Ah, good ol’ emetophobia – just when I think I’ve (mostly) recovered, you come back into my life! Thanks, emetophobia, you’ve been more loyal than anyone else! Thanks, emetophobia, you’ve always helped me lose weight! Thanks, emetophobia, keeping me up late at night so I can be more productive. What a great friend you are.
If you suffer from or have ever suffered from emetophobia (the phobia of vomiting), you will know that it is in fact, not a good friend. I often talk about my emetophobia here. It is the biggest source of my anxiety – it is bigger than my health anxiety, bigger than my death anxiety, bigger than my GAD and panic disorder. Emetophobia started it all.
A lot of people kind of know my story. They know that I “have anxiety” and they know that I went through some stuff as a kid. But hardly anyone knows the full story. I want to share my whole story with you.
I was always an anxious kid. I’ve probably been called a “worry wart” more times than you’ve been called your own name. The first panic attack I actually remember happened in my grade one classroom. I was worried I would get in trouble because the rest of the class was acting rowdy. I would run to the bathroom and hide while my teacher “counted down.”
But that was it. I was just anxious. Definitely not a normal amount of anxiety, but still very functional. I loved school and I loved my friends. I loved birthday parties and sleepovers (as long as they were at my house). I was anxious, but I was still within the realm of “normal.”
The pictures above are from when I was around 4-6 years old. The funny thing about these photos is not the fact that I apparently felt the need to dress up as a dinosaur or a firefighter in order to eat my meal.
No, the funny thing about these photos is that they exist at all. There are literally dozens of photos like this – me sitting at the kitchen table, eating hotdogs, donuts, fruit, veggies, pasta…you name it. But then, something happens in our photo albums. These pictures stop. At around 8 or 9 years old, there are no pictures of me at the kitchen table anymore.
Do you know why?
Because I stopped. I stopped eating.
When I was 8 years old, I caught the stomach flu twice in a row. And thus my lifelong struggle with emetophobia began.
Emetophobia is the fear of vomiting. It in itself is not a fear of eating. However, many emetophobes, including myself, develop an eating disorder along with emetophobia. I came to associate food with vomiting. And so, to protect myself from ever vomiting again, I stopped eating.
I don’t just mean I didn’t eat a lot. I mean, I stopped eating. From the time I was 8 until I was 13, I ate virtually nothing. I lived off ice cream and scrambled eggs (my comfort foods), because that is all I would eat. My mom had to sneak butter and cream and anything high in fat she could into what little meals I would actually eat.
I associated nighttime with getting sick, so I refused to eat dinner. I often refused to eat at school, so I didn’t eat lunch either. I began missing tons of days of school. I began missing out on friends’ birthday parties, on family outings, and on my own extracurricular activities.
I quit soccer because of my fear. And I loved soccer.
When you look at the picture above, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it. “Just a picture of a kid on the beach.” I was not just a kid. I was thin in that picture, but still not as a thin as I would get.
I thought that everyone could see all of their ribs.
I wondered why other people’s stomachs didn’t look like mine. I didn’t realize that my body was the wrong one.
It got to the point where my parents tried to scare me into eating. “Do you want to end up in the hospital, on an IV?” I would cry and cut my meat into the tiniest of pieces, just trying to get something down. I mentioned this before in another post, but I almost was hospitalized. I thought my parents were exaggerating when I was a kid, but they weren’t. I was borderline failure to thrive for a long time.
From 8 until 13, I ate just enough to not die or be hospitalized.
What does emetophobia look like? It looks like an eight year old girl sweating, shaking, crying, and hyperventilating on the floor. It looks a twelve year old girl staring at herself in the mirror, realizing you shouldn’t be able to see your rib cage. It looks like a 24 year old woman reverting back to her eight year old self.
I didn’t know what self-harm was as a kid, but I did it.
The worst thing in the world was stomach pain. Stomach pain = intense, uncontrollable panic. Nothing worked to stop the pain. I realized though, that I could divert it.
During panic attacks, I would grab and pinch the inside of my thighs. Pinching isn’t so bad, right? Well, the next day I’d wake up with 15+ bruises all along the inside of my legs. Soon, my parents caught on and did everything they could to stop me. But I had other outlets too. Scratching my arms, picking at my skin, punching myself in the legs or arms.
This is hard to write about, partially because I hate thinking about that part of my childhood. Even though my emetophobia played a big role, I still managed to have a wonderful and magical childhood.
Still, the biggest reason this is hard to write about is because I haven’t won the war yet.
I still struggle with this phobia every single day. When I turned 13 and my parents finally bought me a dog, my life completely changed. My first dog, Toby (who is almost 12 years old and still alive and well), somehow calmed me more than anything else ever could.
I began eating again, slowly but surely, I gained weight. By the time I was in high school, I was 4’11 and weighed about 75-80 lbs. Still not enough, but I could no longer see every single one of my ribs.
By the time I finished high school, I was almost a “normal” person. I went to friends’ parties without having massive emetophobic breakdowns. I stayed away from home for the first time and survived (although, I did have a HUGE breakdown during a camping trip, I still stuck it out for one night).
Since then, I have had ups and downs. Sometimes, my emetophobia takes a backseat to my other mental health issues. Last year, I struggled with depression and my emetophobia was essentially non-existent. This year, I’ve been doing better overall both with my anxiety and depression, and thus my emetophobia has returned!
I could write a novel about my struggle with anxiety (and anxiety-induced depression), but all my anxiety really comes back to this. Emetophobia has controlled my life more than any of my other mental health issues combined.
So, emetophobia, what have you done?
You’ve almost killed me.
You’ve ruined friendships.
You’ve made me hurt myself.
You’ve made me cry, you’ve made me shake, you’ve made me hyperventilate.
You’ve made me miss out on endless opportunities.
You’ve made me quit jobs.
You’ve made me drop out of classes and skip lectures.
You’ve made my relationships hard.
You’ve made me question if I even want to stay alive.
But you know what you haven’t done?
You haven’t won.