My Phobia Is More Than 'Just a Fear'

I’ve recently been struck by just how different fears and phobias are and how many people assume a phobia is the same as a fear. For me they are on the same spectrum, but a phobia is a whole different level. Mostly we avoid things we fear in a general sense, like death. A lot of people fear death, we would avoid death in a general way, like avoiding poisons or adhering to safety instructions, but it doesn’t typically dictate your life. A phobia, however, takes over everything, every waking moment. Every decision made has to take the phobia into consideration.

My phobia is called emetophobia, and it’s a fear of vomit, of being sick, feeling sick, seeing sick, other people feeling sick, other people being sick, basically anything sick-related. It effects so much of my life. Although I try to keep it hidden I feel it’s something that needs to be talked about so people can understand.

My life is limited and controlled by rules my brain inflicts on me to avoid vomit. Public transport used to be a complete no, couldn’t do it, couldn’t get on it, what if someone feels sick or is sick? Traveling with children is a no the majority of the time — children are unpredictable when it comes to sickness. This can exclude me from so many social events.

Travel is just one aspect. What about careers? Want to be a teacher? Nope, children get sick. Want to be a nurse? Nope. Want to be work in transport? Nope (as mentioned above). Want to work in a cafe? Nope, people still get sick there. What about a supermarket? Nope, people get sick there too. I love working with children, but it also completely terrifies me.

My fear doesn’t just involve seeing it. Someone sniffing, coughing, groaning, anything that could indicate they are not 100 percent, and I will freak out. Going on nights out is another nightmare. Any mention of sick at all is enough to spin me into a panic.

Not long ago I went to a time-to-change training event, which meant staying in a hotel in London and then attending training the following day. Nothing scary about that, right? No obvious sickness-producing activities. Seems safe.

Late in the evening we returned to the hotel. I’d had a bad day, but that’s a whole different story, and when we went to get in the lift we realized someone had been sick in it. Cue panic. I shut down. No words. No eye contact. Thankfully there were two lifts. (I can’t use stairs… wheelchair problems.) We got in the other one. I got back to room ASAP and locked myself in the toilet with the lights off (so I couldn’t see anything bad). My brain spiraled. The event triggered other aspects of my mental health, including my psychosis. I was confronted by a voice telling me two things: “This will keep happening, and things will keep getting worse unless you severely self-harm to cleanse the bad.” Thankfully I wasn’t alone in the hotel. I had amazing support from those whom I told what was happening and I didn’t hurt myself at all, but I did only get two hours sleep that night from anxiety. I woke up the next morning and felt slightly better, and got someone to do the “sick check” to ensure I would not come into contact with any. Safe.

Panic attacks ensued still as I got in the lift. I got out of the hotel and went to training. Phew, thank goodness that’s over, hey? Nope. Among other occurrences throughout the day of my body throwing a wobbly (dislocations, fainting, etc.), someone was sick. I didn’t see it, but I don’t have to see it. Heck, they don’t even need to be sick for me to freak out. I shut down. It wasn’t the first time. In fact, it’s happened a lot. I can’t speak, can’t look at people, can’t reply to people, can’t move, sometimes I can’t even open my eyes in case something bad happens. Then the voices piped up again: “If you’d self-harmed yesterday this wouldn’t have happened. This is your fault. And it’s going to keep getting worse until you do it.” Communication had to be done through questions and blinking. It was all I could manage.

I hope this goes some way to explaining what it’s like to have a phobia. Please, if you’re unwell, don’t let me come to yours without pre-warning me. If you are sick or feeling sick around me, please know I do not blame you for my illness and difficulty. I know it’s not something you have control of or have chosen to do. Please know I do care, and I want you to be OK, but staying to make sure you are puts me at extreme risk from my mind and its reactions. (I will do everything I can to get someone else to help you though.) Please don’t tell me everyone hates sickness because this is a whole different level.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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