I was sleeping in a hammock in the middle of the desert at the tip of South America when, suddenly, I woke up.
Stomach gurgle, run to the bathroom. I felt the panic start to rise up as I told myself repeatedly to just breathe. An attempt, which I already knew, was pointless. And as my gastrointestinal discomfort only increased instead of faded, I realized that, for the first time in 10 years, I was about to come face to face with my biggest fear: throwing up.
Okay, let’s back up a bit.
For almost half of my life, I have been terrified of throwing up. I don’t find it merely uncomfortable or unpleasant. It is utterly horrifying and panic-inducing.
This fear is actually quite common. Its technical name is emetophobia.
My vomit worries began after a particularly nasty stomach bug when I was about 12 years old.
I only remember the constant puking, the abdominal pain, and the fear of when the next bout would be. I thought it would never end. And when it finally did I had developed an association of pain and fear with throwing up that would stay with me for over a decade.
Emetophobia is very common in people who are afraid of losing control. My dad, a doctor, would always tell me during one of my panic sessions that if my body really truly needed to upchuck I wouldn’t have any choice in the matter. Biology trumps willpower when it comes to throwing up.
But I insisted that I could control it.
The phobia has affected me deeply. When my sister felt faint one day and said she felt like she was about to throw up I literally ran the other way, out the door. If a stomach bug was going around in high school, I’d be afraid to eat.
I figured that the less food in my stomach, the less time I would spend being sick if I caught the virus.
For a while, the phobia affected my sleep. Because I associated waking up with a start and running to the bathroom on that fateful stomach bug night, any time I woke up in the middle of the night I assumed something was wrong. This made me afraid to fall asleep, and for years I would suffer from stomach aches as soon as I laid down to go to bed, having to read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore in order to fall asleep.
It also made my anxiety worse, since we often feel the nervousness in our bellies. For me, I interpreted any discomfort in my stomach as the need to throw up, which made me more anxious. At times, feelings of nervousness have escalated to panic attacks because of this.
I’ve tried therapy for this phobia but never found it really helpful.
The best thing that therapy offered me was when my therapist told me that my anxiety made sense. Many people dismiss emetophobia, trivializing our anxiety. Simply telling me that my fear was valid and understandable helped me to better come to terms with it.
My anxiety, while sometimes very debilitating, hasn’t kept me from doing things. When I moved to Colombia last July for a year, I knew I was probably going to fall victim to a stomach bug.
I decided I’d cross that bridge if and when I got there.
Fast forward to my sudden wake-up in a hammock in the desert, and I knew that I was on the bridge.
My first time throwing up in ten years as someone with emetophobia was, unsurprisingly, a bit traumatizing. Afterward, I didn’t trust my body for a few weeks. I would be hit by sudden urges to cry in public places, I think because suddenly, the body that had not thrown up in so long, the body that I thought I had so much control over, had betrayed me.
I feared very much going anywhere without a public restroom just in case it happened again.
My phobia has taught me that this the uncomfortable part of life– we have much less control over it than we’d like to believe. Whether your biggest fear is throwing up or spiders or, gulp, death, there is really nothing stopping that thing from happening to you.
We move around the world as very vulnerable beings, and my episode in the desert was one huge reminder of that vulnerability.
It was also, however, a lesson of resilience. The worst thing I could imagine happened, and yet here I am. Still living, breathing, traveling and experiencing new things. I’m still afraid of throwing up, and I’m learning to accept that fear along with everything else about myself.
And if you find yourself with tummy troubles, know that I am not the one to call.