Overcoming Emetophobia

Kay (prefers to remain anonymous), CA

Overcoming Emetophobia

by Kay (prefers to remain anonymous), CA

I can remember it like yesterday, the fateful day when everything changed; the day that changed the course of my life forever. I was ten years old and up until that year my life was seemingly perfect. I had two loving parents, an awesome older brother, and tons of friends and even a cute school crush to swoon over. But, over that year, my easy-going life of no worries rapidly changed. My older brother started getting into trouble at school--hanging out with the “wrong crowd” and ostensibly overnight he changed from my hero to my enemy. My family was breaking apart at the seams; with crushingly loud fights, horrific words shared, and monumental tears shed. I felt like I had no control over my life and being so young, I had no idea how to express my pain; I barely even understood what was happening in front of my eyes. The worst part was that I kept all of this dark pain hidden, bottled up inside.

Then, on a warm, balmy summer evening I craved a hamburger from Jack N’ The Box and saw it as a rare treat. I devoured that burger with delight. Over the next few hours my stomach began to hurt in ways I had never experienced before. My mom gave me some pepto bismol and told me to lay down as she promised I would feel better. I laid down in bed, with every hour the pain increasing; I held so tightly onto my stomach writhing in pain--I thought about all the things that made me happy in life, hoping to distract myself. Around midnight my mom came and laid in bed with me and I was able to finally fall asleep. What seemed like moments later I awoke in a panic, my heart began to race and I began to sweat profusely; suddenly my stomach felt like everything was about to explode and I looked at mom who had woken up as well and said the words, “I think I am going to throw up” and she said, “Okay” and as if giving me permission, I vomited all over the bed. My mother rushed me to the bathroom where I was violently ill for hours. It was achingly painful and terrifying. I felt no control and it just kept coming. Then, while in the middle of my episode, my brother had come home in the middle of the night hoping to sneak past my parents. My parents left me in the bathroom all alone, terrified and panicked, while all I could hear was their screaming in the background.

That night left an imprint on me forever. It took me years to even be able to tell it out loud to another person out of sheer pain and shame. Every night for a year after my vomiting episode I was so terrified that it was going to happen again, that once I went to bed I would begin to panic so intensely that my entire body would shake. I had a routine where I would get out of bed shaking, turn on the light, and color on my bedroom floor until the wee hours of the morning occupying my mind while I was certain I was going to vomit again. I did this every, single, night. I began to restrict food because to me that made sense; it was food that made me sick in the first place, so if I didn’t eat, I wouldn’t throw up. I began to panic when I went to school in fear that I would throw up there. I would constantly raise my hand and ask to go to the nurse and subsequently home. I lost so much weight that my parents took me to see a stomach specialist where I had to drink a radioactive drink to x-ray my insides; to only find out that there was nothing physically wrong with me. Looking back, I wish all these people had noticed that perhaps my problems were mental, not physical. Not one person suggested that I may be suffering from something mental. But, my third grade teacher did notice something; she pulled me aside one day and told me that if I had missed any more days in school she would have to hold me back. She gave a great speech about how she was once scared of school too; when she was in college, and something about that talk made me realize that if I were to miss a year, I would miss out on so much; all my friends would go on without me. Something clicked that day and I began to eat and go to school again. I overcame my emetophobia enough where it stayed quiet in the back of my mind for years.

The next few years were some of the happiest years of my life because anxiety and emetophobia took a back seat. I was able to live a normal teenage existence where I traveled all over the world, had friends, boyfriends, love, and heartbreak. I played sports and did well in school. I would party, but I would never drink too much in fear that I would throw up as I saw what too much alcohol did to my friends. That was the only cognizant emetophobia thought I had for a good 10 years.

Then came my twenties. I had decided to drop out of college (looking back it was due to my anxiety creeping back in), because I wanted to do something different than everyone in my hometown; I wanted to go against the grain and follow my dreams of working in the entertainment industry. I was so proud of myself for starting a new life away from home in Los Angeles and really carving out an incredibly successful career, all on my own. It took tremendous strength and courage, but underneath the successful veneer I was beginning to crack. All the stress of having to audition and make a living in one of the most competitive industries in the world took a toll. I began to restrict food as I started to have intrusive thoughts while on set working that I would vomit in front of everyone and ruin the entire shoot. This little trick worked for a few years. I wouldn’t eat while I worked and felt totally in control and focused. I would get home, starved and exhausted, but to me, at least I didn’t puke. Then, the intrusive thoughts started to intrude elsewhere in my life. I had to travel a lot for work, and soon I was consumed with thoughts that I would be trapped on an airplane, air sick, vomiting all over myself during the entirety of the flight with nowhere to escape to. I went to my doctor and was prescribed Xanax and Ativan to take when I traveled. Those pills combined with not eating twelve hours before the flight worked for a few years. Again, I felt in control and totally safe when my stomach was empty. Then the thoughts started to creep in when I went out to eat, then out with friends, and then, even just leaving the house. My safety behavior of not eating wasn’t working anymore; I was beginning to panic despite a thoroughly empty stomach. I was so thin people were starting to get concerned.

Then came Thanksgiving 2017, again, a day that changed the course of my life forever. A week prior my stomach had hurt like on that fateful day so many years ago. I had gagged and gagged but because I was eating so little, nothing came up. I had a full blown panic attack and had been on edge all week. I was terrified to travel to see my family and was convinced I would vomit while traveling. While in the car with my husband traveling up to see my family I began to gag again, then came the worst and most intense panic attack of my life. I thought I was dying. We were in the middle of nowhere and I was absolutely terrified. For five hours I panicked and gagged in what seemed like my own personal worst nightmare of a living hell. Two days later on that day that I needed to travel back home I awoke and again, gagged, and panicked for hours. I took so much ativan and motion sickness pills just to get me in the car to go home that while on the drive home I hallucinated.

And so began my two years of recovery. I called my doctor and wasn’t able to be seen by a psychiatrist for a month, so I wasted away in my bed panicking, afraid to leave my house, dropping twenty pounds overnight. I became a very sick, sad, skeleton absolutely terrified of the world; and worst of all; of my own mind and body. It wasn’t until a year into my recovery when I realized that talk therapy wasn’t enough and I knew I needed to start exposure therapy. I searched high and low to find someone who understood the nuances of emetophobia and how gripping the fear can be. I found Ken Goodman LCSW through this very website and he completely changed my life. It wasn’t an easy road to get to where I am today, but I did it with hard work, grit, and determination. We did exposure and response therapy with CBT, talk therapy, and trauma therapy. I also found a wonderful psychiatrist who took her time finding the right medication and dose for me. Medication management wasn’t easy; I was extremely resistant because I was terrified medication would make me throw up. Thankfully I persevered and found a wonderful combination that helped give me a new life. It took about a year and a half with Ken to see real progress. I took a sabbatical from work and dedicated my life to recovery. Every single day I did exposures, doing them all day, everyday. It started with me just writing and saying the word “vomit” and “puke” (which took me a few months to do) to watching people vomit online, to fake vomiting in my toilet and in public restrooms. My final “graduation” exposure was eating a vomit flavored jelly bean. Each time I would complete an exposure I would realize, you know, it just isn’t that bad. What kept me going throughout recovery was realizing that if I quit--I knew what my life would look like--tied to my bed unable to eat, sleep, or go outside. But if I tried, not even believed I would get better, but just tried, my world could potentially open up in ways I never dreamed possible.

And it has. I am back to work, where I am able to eat on set around people without a care. I can eat prior to traveling or a big gig without a panic attack. I can travel, eat while traveling, and hardly ever have intrusive thoughts about it, and if I do, I feel really confident about battling them and overcoming them without them taking me down. I go to the movies, and places that used to make me have horrific panic attacks without any problems whatsoever. Every now and then after doing something that used to be challenging, like going to a crowded mall, I will look at my husband and say, “remember just a few months ago I wasn’t able to do this?” And we sort of sit in awe of the person I have become. I truly feel like a different person; the person who was so sick and afraid, she doesn’t even seem like me anymore. Although, I still do get small panic attacks when I do something challenging, but doesn’t stop me, I just know that’s the way I’m wired and I just move through it. I don’t let anxiety, panic, or emetophobia stop me or control my life anymore. I am back in college full time where I am an honors student and made the Dean’s list. I eat whatever I want whenever I want, and even put on a much needed twenty pounds. I don’t check expiration dates, nor worry about my food being contaminated when I eat out. I actually enjoy conversations while eating out instead of silently panicking and picking at my food. I exercise without fear of working out too hard, and am in the best shape of my life. More than anything, I just overall enjoy life in a way I never did. People say I look younger, happier, and healthier. Perhaps they see it in my eyes; I used to claw my way through life, just trying to hang on, I truly felt like everyday I was just trying to survive--and now, I am living. I am making genuine connections with people because my mind is actually present and not swirling with intrusive thoughts. If I feel sick to my stomach or nauseous I go about my day and on with my life. I used to spend days inside if I felt the slightest stomach tinge, now I hardly even notice. I know when the day comes that I do throw up I’ll be just fine and I will be able to handle it. My life looks a whole lot different than it did just a few years ago and I never would have been able to do it if I didn’t take the first step to get help. Help is out there, and recovery IS possible.

Kay (prefers to remain anonymous), CA

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