I Have Emetophobia
Words by Olivia Wickstrom
The first time I recognized my fear as panic I was 21 years old. I was living in Portland and had booked a last-minute weekend trip to visit a friend in Minneapolis. I was nervous— I hadn’t seen this friend for two years, and the last time I saw him we were still dating. I wanted everything to be perfect: my meticulously planned outfits, my lacy lingerie, the stories I’d tell from the past year I’d spent living in Scotland.
On the plane ride over a girl two seats behind me got airsick, very airsick. The flight attendants had to close one of two restrooms on the plane because it was covered in vomit. As soon as I registered what was happening my stomach coiled, my chest clenched. I felt trapped in my own body. I was so close to her. Was it the stomach flu? Could I get sick by breathing the same air? How long would it take until I started feeling symptoms?
“Welcome to Minneapolis,” the flight attendant chimed sweetly overhead. I turned my phone on and furiously typed my absurd questions into Google. According to WebMD, I had 24-48 hours until the symptoms of Norovirus set in. I was debilitated by fear, worried it would hit at the most inconvenient of times— when we were out at dinner, or walking alongside the Mississippi river. I barely ate that trip and went through two bottles of Pepto Bismol pills, convinced that at any second I would reel over, panicked at any and every sensation that approached my stomach whether it be hunger, or anxiety-induced nausea.
Emetophobia is defined as “a disproportionate fear of vomiting or other people vomiting… and is generally associated with an overwhelming sense of losing control, becoming very ill, or that others will find them repulsive.” Most people dislike the act, in fact 8.8% of the population consider it something they fear. But emetophobia is different, only 0.1% of the population suffer from this unease. So what makes this phobia different from the average person’s fear of illness? An emetophobic’s fear significantly impacts and controls their life. We avoid activities and environments that might expose us to or induce vomiting. And because the act is so unpredictable, emetophobics are constantly on guard, avoiding and rearranging to escape any possibility of being exposed to the fluid.
I avoid using public restrooms, and when I have to use them, I listen to music through headphones afraid that I’ll hear someone sick in the neighboring stall. I became a vegetarian when I was 16 because I was convinced I’d be less likely to get food poisoning with the diet. I don’t want to have kids because I’m fearful of the morning sickness it could cause. Honestly, I can’t pinpoint what actually scares me about the act of being sick. It may be the lack of control, the fear that I’ll start and never stop, or perhaps it’s just the unfamiliarity (what do I even do if it happens). All I know is that my mind associates the act with doom, complete and overwhelming doom.
I hate this fear, I despise it, I imagine how easy my life would be without it. Yet, I’m terrified to seek help. What if they force me to overcome it with exposure therapy, what if that makes my phobia worse, (and in the most extreme of panic attacks) what if I die?
I never talk openly about my emetophobia, the few times I have I’ve been met with criticism. People scoff, brush it under the rug, “Just don’t worry about it,” they say. If only those around me could experience the mania inside when the panic begins— the terror in my mind, the booming in my chest, the tension in my limbs. I can’t not worry about it, it’s my subconscious, it’s my abnormally high resting heart rate. It’s my life.
I try convince myself that my phobia is not stupid, despite what others say, because my phobia is very real. It’s real enough to affect my livelihood, courage, and well-being. I want to talk openly about my anxiety, instead of living a distressed and suppressed existence. I want to talk openly about my anxiety, instead of pretending it’s some unspoken punishment I deserve. I might never be over my emetophobia, but I can be candid and honest about it, and that might be enough to help change my life.
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About the Author:
Olivia Wickstrom is a writer living in Minneapolis, MN. Skilled in travel & culture journalism and creative non fiction, she is passionate about inspiring others to explore and question new ideas, social constructs, and the world around them.