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What My Husband Said to Calm My Emetophobia-Induced Panic Attacks

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A few days ago, I was reading through my old journal from before I met my husband. In several entries, I documented my daily struggles with emetophobia (the fear of vomiting) and panic attacks. In particular, I wrote about my fear of disappointing and frustrating my loved ones, because I felt pressure to get better — for those phantom stomach aches to disappear, for those panic attacks to cease, for those spells of depression to dissipate. The reality, however, was anything but: months were passing, and I was continuing to struggle with my mental health. In addition, because I felt like I should be getting better, I felt an added layer of fear: not only was I scared of being sick, but I was scared of that fear itself.

In the early days of dating my husband, I was able to hide my emetophobia for a little while. One evening, however, that finally changed, as strong waves of nausea began to pass over me. With my head between my knees, I sat on the edge of his bed, flushed and shaking violently all over. To my surprise, there was no annoyance, disapproval or shock from my husband — he was simply calm and loving, giving me space when I asked for it, then holding me tightly once I was ready to be held.

And every time that I’ve felt nauseous and/or panicked since, my husband has continued to respond with the deepest warmth and patience. A few years ago, I went through a spell of debilitating, traumatizing panic attacks. We were visiting with family and old friends, and for days, I kept having to retreat to the bedroom, certain that I was dying. “What if this never gets better?” I asked him, my body and voice trembling. “What if I can never leave the house again? What if I have to be hospitalized? What if I’m like this forever?” I’ll never forget how he reassured me that things would definitely get better, but that even if they didn’t — even if I panicked every minute, every day, for the rest of my life — that he would always love and take care of me. I’ll never forget how he said that he didn’t just tolerate, but that he loved this anxious part of me. I’ll never forget how, as he spoke, I felt such palpable relief. I’ll never forget how my trembling began to soften.

In our society, uncomfortable emotions — such as fear and sadness — are often seen as personal shortcomings, something “bad” to be overcome. Over and over again, we hear messages that it is not OK to struggle, that we must fix our negative feelings, that we are more desirable when we are happy. It is easy to internalize those messages and believe that, when we are struggling with mental health, we are less likable, even less lovable.

Through holding all of my fears with tender and loving hands, my husband has given me the greatest gift of all: the gift of trusting that it is OK to struggle, no matter for how long. That it’s OK to have panic attacks, it’s OK to have an enduring phobia, it’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to not be OK. Paradoxically, when I hear that message of acceptance, I struggle less. When I’m with him and I feel a wave of nausea, I sometimes still panic. But I don’t carry that additional fear of having a panic attack, because I know that if I do experience one — no matter how long it lasts — he’ll be by my side, bringing me an ice pack, making me ginger tea, rubbing my back and stroking my hair.

I know that, no matter what, there will never be any pressure — only gentle, loving space.

I know that, no matter what, I will always be held.

Photo by Davids Kokainis on Unsplash

Originally published: August 15, 2020
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