When the Fear Is Real
My diagnosis helped me pinpoint my phobia — and overcome it
When I was a kid, I remember channel surfing and stumbling upon a news special about phobias. The man on my screen was sticking his hands in a garbage can, sweating and hysterically crying as if he were dipping his fingers in a barrel of battery acid. A reporter explained that the man had a phobia of germs, and with the help of a therapist, he was facing his fear and exposing himself to the thing that scared him most.
Click. I’d rather watch cartoons.
But as I watched TV that night, and for several years after, I would remember that man. I would remember the sick, embarrassed feeling I felt watching him be so raw and vulnerable and exposed. I wondered how a fear of something as common as garbage could send someone spiraling, allowing this adult to devolve into a broken, malfunctioning person.
When I was diagnosed with a emetophobia at age 24, this man was the first person I thought of.
Emetophobia is the irrational fear of vomit, and before the moment my doctor uttered my diagnosis, I was completely unaware that I had a phobia at all.
I have always had a fear of vomit — seeing a puddle of puke on the sidewalk or an impromptu vomit scene in a movie could send me into panic attack that would derail my entire day — but what I feared more than anything was feeling nauseated myself. I went above and beyond to avoid the mere chance that I might get nauseous. In doing this, ironically, I made myself sick — allowing the immense amounts of stress to leave me feeling ill and, yes, on the verge of vomiting, nearly every day.
I would stuff towels under my bedroom door when my mom made dinner, because the smell of food would nauseate me. I would wear “motion sickness wristbands” every day, even if I was just going to school. If I had to get my throat swabbed at the doctor’s office, I would beg for a blood test instead.
My biggest triggers, though, were restaurants and car rides. Seriously, I’ve had a panic attack in nearly every restaurant bathroom stall on the south shore of Long Island. Upon entering a restaurant, my eyes would immediately scan the space for bathrooms and exits. If I went out to eat with family or friends…