Several years ago, I collapsed next to a bin in Gatwick airport, overwhelmed by panic. People milled around nearby as I dissolved into myself. I felt like I’d come full circle, sealed myself shut: I couldn’t drink bottled water, let alone eat.
Like everyone’s childhood, mine had abiding themes. I loved the sea and the creatures that inhabited it, drawing mechanically similar dolphins on any available surface. I turned words over and over in my head like stones, attempted poetry, and aspired to be an ornithologist. But the thing that probably remained the most constant was my persistent fear of vomiting.
The fear of vomiting — emetophobia, apparently — runs so deep in me that I think it has shaped my version of reality. That might sound over the top, but I have spent my entire life honing the art of avoiding vomiting, or anything related to it.
Here’s an example: Home Alone, the film. I was so traumatised by the vomiting in that film that I refused to watch any films that we were shown at school. I distinctly remember sitting in an empty classroom, attempting to summon some enthusiasm for crayons, while all my classmates watched something next door. Fun, no. But effective.
If you’ve told me a story about vomiting, I probably remember it. I remember all the times I’ve seen someone vomit, partially because I go to extreme lengths to avoid being in that situation: someone near Oxford Circus, chundering into a shoe box; another leaning by the turnstile at Belsize Park, spraying out load after load, while the ticket officer rubbed his back; several people projectile vomiting in Stoke Newington; a child getting off a bus, someone my age I passed in the early hours of the morning… I know you well. I think of you often.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t vomited. I have: most recently I got sick from a Portuguese river and threw up all over a cabin, some rocks, and a lot of vegetation. It wasn’t that bad. I sat under the stars, wrapped in a blanket, waiting for my stomach to empty itself again while I stared at the remarkably clear sky. I felt thankful for the time spent outside in the peaceful night; I was surprised by the remarkable strength of my abdominal muscles.
I might vomit, and it probably won’t be that bad. But that doesn’t explain it.
My experience is more persistent nausea as a response to being in the world. When I was younger (I’m 27) I was a Satre fan (I know), but I didn’t — and haven’t — read Nausea. Then, as now, it sounds like the worst thing that could possibly befall a person: being nauseous, all the time, because, well, ontological doubt or whatever.
Ironically — or not — that did happen to me. First it came in bouts, during stressful periods; then it would be days, when I would have to subsist on a diet of bland, starchy, processed foods; then it was permanent.
It’s hard to describe what that was like.