When I was a kid, I was pretty care-free. Pretty happy. Or at least that’s how I would think of myself. At this point, after learning all of the defensive mechanisms I have built up, I really can’t trust how anything seemed in terms of memory, as I tend to ‘forget’ a lot of things…
But one memory sticks out in my mind. It was probably 1988, or 1989, I was 9 or 10, respectively, and I got a 24-hour bug. It was probably a twelve hour bug in actuality, and actually may have been because I ate some ice cream (I was born lactose intolerant) but I remember spending that evening puking into a toilet. It seemed to never stop, I probably did it over twenty times. And as agonizing and terrible it was, the next day I felt so much better.
From that point, up until 2011, I never threw up again. I tried to gag once, in 2010. So you’d think ‘gee, your a lucky motherfucker!’, and to an extent, you would be right. But you would also be very wrong in assuming that I was never felt like I was going to puke.
In reality, from a few years after that incident, on, I began having other health issues. Doctors would dismiss them as stress, anxiety, eventually, IBS, and much later, a discovery of many MANY food allergies, gastritis, rapid transit through the bowel, etc. And over time, I developed a fear of puking. I don’t really understand it. I would get super nauseous, hell, even when I had a stomach flu, I just would not throw up. It’s almost as if I wouldn’t let myself.
Then in 2011, I was having an episode of rapid transit (ie: where things move through the bowel very quickly) and it caused me to pass out. This wasn’t an odd thing, it typically happens to me, maybe once or twice a year if I’m not careful. The thing to be careful of: when you feel it coming on, sit the fuck down. Sometimes, this isn’t enough. Sometimes the pressure is so great, that you are just going to pass out regardless.
So in 2011, I had this pass-out episode, and woke up puking on myself. Then in 2012, again, same thing. Then in 2013, same thing, except I had nothing to throw up.
I ended up talking to my spouse about it, and it was, odd, because in talking I realized I was very scared to even mention it: the fear of vomiting. After the talk I ended up googling it, and realized it’s called Emetophobia. And I’ve definitely got it. Just writing about puking sucks. eh.
Over the years I had also developed not only a fear of throwing up, but just a fear of germs in general. While I don’t know for sure how I became Emetophobic, I do know exactly how my fear of germs occurred.
It was 2003. A hurricane drifted over Richmond, and our power went out. We were out of power for a week. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for every meal. But something weird happened. I noticed that as the week drew on, I started feeling sick, feverish, after eating the bread. It wasn’t expired. But I noticed it had gotten a little tougher, thicker, if you were to squish it between your fingers.
In the following months I noticed the same thing with other bread, a feverish feeling when it was just a few days older. In this same span I began having chronic gastro issues, becoming anemic on and off, and losing a lot of weight, which at my already low weight was problematic. So I mentioned it to my doctor. He suggested I might be Celiac, ordered a stool test for it (as he believed the biopsy method was ‘wrong too much’), and suggested I try the Celiac diet to see if it helps. He warned me though, even the tiniest speck of gluten could set me off, so I would have to wash my hands (something I rarely did up until that point), prepare my food separate from others, and use my own utensils. It was daunting, but my wife and I set to making it happen.
A few weeks went by, and things were a little better, but I was still having issues. The doctor told me I was probably getting cross-contamination from some place, and to wash better and pay more attention to everything. And for the next eight months, I kept getting worse, and more paranoid, as the doc would keep telling me it was ‘cross contamination’. By the end of it, I could barely make myself food for the stress and fear involved in the process, coupled with my so extremely low weight and energy.
In a last ditch effort I went to see a specialist in Celiac disease. Upon consultation, he looked me over physically, then said, ‘I don’t think you have it’. I was like, ‘shouldn’t we do a test?’, to which he replied ‘Try some wheat.’ So the next day, I did. No issue. A week went by. No issue. So I went back to my doctor and he ordered a test for allergies. Out of the 45 or so he tested for, I was allergic to 42. It wasn’t the wheat in the bread I had been reacting to, it was in fact, the yeast. That bread I had tried after the suggestion of the specialist, yeast-free.
I was relieved in my discovery of the allergies, but also a bit more worried, as now I had to avoid cross contamination with 42 things. I had to re-learn how to eat at all. Prepared foods were a no-go, either at restaurant, or frozen. Many would have garlic, or onions. Both allergies of mine. Ketchup was a no go, as it had vinegar, which since fermented, has the same properties as yeast to my allergies.
So I did what I could, washed the fuck out of everything, and slowly adapted to a life of avoiding damn near everything. And it was in this, that I developed a fear of germs. For the last thing you want after feeling ill due to accidental yeast exposure, is to get a flu, or stomach flu on top of it, as when exposed to the allergen, my immune system is so weakened, that such things stick around longer, and hit me much harder.
Accordingly, going out in public became a fucking nightmare. One, because I can’t eat anything easily found, so leaving the house meant keeping track of how much energy I’d have on hand, and two, because I’m scared of germs. When I started college in my late 20s, and came down with a number of colds, flu, and gastro bugs in my first semester, going back gave me great pause. Especially when I’d have those issues compounded with my own, non-contagious health issues like Hidradenitis Suppurativa, rapid transit/IBS, or the anemia that seems to stem from my gastritis. It made social interaction in general, something I only do when I feel like gambling.
Having a kid, makes it even harder. My biggest fear with her birth, aside from worries about if she would be a healthy child, was dealing with, and supporting her through, and coming in contact with the various sicknesses all kids have. And making sure that my fears wouldn’t prevent her from having a happy, fun, social, childhood. And so we hit the local parks, and sometimes a few days later, we get sick. And I deal with it. It’s easier to deal with these fears with her, because I know how happy she will be in the activities. With myself though, and my activities, many get cancelled due to fear. And sadly, more often, fear of having X on top of what I’m already dealing with.
Of course, all of this is embarrassing so I talk to no one about it. I do find understanding though, in googling about it every once in a while, looking for discussion boards of how folks handle it, and in popular culture, with the TV shows ‘Monk’ (who has multiple phobias), and the British show ‘Doc Martin’ (who has a fear of blood.). Monk, especially, provided me with a feeling of understanding that really allowed me to accept myself, and actually mention it to a therapist.
And so these days I talk about it with therapists. And I challenge myself. I keep hyper vigilant about if an aversion is a fear I should statistically be concerned with, or something that I am just feeling paranoid about. And when it’s the latter, I challenge myself. And what I have found: It’s a wash. For most things, when the fear seems unfounded, it may or may not be a problem. For me, it’s important to know that, and to understand this issue, and challenge it as I can, so that I can get back to something of a normal life. Because if there is anything about fear that I know, it’s that the fear is usually worse than the thing itself. And reminding myself of that is somewhat comforting.
Socially, it’s been a mixed bag. Before my health diagnoses, it was easy for family to dismiss everything I experienced as a problem in my mind, sometimes saying it was just anxiety, other times paranoia, and sometimes accusing my lack of drive to go do something as laziness. Other times folks would accept it, yet call me names, or joke me about it, ‘affectionately’. I’d just take it on the chin, and move on, as it’s enough to have to actually deal with the issue, let alone become a spokesperson on the advocacy of folks like me.
Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this here. It’s my way of being an advocate for folks like me. If not to educate, but perhaps, for folks with a similar issue, to find a bit of themselves in it, and know, others have the issues too.
To me, it’s more helpful than ignoring it.