute, never mind being trapped in an office. I can’t go out for meals, travel, shop or socialize with friends.
Have you sought treatment for it?
Yes, I went to my Doctor two years ago and told her about my phobia. She referred me for six months of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and it didn’t help a great deal, unfortunately. The therapist tried exposure therapy (looking at graphic photographs), but that left me wishing to avoid it more. I’ve been on a waiting list since May to see another therapist and have had contact with the local “crisis team” in the mean time.
My Doctor also prescribed anti-emetic medication, which I take three times a day as a preventative. Considering I haven’t vomited in 23 years, I realize how ridiculous it is to take medication I don’t actually need, but I find it reassuring.
How do the people in your life react to your phobia?
My boyfriend has been really supportive, and so have most of my friends. They seem happy to visit me and spend time with me at home, and don’t force or guilt trip me into attending their parties, etc. Although, some people in the past have accused me of picking and choosing phobic scenarios to get out of doing things I mightn’t want to do. My family try to be supportive, but i don’t think they fully understand how big a deal this phobia is and that it’s quite serious. I went for a long walk recently and they asked me if I was “cured” when I returned.
What advice would you give to someone else struggling with a severe phobia?
I would say speak to your doctor and ask to see a therapist if the phobia is really severe. It’s best to talk about it with people you are close to, and don’t let it overwhelm you or make you feel stupid. I used to feel embarrassed when I had to explain my phobia, as I’ve had Doctors tell me in the past that I’m being silly because there’s “nothing wrong” with me.
Personally, I’ve found writing a blog has helped, but I’d suggest staying away from forums about specific phobias. I found that by reading about the fears and habits of others, I took them on myself. Exposure is also important – the longer you avoid the things connected to your fear, the harder it’ll be to overcome it. Try not to become reliant on safety behaviours (like me taking anti-emetic medication, for example), because they’re hard to shake off and they keep the fear going.
If you can’t afford or wait to see a therapist and have the motivation for self-help, there’s a great book called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook
that gives you lots of information and lots of practical help.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Michelle. Do any of you struggle with life-affecting phobias?