real life

What it's like to live with a pathological fear of vomiting.

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.

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It made me feel anxious, because the more nauseous I felt the more I worried that I was going to be sick. I’d end up in paroxysms of fear on an almost daily basis — at work, locked in the toilets; at home, lying on my bed — that would roll and roll, sometimes until I passed out from exhaustion. I lost afternoons, evenings, entire days to this panic, which rose and fell with its own rhythm.

I tried to cope by reducing what I ate. First I cut out things that were oily, sweet, or too flavoursome: definitely no pizza, curry, ice cream. I haven’t eaten meat in a long time, so that was already off the table, but then I started to feel uncertain about vegetables — what if they hadn’t been prepared carefully? Had they been washed? How could you sanitise something like leeks, which trap earth inside themselves, dirty bastards? What about kale, and the creatures it surely snares in its curls?

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman later, and found it described an eerie parallel with my own experience — cutting out categories of food, bit by bit, until I felt as though I’d sealed myself shut. I realised one day that I was fantasising about being fed by intravenous drip, not having to acknowledge my stomach or digestion at all. Shortly afterward, I collapsed by that bin at Gatwick.

Being vegetarian gives me a parallel to try and explain what this was like. When you first give meat up, you recognise it as tasty food — but the longer you go without eating it, the less you associate it with being tasty, or even with it being food. To me, food was food, obviously, but it wasn’t food. It was terrifying.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt greater shame than I felt when I tried to sit down and eat a meal with friends, family, my friends’ families and finding myself completely unable to. It’s such an essential thing, sharing food, and not participating in it made me feel like I was less human than I used to be. I behaved like a child — stuffing food from my mouth into napkins, pushing things solemnly around my plate.

But it’s just food that you’re a bit odd about, I’d try and console myself. You’re just a bit, you know, you’ve always been a bit strange. Looking back, it’s clear that I ignored the scope and significance of the problem for as long as I possibly could, even though it affected almost every aspect of my life. Nausea was the lens that I brought to every foreseeable situation: I can’t get pregnant, not because I’m financially unstable, but because I might vomit; I must avoid malaria at all costs, not because it’s malaria, but because I MAY WELL VOMIT IF I GET MALARIA.

Image via Getty.
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For the life of me I’m not sure where these fears originate. There are a few foundational myths: I don’t remember it, but once my sister got a stomach bug while camping. Another time, when I was about eight, she was sick in the night; I remember standing outside in the cool air, feeling intensely grave about the whole situation. It was akin to how I felt about the Twin Towers.

I’ll keep trying to make sense of it, but I might never really understand. And that’s ok.

Things change. Medication has helped enormously. I eat a pretty balanced diet, now; I recognise bland, starchy foods for what they are and don’t go out of my way to consume them. I have been known to eat in the presence of other people. I’ve even started drinking again.

Yet the effect that this has had on my underlying psychology — and the anxiety that underpins my experience of the world — is lasting, and I don’t know to what extent I’ll be able to alleviate it. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started to understand this, and started to try and do something about it; I have hopes that things will keep getting better, but also deep fears that it’ll never change, and will continue to chip away at my view of myself and your views of me, until there’s nothing left but the faint outline of a Ryvita Thin (multiseeded. The other flavours are overpowering).

We all have unplumbed depths, and I hope that by writing this you understand a bit more about mine — particularly if you’ve been at the receiving end of my anxiety and paranoia (to all those people who have had to eat while I stared at them, glumly — my God, I’m sorry). I hope that it helps you to feel less alone when contemplating yours.

This story was originally posted on Medium, and was republished here with full permission. 

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