About a month before my eleventh birthday, my parents took me and my brother to Yellowstone National Park.
The first night there, I woke up at about 1am. The lights were on and my parents were standing outside the bathroom talking. I could hear the shower running. I rolled over and pricked my ears to hear what was going on. My parents were quietly trying to figure out why my brother had thrown up.
I immediately started shaking violently. I’d never had this reaction before when faced with vomit, which scared me even more. The shivering was uncontrollable, as if I was being electrocuted. I stayed quiet, doing my best not to alert my parents to the fact that I was suddenly filled with deep, sickening dread. I didn’t want to burden them with my troubles while my brother was sick.
After my brother came out of the shower, my mom slept in the same bed with him and my dad came into my bed. I was trembling so hard that my dad felt the bed shaking with me. He looked at me, alarmed.
“Are you OK?” He asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
I tried to respond through chattering teeth. He froze, having a history of not knowing how to handle heightened outbursts of emotion. My dad never quite got the hang of parenting a sensitive child. I rolled over and pretended to sleep while he pretended not to feel the bed shaking.
Since I was a kid, I’ve struggled with anxiety.
I was having severe panic attacks daily by the time I was nine. I’d navigate from fear to fear, which I later learned were primitive tactics my brain was using to keep me safe, out of harm’s way. First it was clowns, then dogs, then spiders. There was always something that would leave me paralyzed with fear. Seemingly out of the blue, it changed stubbornly to vomit.
My sudden phobia changed my life very quickly and I tumbled down a steep road to calamity. Within a matter of weeks, I couldn’t even say the word ‘vomit’ or any of its synonyms or euphemisms. I wouldn’t even let myself think the word. I thought that if I said it, thought about it, or heard about it, it would happen to me.
Since the last time I had thrown up was when I was a child, I started avoiding everything to do with my childhood, now a spoiled relic. I refused to go to museums, watch movies, and listen to songs that reminded me of the time prior to one month before my eleventh birthday. I even avoided posters, DVD covers, and other artwork of those contaminated places and things. Any time I started thinking about events that happened when I was a kid, I would savagely push the remembrances away; there are many memories that I blocked out and still can’t recall to this day. It’s like a big, black hole where my childhood used to be.
I started living my life in a bubble.
Every single day, the thing that dominated my thoughts was avoiding throwing up. That was all I’d think about. I was existing in a prism of fear. Every decision I made was about whether or not it would put me in contact with anything remotely related to throwing up. Theme parks and fairs were terrifying to me because of all the roller coasters and junk food. I refused to eat foods like leafy greens and fish because they have higher rates of food poisoning than other foods. If an apple had a bruise or a carrot had a spot, I’d throw it away because I was afraid of being poisoned. I would only drink water and all the food I ate was healthy to the point of actually being unhealthy in an attempt to minimize my chances of getting sick. I’d only ever eat food that was cooked because heat kills viruses and bacteria. I vowed never to have kids because of my fears of morning sickness and taking care of sick children. I’d wash my hands compulsively, I never touched my face, and never hugged my friends.
I was hyper aware of everything that went on in my body.
Any twinge or irregularity would send me into a tailspin. I’d convince myself I was getting sick and spend days in sweaty, panicky anticipation of illnesses that never came. In reality, the only ailment I suffered from was anxiety, which would make me feel physical symptoms as well as emotional distress. The physical manifestations of anxiety would make it extra confusing and harrowing, as I’d frequently feel nauseous or like I had something stuck in my throat (called globus pharyngeus). Since these were both physiological symptoms that reminded me of the very thing I feared, they escalated my anxiety. Additionally, the physical symptoms would change frequently, confusing me even further. It was a never-ending cycle.
Every time I got in the car I would have a panic attack because of my phobia of carsickness. It got worse when I got my license because I would be afraid of throwing up while driving and I’d get panic attacks so bad that I’d regularly almost crash the car. My vision would deteriorate, my limbs would jerk uncontrollably, and I’d be crying out for help from people who weren’t there.
One thing that would always frighten me would be when I’d wake up in the middle of the night having a panic attack.
This was extra scary because I’d be groggy from sleep and not know what was going on. I’d wake up to the feel of the bed moving and the sound of my bed posts banging against the wall, so I’d think we were having an earthquake. Then, I’d feel the painful clenching in my stomach, palpitations in my heart, and hysteria in my head. I’d be hyperventilating and unable to see because of how much distress I’d be in. Although the panic was frequent, I never got used to it. It would always leave me physically sore for a few days after. The paint on the wall was scratched and dented from where my bedposts would hit it. It didn’t take long before I stopped allowing myself to sleep because of my fear of waking up with another panic attack.
One of the worst parts of having a phobia was knowing that my fears were irrational.
I was ashamed of how I was thinking and feeling and would do everything I could to hide it from the rest of the world. None of my friends at the time knew anything about what I was going through mentally. It was very lonely.
When I was in my early 20s, I finally decided to start seeing a therapist.
The continual near-car accidents were unbearable and I’d realized that my life was not worth living the way it was going. I was barely functioning, one step away from refusing to leave my house at all, imprisoned by constant, irrational terror. Since suicide was not something I wanted to do, as appealing as it sometimes seemed, I decided to get help.
I entered into four years of grueling therapy. It was painful, scary, hard; but, the hard work needed to be done. Therapy for someone with a phobia often includes exposure. We stuck tongue depressors down our throats to feel that gagging sensation. We watched videos of people vomiting. He imaginatively brought every-flavor jelly beans to sessions, which contained some that were vomit-flavored. He had me hold an air sickness bag that he’d swiped from a recent plane trip, which might seem silly, but it was a way of facing the fear of coming into contact with anything related to vomit. We talked in depth about vomit; how it felt, how it tasted, what it looked like. It was not pleasant. The whole time I wondered bitterly why my phobia couldn’t have been something with the potential to be at least a little bit enjoyable. I’m sure my therapist didn’t enjoy it either, but he couldn’t have been more patient, supportive, and willing to go through it with me.
I came out of therapy four years later a new person.
While my phobia wasn’t the only thing I was diagnosed with and we had worked on other mental illnesses I was suffering from, it all helped me to heal from my phobia. It’s not completely gone; I still have a few movies that I can’t watch and a couple of places that I won’t go to. But the important thing is that I’m not obsessively thinking about throwing up every day. I’m able to make decisions based on things other than whether or not I’ll get sick. My values now rule as opposed to my fear.
Maybe one day I’ll go back to therapy and see if I can kick this thing once and for all. But, I want you to know that if you are suffering from a phobia or anything else, there are things you can do about it. There are so many different sources for therapy and counseling, both online and in person, that are easy to take advantage of. Many are very affordable. There is hope. There is a way out. Don’t allow yourself to keep needlessly suffering. Aim for your best life. It’ll take work. It won’t be fun and it won’t be easy, but the rewards are so worth it. You’ll find that you have so many people who are willing to support you. I believe in you!
Pandora’s Box is the anonymous account at Words Between Coasts.