It’s considered 300.29 — Specific Phobia: Other Type — in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It seems a lot more real, doesn’t it, seeing it as a classification like that? What’s even more real, though, is living it.
It didn’t go away, nowhere near it. But it was manageable, for a good stretch of almost two years. I went off the Xanax for the first time since 1997, and was able to travel to Europe, to eat in restaurants, and go to the movies, and even ride a subway without having to pop any pills and do any meditative, deep-breathing exercises.
But somewhere in the last few months, it started creeping back in. I tried to push it away, to suppress, to pretend. But this little shit is relentless, it crawls right back under your skin. And doesn’t ask for your opinion in the matter.
So many — too many — of my waking hours are spent worrying about vomiting. Every single uneasiness in my body leads to constant questions—am I going to be sick? And the constant questions then lead to panic, which then leads to full physical symptoms, the same symptoms as one would feel when actually sick. Sweats, chills, nausea, shaking, stomach aches, dry mouth, racing heart. I once, recently, thought I might actually be having a heart attack. I have even been waking up in the middle of the night mid-panic attack, so apparently some of my non-waking hours are spent worrying too.
Sometimes all it takes is for someone to ask me if I’m okay. Why? Do I not look okay? Am I sick?
Boom. Immediate panic attack.
It’s a vicious cycle, this emetophobia one. A perfectly mundane moment can go from everything is fine to panic about the possibility of being sick to actually legitimately feeling sick to panic about feeling sick. I try to relax and breathe, but instead I panic and take Gravol and tums and drink peppermint tea and do just about any ritualistic behavior in my arsenal that I believe might make me not vomit.
Because that’s the goal, at the end of it all—to not vomit. To do every single thing in my power to not vomit.
But Ali, you’ll say. It’s just vomit. No one likes it, but once it’s over, you feel better.
Except that…I don’t. Feel better, that is. In fact, I envy someone who can just vomit and be done with it. It’s a crippling, crippling all-consuming anxiety disorder. And you still won’t understand this. You’ll still walk away from reading this not understanding how much this anxiety disorder affects me, how I am not actually just being whiney and a pain in the ass.
And I’m actually kind of glad—it’s so much better that you don’t understand this.
Imagine, if you will, that you are afraid of heights. So, what do you do, generally, is you avoid heights, right? Now, replace heights with many common fears—public speaking, snakes, flying, spiders etc. You have the power, for the most part, to avoid the things that scare you the most.
But when your fear is YOU, you can’t escape it. My fear is one that lives within me every minute of every hour of every single day of my life.
My body and my brain can’t win with each other. I know it’s not rational. I know it. But it doesn’t matter. In fact, I can count the actual times I have been sick in my entire lifetime on only one hand—I didn’t even throw up during any of my three pregnancies. That’s a funny thing about the brain—I have literally trained it not to be sick, yet I can’t train it to realize it. But it doesn’t matter. It’s completely irrational.
How can you treat something irrational by thinking rationally?
The first time I remember that my fear was a different kind of beast was after my older sister didn’t make it to the bathroom and lost her lunch on the floor of the hallway directly outside of my bedroom door. It was cleaned up properly and I didn’t get sick from that particular bout of gastro virus that had descended on our home. BUT, for about four years after the incident, I refused to step right outside my bedroom door. I shimmied to the side and skip-hopped over the spot. For four years.
I am wary of circuses and theme parks, movie theaters and museums. Public places. Crowds, as you might guess, make me incredibly uneasy. Airplanes, boats, trains, cars, subways, buses. Complete and total fear, since not only are there crowds of people maybe, possibly harboring foreign germs, but there are the added anxieties of motion sickness and lack of control.
I have never been drunk in my 35 years for fear that I might vomit. I worry about food-borne illness all day long—and have given up almost all meats, especially chicken. If I didn’t prepare the food, I will be nervous, and I usually won’t touch it. Restaurants, potlucks, buffets. Nope.
I couldn’t survive without anti-bacterial sanitizer (no matter what recent studies say) and Lysol wipes, and buy them in bulk when I can. I am kind of obsessively clean.
I spend a lot of time on the CDC website, tracking gastro outbreaks in the US and Canada. In any given location, I immediately locate all exits and garbage receptacles, just in case I get sick. Office environments, elementary schools, doctor’s offices fill me with paralyzing fear. Other people’s children make me nervous. I am constantly aware of the health of those around me. I assess how they look, how they are eating, how they are feeling.
And forget about when an actual stomach illness descends upon our household.
And this most recent bout—where it ravaged its ugly way through my entire extended family—has basically sent me over the edge. Now, even weeks later, I can barely eat, I can barely sleep, I can barely step out of my house right now without feeling edgy, jittery, panicky, nervous, frightened.
I’m worried that my oldest daughter might have it too.
And that scares me more than anything.
Well, almost anything.