Most of us know someone who can’t stand being around vomit. The one who can’t hold back your hair when you’re getting sick from too many drinks at the bar. The one who stays out of the way of your kids in case they decide to spit everywhere.
I’ve been that person my whole life. And if I think I’m about to vomit myself? I literally break out in the tremors.
I have emetophobia, which means I’m afraid of anything to do with puke. In its most severe form, emetophobia affects 0.1% of the population – approximately 10 million people in the US struggle with it. However, between 3.1% and 8.8% of people have a general fear of vomiting, with women being four times more likely to experience it than men.
I’ve lived with emetophobia for as long as I can remember.
While I have no conscious memory of it, my mother battled stage 3 breast cancer as a toddler. The lump in her breast was consistently ignored by doctors because at 36 she said she was “way too young” to get cancer. By the time she was 38, the lump had grown exponentially and her doctors finally had to admit it was cancer.
They performed a mastectomy. After that, chemotherapy began, causing her to become severely ill and throw up regularly. Again, I don’t remember anything, but I think it was burned into my memory that vomiting was a risk of losing my mother.
Luckily, Mom is more alive today than ever. At nearly 70, she’s hiking in the mountains, teaching people CPR, and planning her 50th birthdayth high school reunion. But emetophobia continued to affect me mentally, socially, and physically.
When everyone at summer camp contracted the stomach flu, I cried in the woods and begged to go home. (My parents refused to pick me up, which I still hold grudges about.)
As I got older, the effects of my phobia became worse. College was particularly tough; I’m sure you can imagine why. After all, I had to be careful everywhere I walked to see if there was any vomit on the road. I had panic attacks on the plane and in the car. The thought of vomiting took up a lot of my mental energy.
And then, as I was approaching my 30s, came the biggest fear of all.
I spent most of my 20s saying I didn’t want to be a mom. A big reason was that I was focused on my career – I wanted to get a license as a psychologist and open my own practice before I even thought about children.
But then I achieved those goals and realized that an even bigger factor influencing my decision was fear of how my phobia would affect me during pregnancy and motherhood.
Given my severe vomiting phobia, the thought of being pregnant, enduring morning sickness, and then raising a child who inevitably—probably regularly—throws up was enough to make me want to call it quits.
What if I had hyperemesis gravidarum (that thing Kate Middleton and my mother-in-law had that makes you throw up multiple times EVERY DAY?). What if my future child hands over the whole car, the whole bed, or me? (The unpredictability of a surprise throw-up scares me the most.)
But ultimately, I didn’t want my fear to make such an important decision for me. I decided to get treatment to face my fear. Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (or ERP) is considered the most evidence-based treatment for phobias, OCD, panic attacks, and the like. I’ve worked with a therapist to build what I call a “fear hierarchy” to gradually address my fear of vomiting. This included everything from cleaning my cat’s hairballs to looking at pictures of vomit to watching videos of people throwing up.
It was really hard and I’m grateful that my therapist guided me through the process. ERP is considered one of the most effective but also one of the most difficult treatments to perform. However, by sticking with it, I realized that vomiting is survivable. Certainly uncomfortable, but bearable.
After therapy, I was able to watch movies that made people throw up. My panic attacks in the car became less frequent. But I still had to face my biggest fear. For so long I have let my phobia rule my life. It was the ultimate form of birth control because there was no way I would allow myself to become pregnant. But now I was ready to face my phobia and say, “Not anymore.”
I knew I would probably get sick. I fucking knew that a future child would get sick multiple times. But the potential benefits ultimately outweighed the fears.
But four months later, when I saw a faint line on a stick, I mentally began to prepare my personal disaster gear: electric acupressure band, Unisom, anti-nausea gummies, teas, crackers.
As the pregnancy progressed, I became more and more tired. hungry. But no vomiting. Until my husband made me scrambled eggs. That did it.
This morning I bent over the toilet and closed my eyes (because I’m still not at the point where I actually can). see vomiting) and kept saying loudly, “You’re fine, you’re fine.” My husband, completely unperturbed, rubbed my back.
After that I said to him: “It wasn’t really that bad. I mean, I wouldn’t do it again if I had a choice, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
I got over it. I survived.
Turns out that was the only time during my pregnancy that I actually threw up. The third trimester heartburn was much worse, as was the pubic symphysis pain, which I could barely walk through for a month.
In the end, all the physical ailments brought me the best gift: my son. The fact that my husband and I have created this incredible human life together blows my mind every day. As I watch my 12 week baby learn to smile and sing along to “Dancing Queen” and “Party in the USA,” I’m so grateful I didn’t let puke stop me from doing that magic was waiting for me.
Was it all worth it? Without a doubt, yes. Even if he hands me over. (Yes, this has already happened – even several times.) I made a vow to my husband at the altar, and now I make the same vow to my child, both in sickness and in health. I’ll be there.
dr Lauren Cook is a licensed clinical psychologist, business consultant, author and speaker. Be curious about Dr. Lauren’s latest book “generational fear” – is scheduled to go on sale in autumn 2023.
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