Life at uni with emetophobia, an intense fear of vomit
Being scared of your own bodily functions makes life that little bit harder
For most people, their earliest memory is of some positive transformative experience: the birth of a sibling, a wedding, the first day of nursery. My earliest memory is of a close friend projectile vomiting fairy cakes over my dress at a nursery school party – equally life-changing, if a bit less joyful.
I am one of many people in the UK who live with emetophobia – an intense fear of vomit. Apparently, it’s a pretty common phobia, but there’s still a bit of a taboo surrounding the topic. Being frightened of your own bodily functions seems ridiculous to people who don’t understand.
My therapist – who wasn’t entirely sure what to do with me – told me most phobias are rooted in a desire for control. I can see that now, in the way my phobia craves to regulate everything I do. The best way I can describe the hold emetophobia has over my life is by asking you to imagine being inside a box. To minimise your encounters with sick, you create rules, and with each rule, the box gets smaller. Eventually, you’ve created so many rules – each one impossibly rigid and unbreakable – that you’re curled up on yourself, barely able to breathe from the crushing confines of your self-imposed decrees.
Suddenly, there are very few things in life you can do without breaking a rule – I stopped eating fish, chicken and pork (“danger” foods), stopped using public bathrooms, stopped going to parties, stopped leaving my house without hand sanitiser. I would have panic attacks at school if I even heard the word “vomit”, and any warnings of a sickness bug on the news would result in me locking myself in my bedroom for a week.
It had a huge impact on my relationship with my friends and family. Letting people touch or hug me made me anxious, so I tried to solve that by isolating myself further. Home was tense for a while, because I was on edge and nervous all the time so took it out on my family.
For a long time, it felt like going to university was an impossibility, because it would violate almost everything I’d lived by for so long. Imagining a shared bathroom made my heart race. Freshers’ Week – with its legends of drinking games and alcoholic rituals – seemed more like torture to me. The very thought of being away from my home, the only place I felt safe, triggered anxiety intense enough to wipe me out for days. Only my enthusiasm for my subject (however pathetic that sounds) kept me from withdrawing my UCAS application entirely.
At first, uni was nightmarish. I think I appeared pretty unfriendly in my first few weeks, because I’d refuse to take part in drinking games (THE GERMS) and rarely ate in the kitchen with my flatmates, because watching others eat makes me nauseous and anxious. Lectures were tough, because when you’re in a room with hundreds of other people, running to a bathroom with an anxiety attack over your rumbling stomach won’t go unnoticed. But slowly, I was able to settle in, and learn that I can cope with this.
I won’t lie and pretend it was easy. It’s been really tough to adapt my incredibly regulated and “safe” life to the different setting of university. I’m nearly finished with my first year now, and while I barely recognise the person I was before coming to Bath, I still am slightly restricted in the things I do. I still Skype my mum and dad to check that my food is cooked, and I’m still pretty wary about drinking alcohol. There have been nights when I’ve been paralysed with fear because I mistook hunger for the Norovirus. There have been events I’ve not turned up to because of a last-minute panic attack that someone, somewhere has a stomach bug.
But at the end of the day, I’m worlds away from the girl who wouldn’t let her dad hug her for fear of getting sick. Coming to university was one of the best choices I’ve made, because while it was scary as hell, it’s helped me grow as a person. My relationships are a lot better now: I’m probably a more pleasant daughter and sister now that I’m not terrified of everything!
Most of all, I’ve learned that I can overcome my disorder, and I hope talking about my journey might help others do so too.