If you’d like to listen to my story, rather than read it, it is featured as Season 1 Episode 1 of my Podcast “Emetophobia Help with Anna Christie” (airs September 11, 2020)
Episode 8: The Sad but Common Story of Many Failed Therapies – Emetophobia Help with Anna Christie
My Emetophobia Recovery Story
I have been successfully treated for emetophobia, which I suffered from to an extremely serious degree for 40 years. For 20 of those years, I searched for help and was willing to do anything to be rid of this gripping terror in my life. Finally, I succeeded. Here is my story.
I’m in my 40s now. My childhood was quite traumatic with my brother dying in an accident when I was 3, and my dad dying of cancer (literally throwing up to death, it seemed) when I was 9. My mother was always sick and expected me to look after her. Once she went into the hospital “for a rest” when I was only 10 and left me home alone for 3 days, even though I was sick myself. Most of the rest of my childhood was spent in horror and terror every moment. Obviously I associated vomiting with dying – even if I only saw (or thought I would see) someone else do it. As time went on I avoided things more and more. In my teens I went to university, and stopped eating almost everything but bananas and digestive cookies (you all know this routine). My fear of others vomiting was so intense that I started avoiding people altogether at one point. I remember sitting on the bed in my room, curled up in fetal position, crying and feeling so terrified that I wanted to die. I thought it would be better to die than to ever be anywhere near someone who vomited, or to ever be sick myself. I thought if I got some sickness that involved vomiting, I would rather kill myself quickly. As soon as that thought entered my head, I knew I needed professional help. I was only 18.
I got a referral to a psychiatrist from my doctor, and the shame of just telling him my disorder (the first person on the face of this earth that I ever told) sent me into a deep depression. I wallowed in grief for weeks. I had some success with this psychiatrist who sent me to a 12-week group therapy program for emetophobes. At least I stopped obsessing about being sick, and learned some relaxation techniques that I’ve carried with me for years. I learned that I would not be sick just because I thought I felt nauseous. I learned the difference between nausea and anxiety. This kind of therapy is a basic “cognitive-behavioral” approach, and does not involve actually having to vomit in order to get over the fear. (That should be a relief to most of you!) That was over 20 years ago.
The test came 9 years ago when I got cancer and went through chemotherapy. I was pretty scared then (of dying and of vomiting – almost equally!), but when I did vomit (only once), for the first time since I was treated back in that group, I couldn’t believe what a simply “nothing” thing it really was.
Since then I’ve never let the fear of being sick rule my life.Miraculously, I graduated from university and went on to do a Masters degree. I met my husband (we were married in 1981). I adopted a son, and gave birth to two girls. I still had a huge problem. Although I feared myself vomiting less (so long as I wasn’t “trapped” “in public” I was ok), I was still terrified of others. The whole phobia seemed to get “channeled” into this fear, and it got to ridiculous proportions. I thought I was completely crazy. I didn’t have much success with therapists. Most misdiagnosed me, didn’t believe me, tried to tell me I must have been sexually abused, etc. I thought I was the only person in the world now who feared seeing someone else vomit. The fear was so gripping and intense that it paralyzed me, and stopped me from enjoying a normal life. When my children were sick my husband looked after them, as I would either run out of the house in terror, or lock myself in the basement and curl up in a ball crying. (They’re all adults now, and completely “normal!”) We never traveled anywhere ever. I refused to get in anyone’s car, or take people in my car. Once I had to fly on business and I made it through on “tranquilizers and terror”. It was horrible. I avoided children and all sick people — this was exceptionally difficult to do since I’m the minister of a church. If someone in my congregation were in hospital, I would race in (in some dissociative state), say hello, pray a short prayer, and race out – paralyzed with fear the whole time. When I would leave the hospital I would have no memory of the visit.
The fear steadily got worse over the years. Once I celebrated 5 years cancer-free, I decided to conquer this phobia once and for all. MY GOAL WAS TO STAND NEXT TO SOMEONE IN THE HOSPITAL AND HOLD ONE OF THOSE VOMIT DISHES FOR THEM. (It was laughable! I couldn’t even IMAGINE the dish itself without a full-blown panic attack and about an hour of crying!!!) I knew that it would take a gradual exposure approach, and I needed a professional to journey through it with me. I set out once again to look for a therapist. I tried several who specialized in phobia, and found one after another to be most unhelpful — again – not really believing my childhood story, UNDERESTIMATING the intensity of the fear or else being arrogant, or rude. One told me he could cure me in one 90-minute session. I was outraged that he could diminish this horrible disorder that ruled my life down to a “simple thing with a simple cure.”SEVERAL therapists concluded that I was “unmotivated” “non-compliant” or “resistant to treatment.” I was furious! I had read enough about the treatment for this MYSELF that I thought – geez, I could just do this myself…but I also had read enough to know that you can run off track a long way when you try to treat yourself and waste time and energy…you need someone detached and outside-observing to help you see clearly. Sick of all these rude, arrogant and useless professionals I finally I went to my doctor in tears and said, “can you PLEASE just refer me to someone nice?”
I just wanted someone who was kind, gentle and compassionate to walk with me through a journey of gradual exposure that I would design myself if necessary. She gave me the business card of a therapist who mostly did couples therapy, and worked with addiction, depression and self-esteem. In other words, no expertise in this area at all. But she had heard that “he was really a nice guy.” He sure was. In short, he saved my life. We learned together about emetophobia (thanks to internet information), and designed the exposure therapy together. He was kind and gentle indeed, full of compassion and understanding — for the first time in my life — someone just simply cared. I worked with him for a year, once a week. He used an integrative therapy based mainly in the standard “cognitive behavioral” approach (“CBT”). He also did EMDR which we used off and on with good success.(For information about EMDR ~ Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing go to www.emdria.org).
About 8 months into the therapy he finally figured out that I did not have just a “specific phobia” (formerly called a “simple phobia”). This disorder was so severe it was actually PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). When I experienced the trigger (someone vomiting, or about to vomit, or even just nauseous) in a split-second, in the time it takes to cross a synapse, I dissociated completely from reality and flashed back to my entire childhood (the phobia didn’t start with one incident, but many things over several years, so the flashback was a “somatic” or body flashback). We discovered that my negative cognition was “I am dying.” Although I knew INTELLECTUALLY that I was in no danger, nor dying nor going crazy nor having a heart attack, at some primal level my brain actually believed at that moment that my own death was imminent. And it all happened so fast, I could not possibly use any rational thoughts to help myself. No wonder I was suffering so badly! Since EMDR was originally developed for PTSD, we scheduled a series of 6 intensive sessions (90 minutes long). It was quite difficult, and took a lot of courage on my part, but by the end of this treatment, (it actually took 10 weeks) we had “opened up some space” – so that between the trigger and my terror response (flashback) there was a few seconds of time when I could insert some tools or positive cognitions – for example, “I am perfectly safe” ; “I am in no danger.” Meanwhile, I worked away on the gradual exposure (very VERY slowly).
A woman named Margaret from the Netherlands on the International Emetophobia Society site had gathered together a set of pictures. [Now I have collected an even more comprehensive set on this website – see “Tools and Resources for Therapists” page.] I worked through each one. Then I went to the videos – each week working on a more difficult one. Next I ordered a video from the Gut-reaction website link from England. It’s called “Exposure to Vomit” and shows people actually vomiting. Once I conquered that I was ready for in vivo exposure and I arranged to work as a volunteer chaplain in a hospital medical ward every day for 2 weeks. I saw my therapist each of those days at 5 pm. After the first day there I went to my therapist’s office crying and shook and shook and shook. I have no idea how I managed to go back to the hospital the next day. Each day got a little better. I agreed one day in the second week to do another EMDR session targeting the time my mother left me alone at home at 10 years old. I have no idea why I agreed to do this, or how I thought I would make it through it. During the EMDR I was more seized by utter terror than I have ever been in my life, yet for some reason I kept going – and kept going. I guess you reach a point where you just “go for it.” My therapist told me it took incredible courage to do this. I attribute it more to being at the end of my rope “fed up.” “Just get rid of it for God’s sake!” was all I could think of. The next day at the hospital I finally sat by the bedside of an old woman who was going to vomit at any time. I sat there 20 minutes before she actually did it. I did not feel very anxious. When she finally vomited, my anxiety level shot up, but I stayed by her side and handed her tissues. Then I went and got a nurse. Then I kind of fell apart! But I don’t know if it was joy or horror!! A mixture I guess. I went to my therapist and proclaimed “it worked!” “What worked?” he asked. “All of it,” I said. We rejoiced in ourselves that day, and also in the grace of God who we both agreed was at work in our midst. (My therapist and I are of two different religions, yet we both sensed God at work many times during this therapy. Often we reflected on it.)
The next couple of days in the hospital were like I was a normal person – like a nurse or something. I went bed to bed, greeting and talking to patients with zero anxiety. Pretty good for someone who freaked out and cried just hearing the word “vomit” a year earlier. I now have another therapist whom I see regularly to ensure that I can continue to enjoy this anxiety-free life, and also to work on other issues of personal growth. We also reflect on things that come up in my work and family environment, and how I respond to them. My new therapist and I discovered together that this fear of seeing someone else vomit was really a fear that the sight of it would trigger me to vomit. So what I feared was actually myself all along (in public – as I got older). I guess somewhere down deep I believed that if I were to vomit and other people saw me, that I would be a horrible, awful person – a completely worthless human being that no one could ever love.
As I work more and more through therapy, these core beliefs are slowly changing, so that I have more confidence all the time, and feel less anxious in every situation. I plan to stay in therapy for many years, realizing that I have a history of a serious disorder that should never go “unchecked”. I am confident that no matter what happens in my life to raise the general level of stress, I will never go back to responding with inappropriate fear.I have received incredible benefit from therapy and after being so angry any cynical about it for so many years, I am now its greatest advocate. I have had immense far-reaching benefits from psychotherapy which go far beyond treating the phobia. I’m a different person. It is “new life” indeed.
[2010 update: I stayed with this therapist weekly for 5 years. After 300-some hours of therapy, I think I’m good for now!] Therapy with a competent professional can and should be a gift and a blessing in your life. I can now travel (I’ve been on a boat cruise – amazing — and a trip to Europe that involved every form of transportation and crowded spaces). I look forward to sitting with my grandchildren one day when they are sick – maybe reading them a story or consoling them while they wait to be sick. Sure beats being in fetal position crying in the basement. I enjoy my volunteer work in the hospital, and plan to continue, in order to “give something back” to the sick I have neglected all these years. My story is unique, as is each of yours. You all have your own sources for this disorder, your own unique experience of it. But I write this to give each and every one of you hope. Whoever you are out there, there is no possible way you could have this any WORSE than I did. There IS a cure for emetophobia .But the cure is not instant like an antibiotic shot, nor is it a “quick fix”. You can’t keep looking for an easy cure in some method or technique. Hypnosis, TFT, EMDR – they all have their place in a treatment program, but don’t let anyone tell you they can cure something as complex and difficult to treat as this in a few sessions. It takes time. It takes dedication, and commitment and courage. I was not cured because I am a special person, different than you. I was cured because I made my mind up to do it, no matter what it took. It took years. It took failure. It took thousands of dollars (I probably spent a grand total of $20,000 over the past 10 years – but that’s still cheaper than a car, and we buy and finance those all the time).
What it really took in the end was courage – the courage to open up the wounds of the past that had scabbed over. Just rip them open and let them hurt and let them bleed and keep washing that infection out so they heal up properly. It takes a willingness to be terrified, but knowing that you are terrified in a safe place. So that’s the simple cure: dedication, courage, commitment, the willingness to endure hurt and pain and anguish. The reward, however, is something more precious than gold — a life filled with peace and comfort and unbelievable joy. It is like the sun shining out from the clouds with all its splendor and warmth. It is incredible. I cannot thank God enough. I write this story to give you all hope. If one person can be cured of emetophobia, no matter what the story, then you can too. God bless you all!
Update 2007: It is now 5 years since I wrote this story, and I still enjoy a happy, relaxed, phobia-free life! I still volunteer in the hospital, and fly all over the world. I completed a counseling diploma in psychotherapy in the Vancouver, BC, Canada area. I now treat exclusively emetophobics over Skype.
Update 2010: It is now 8 years and I’m doing great. I quit my job as a minister to become a clinical counselor and writer. This fall my adult daughter and I contracted the dreaded Norwalk virus, were very sick and vomited many times. It was awful (not so much the vomiting part but just the feeling miserable for 24 hours) but amazingly (even to me) I wasn’t the least bit anxious and in 24 hours it was gone and my daughter and I laughed and joked about the ordeal. Woo hoo!
Update 2012: 10 years and more since I wrote this story. I’m still doing great. I had a major surgery a couple of years ago that lasted 14 hours. When I woke up I was pretty anxious – I guess I got disoriented and couldn’t remember that I didn’t need to be afraid! I never did vomit, by the way. They have great anti-emetic drugs now! Anyway, once a family member reminded me “it doesn’t matter if you’re sick; you’re not in any danger” I was actually fine. It jolted me back to reality. I’ve had no trouble with this since and can now fly with no anxiety also! I still see clients – about 10 per week – most of the time my practice is full with a wait-list. Most all recover from their emetophobia over time. It’s a wonderful life having no anxiety – one that you can have too!
Update 2017: It’s been 5 years since I posted an update. I’m still doing great. I have two small grandchildren living in my home with their parents now. They’ve been sick a few times. I’m still ok with it! I even drove to my daughter’s bakery several days per week when she was nauseous with pregnancy, something I would NEVER have done before! Once she asked me to pull over so she could be sick outside. I wasn’t the least bit anxious. I still fly all the time to give seminars and such and I’m great with it. In fact, I think I can now say I love flying! Haven’t vomited since 2010, and I don’t take any precautions about germs at all. Except for hand sanitizer after pumping gas, and washing hands in all bathrooms.
Update 2020: I’m still doing great, and haven’t vomited since 2010, even though I take no precautions to prevent it. Of course I wash my hands in bathrooms and before preparing food. But not usually before I eat! The past nearly 20 years since treatment have been the best in my life. YOU CAN HAVE THIS LIFE TOO!