Exposing Emetophobia

Emetophobia – fear of vomiting.

Last year, I took on one of the biggest challenges yet in my journey through recovery. I went  through exposure therapy for emetophobia. Before I go into details, here’s a little backstory.

At my worst, I was taken to an a&e department in the back of an ambulance, claiming that I would rather die than vomit. I had somehow convinced myself that I had caught the dreaded norovirus (or winter vomiting bug) and my mind had simply slipped into the dark and I couldn’t break free. It took the paramedics best levels of persuasion to even get me into the ambulance. They had to constantly reassure me that everything was clean, I wouldn’t catch the virus in the ambulance and that I would be safe there. After some time, I climbed in and sat trembling, constantly monitoring everything in sight but at the same time trying my best not to gaze at the cardboard sick bowl that was sitting on a shelf. Once in hospital, the paramedics explained my situation and I was placed into a dark room with no windows. They shut the door and I was left to panic for hours. That night, I came very close to being sectioned and all because of having this damn fear of vomit.

At my best, I was able to leave the house but the thought of catching a vomiting virus or seeing someone throw up played in a continuous loop in my head. I became a people watcher and not because it was something interesting but because I was trying to work out who was ill and who was ok. I would find myself constantly checking whether people looked particularly pale, why were they coughing, why did they touch their stomach. I would avoid children at all cost and often came across incredibly rude because I refused to shake hands with those I would meet. Friends became a thing of the past. They were harder to track. I didn’t know where they had been, who they had come into contact with before seeing me therefore it was a risk that I wasn’t prepared to take. I didn’t just monitor people, I became obsessed with every gurgle my stomach made, every ache and twinge. I could no longer watch new T.V shows or films for fear of a vomit scene. Watching Japanese horror movies was once a passion of mine but quickly became a thing I feared and avoided. Emetophobia or any phobia for that matter can be debilitating, isolating and all too consuming. People couldn’t understand it. “How can you be afraid of something the body does naturally?”. I had no idea, I couldn’t answer them. You can’t rationalise a phobia.

Last summer, five years after the a&e incident, I finally took the plunge and faced my emetophobia head on. I waited nine months to see a Clinical Psychologist with the NHS. My first session with Dr C (not their real name), was an assessment. I had to go through every bit of detail I could, be as honest as I could about what this phobia was doing to me on a day to day basis. We both agreed that exposure therapy would be the best way forward and Dr C admitted to never treating emotophobia before, so we went on this journey together. The way exposure therapy works is through a hierarchy, a ladder of scenarios that trigger anxiety from mild to ‘like hell I’m ever going to do that!’. My first step on the ladder was to sit with a photograph of a cartoon vomiting, my last step was to watch a real-world video with audio of a person vomiting. At each step, the idea was to sit with the anxiety and only once that anxiety decreases can you look away. Seeing a cartoon still of vomit might seem like a joke to some but to me it made me sweat, it made feel nauseous, it made tremble and it made my heart race. But I stuck with it. I gritted my teeth and listened to Dr C talk to me in one ear, telling me that it cannot hurt me, it is a natural process, I am ok. After that first session, I had some serious doubt that I would be able to complete this hierarchy. Coming close to a panic attack just looking at a still cartoon, how the hell was I meant to reach that final step? But you know what…I did. I dragged myself every week to the sessions, I was honest, I cried, I freaked out, I had panic attacks but I kept listening to Dr C and I kept going.

Exposure therapy is definitely not easy. It’s painful, it’s tiring, and it’s bloody scary, but for me and many others, it works! Am I cured of my emetophobia? No, but I’m getting there. Step by step, using exposure therapy in my everyday life, it is working. Sometimes being in the thick of a phobia can make you feel like life isn’t worth living. Like there is no hope and nothing can help. But it can. Emotophobia doesn’t have to control your life. It does get better, I can honestly say that.

The other week, I was watching a T.V show. A vomit scene came on, and though my stomach took a quick flip, I didn’t panic, I didn’t freak out, I didn’t dwell on it. That may seem like baby steps to some, but for me, that’s one of the biggest leaps I’ve ever taken.