It was a Sunday afternoon.
I can’t remember the year, I want to say 1993 but I can’t be certain. Most unlike me, my long term memory is pretty incredible especially with significant events.
I was 7 or maybe 8, it was an unremarkable day, spent doing what most kids that age do and then sitting down to a roast dinner with my family. The course of events that took place later that afternoon had such a huge impact on me it changed so many aspects of my life for years to come. Even now some 23 years on I’m affected by that Sunday afternoon.
Nobody died, there was no violence, no accident or something that most people would deem life changing but to me it was the most frightening experience of my life up until that point.
I was sick. I vomited. Something that many kids do on so many occasions and barely bat an eyelid. But I did more than bat an eyelid.
I couldn’t understand what was happening, it almost felt like an out of body experience, I felt like all control had been lost and there I was, sat on the bathroom floor with my Mum rubbing my back and wondering what on earth had just happened.
Of course, like most vomiting episodes, it came and went and within a few days I was back to myself. Physically, I mean. Mentally and emotionally something had changed within me for good.
There was no way I could experience that frightening incident again, so I set about making as many changes as I possibly could. For me, it was all about control.
My diet became limited. Extremely limited. At first my Mum just thought it was a fad. Kid’s go through these phases, I know that being a Mother myself.
It soon became clear as I lost a lot of weight that this ran a little deeper than just a fad and obviously feeling very concerned, my Mum took me along to the GP who took her concerns very seriously and referred me to a child psychologist.
As the sessions with the psychologist progressed, he was unequivocal in his prognosis; if I didn’t start eating properly I would need to be admitted to hospital and fed by a tube. Things had got that bad.
My memory following this becomes hazy, however, I know in time I did improve. The foods I ate became more varied and although my fear of being sick was still present, it wasn’t as overwhelming as it had been previously. Life was beginning to improve and the anxiety wasn’t as prominent.
As I got older, I noticed it wasn’t just about limiting certain foods when it came to my phobia, it also became about finding other ways I could stay ‘safe’. There would be occasions I’d imagine the germs that could potentially be breeding on my hands so would ensure they were clean at all times. If I heard someone had become ill through a stomach bug, I’d do all I could to keep my distance from them (not always the easiest it has to be said).
When I turned 17 things took a turn for the worse again. My beloved Grandfather had passed away 5 days before my 17th Birthday and I was in an unhappy relationship at the time. I’d been through a period of uncertainty in my life and this is where the phobia once again began to have a dramatic effect on me. So much so, I was admitted to a psychiatric unit (as a day patient) in December 2003. I’ll write about my experience there one day but what I will say now is it soon became clear the place was not for me. It was hoped I would find the tools there to combat my overwhelming fear of being sick. But it wasn’t meant to be.
I can remember reading a newspaper one day around this time. It was about how there was an outbreak of the Norovirus, a word I could never allow myself to say because through some irrational fear, I felt that if I said the word then I would end up contracting it.
Doesn’t make sense does it? But that’s how irrational phobias can be. They latch on to you and before you know it the irrational becomes rational.
My palms would become sweaty, my head would spin and I’d find myself feeling sick. Once I’d began to experience the overwhelming nausea, I’d begin to convince myself I had a stomach bug and I was going to spend the next 3 days throwing my guts up. Sometimes the feeling of anxiety induced nausea was so intense I’d sit there pulling on my hair as if it was some sort of distraction technique.
My phobia of being sick meant that I would never touch a drop of alcohol. Convinced that if I did, a mere sip of a glass of wine or the like would make me sick. It was never worth the risk.
Today, I’m still afraid of being sick. Perhaps not as much as I used to be. I now drink alcohol and there have been times I’ve been sick through consumption but for some reason I can’t understand, it hasn’t bothered me when I have thrown up because of the booze. My main fears when it comes to being sick is through contaminated food or through a bug.
I’ve spent time trying to ascertain why this is but draw blanks.
So, how does it affect my current day to day life?
I only eat meat if it’s cooked by my Mum. I know, I’m 30, how embarrassing eh? But despite all the therapy I’ve had throughout my life I still can’t find the confidence within to just bite the bullet and expose myself to a situation I’m not comfortable with.
I’m still as obsessed with the use by dates on food as I was as a teenager and if I speak to someone who has recently recovered from a stomach bug then my first thought will always be ‘I’m going to get the virus’.
It worries me that my phobia could pass on to my son and it’s something I know I have to get a handle on but I worry that without my security blanket of ensuring I have a degree of control over what I do and don’t eat then I’m susceptible to an episode of vomiting. It’s a vicious cycle that often seems impossible to break.
Whenever my son is sick (which thankfully is rare), my instinct as a mother takes over and I feel no anxiety. My main concern is him and ensuring he is comfortable and will be OK. Back in February this year, I was sat in the children’s hospital with him, he was very poorly and was throwing up all over me. It was in my hair, over my clothes, my skin and I cried. But I didn’t cry for myself, I cried for him because I was so consumed with worry for him. Something just took over.
Many of us have phobias. It could be a fear of flying (like my Mum) or a fear of the dark or large/enclosed spaces. Phobias can be devastating and life changing. I know that. However, I really hope that one day my fear of being sick will no longer affect me and I look forward to the day when I don’t religiously check use by dates on food or I walk into a restaurant and order a chicken dish totally void of fear.