Emetophobia and Motherhood

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emetophobiaVomit. For as long as I can remember, it’s always been my weakness. The smell, the sound, the look. But it wasn’t until my second child was born that emetophobia (the fear of vomit) started ruling my life. I don’t know what caused the escalation-I probably never will-but a switch flipped, and my irrational anxiety suddenly turned into paralyzing panic. 

Compulsive hand washing. Avoidance of high touch areas. Just a couple of rituals that quickly spiraled out of control. I started transferring these behaviors to my kids. “Don’t touch that!” “Did you wash your hands?” “Are you feeling sick?” I found myself constantly asking for reassurance about their health. 

If you are familiar with OCD, you know that these compulsive behaviors and avoidances bring only temporary relief. They help…but only for a little bit. And the tricky part is that they lead to more and more rituals. I started pulling my kids out of activities. (Mind you, this was pre-COVID). Making excuses and canceling playdates. Avoiding playgrounds, museums, parks, you name it.

My husband pushed talk therapy. He could tell I was unwell. I tried it for a year. It helped a little, but it just wasn’t enough.

In February of 2020, I headed into work. As a decade-long kindergarten and first-grade teacher, I was familiar with stomach ache complaints and even the sudden and unexpected upchuck emergency. But this time, it was different. As one of my students got incredibly sick in the classroom, I just froze. 23 little innocent faces looking at me for help, and I couldn’t move, couldn’t think, just stood there crying and barely breathing. Thank God for incredible teammates and a school nurse who swooped in and saved the day. 

In actuality, my panic attack only lasted 15 minutes, but it felt like forever. I was mortified and incredibly disappointed in myself. What kind of a human was I to abandon a poor sick child in his time of need?! The shaming voices flooded my mind. “You are a failure.” “You don’t deserve to teach.” “The world would be better off without you in it.” 

I had felt these things before, but mostly at home. Feeling them in a professional setting made things scarier. After a week of contemplation and many conversations with my husband and therapist, I met with my principal and came clean. I told her about my emetophobia and consequential compulsions and how I didn’t think I could come back the following year. I needed to get better. I needed to seek out a new doctor and change medications. I needed to stop putting on an act. I had to admit out loud that I needed help.

Who knew that one month later, the world would shut down? Quarantine was heaven for me!  For the first time in two years, I felt free of anxiety and shame. I didn’t have to feel silly about hand washing or not wanting to step foot in public places. Protecting myself with gloves and a mask was suddenly “on trend” and the responsible thing to do. I didn’t have to feel guilty about limiting my kids’ outside interactions. We weren’t supposed to take them to the neighborhood playground. We weren’t allowed to go to germ-infested museums and bounce houses. I felt normal.  

The problem is…just like all of the other rituals before, quarantine was one big band-aid. It made me think my medication was working.  I was convinced that counseling was going so well, I even phased myself out. I was misinterpreting this avoidance as progress. 

Reintegrating back into the world in the fall of 2020 was a shock to the system. I had quit my job and now had even more time to perseverate on what kind of germs my kids were being exposed to. I began having weekly, sometimes daily, panic attacks. I floundered trying to find help. (FYI-exposure therapy for emetophobia is just not ideal over Zoom!)  But I didn’t give up.

Fast forward a year, and things are finally starting to improve. I’ve found a great balance between two antidepressants, and I’ve altered my diet. I’m letting my guard down, opening myself up to more people, and trying to stay in the moment. I’m enjoying motherhood and the ebbs and flows that come with it.

My story may sound melodramatic. I get it. There are a million things worse than puke.  But for some reason, my brain interprets this bodily substance as kryptonite. It probably always will. But now, I actually feel ok with that. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, and I’m motivated to continue getting better. Emetophobia and OCD do not define me as a mother, teacher, or human being.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Elizabeth,

    I am so proud of you. You have come so far. You are an amazing human, a loving mother and a patient daughter in law.
    God Bless you in your continued growth. And as you know, everyone has their own cross to bear.

  2. Hi Elizabeth!
    I’m Allie O.’s boyfriends sister! Confusing I know. But Allie told me about your article and I had to read it. I’ve been suffering from emetophobia since I was 5 (now 22) and reading your article left me feeling relieved and seen. Thank you for putting yourself out there and educating the world. Keep learning and facing our fear, you’re doing great!

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