My Emetophobia Makes Parenting Impossible
"Moooooooommmmmm!" It's the sound so many parents dread hearing in the night — perhaps me most of all. But I don't fear it because I'll lose sleep, or because it's inconvenient for me to get up to give my kid a glass of water. The truth is, whenever I hear my kids calling my name in the night, I'm terrified that it's because they're sick. And not just any kind of sick: I'm terrified that they're sick with the stomach flu.
Parents are expected to run to their children to care for them when they're needed, and especially if their kids are sick. Caring for your child in need should be practically instinctual, but that's not always the case for me. My dark secret is that if my kids are suffering from a stomach ailment and I think they might vomit, I usually run the other way. That's because I'm emetophobic, which means that I have an intense fear of vomiting. Most people who are emetophobic fear vomiting themselves, while only a few fear seeing others vomit. Apparently, I'm lucky to be one of the rare few who fears both, which is why I sometimes struggle to take care of my kids when they're sick.
The last time I remember throwing up was when I was 7, which was 28 years ago. In the years since, I've fought through stomach viruses, food poisoning, and even two pregnancies without tossing my cookies. I've come close to puking on several occasions, but I've successfully done everything in my power to avoid it.
While it might sound silly, this almost 30-year battle against vomiting comes at a hefty price. I've been diagnosed with both anxiety and mild obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), both of which are associated with emetophobia, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. I've been treated for my emetophobia in the past by psychologists: in fact, my mom first took me for therapy when I was in elementary school, because I begged her to promise me every morning before school that I wouldn't throw up that day.
These days, emetophobia is generally treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of therapy that seeks to modify people's negative thought patterns in order to change their behavior. But I haven't had cognitive behavioral therapy. I've read it can help lessen the anxiety and OCD cycle that my phobia thrives on, making me better able to stop obsessing about vomit and focus on the reality at hand. But frankly, even the idea of therapy and facing my fear scares me. I've read that exposure therapy can be involved, which can include watching videos of someone vomiting. No, thank you.
Many people are surprised to learn about my vomit phobia, but to me it makes perfect sense. I don't understand how anyone can be fine with the loss of control over their own bodies, not to mention the horrible retching sounds and smells that accompany vomiting. At various points in our marriage, I have overheard my husband vomit, and the sound is burned into my brain like the sounds of baby seals being poked by a flaming torch or something. It's an awful, awful noise.
I'm ashamed to admit that when I think my children will vomit, my first instinct is to run away.
Pregnancy was especially difficult for me, as I suffered debilitating morning sickness with both of my kids. I felt terrible and would often endure gagging spells, but I never actually vomited. Surprisingly, my emetophobia itself was no worse during pregnancy and maybe even a little better than usual. I focused on the daily chore of preventing vomiting by taking B vitamins and whatever natural morning sickness "cures" I could get my hands on. I wasn't plagued by the constant, faceless worry of "what if someone gets sick," because I was sick every day.
Once I had my first baby, I was fine with the breast milk-smelling spit-up. I even handled the first few baby-vomiting episodes on my own. Vomit is more tolerable when it's coming out of chubby little baby cheeks, or if it's just milk and baby food.
As my kids grew older, though, I became more and more afraid. I knew their vomit would be more "adult"-like, and I also knew they'd need much more help taking care of themselves if they threw up. I'm ashamed to admit that when I think my children will vomit, my first instinct is to run away. If we're stuck in traffic and my son, who is prone to motion sickness, starts saying his stomach hurts, I panic and tell my husband to pull over and let him get out of the car so he can feel better.
I'm sure if my children were covered in vomit and crying for me, I would go to them. But it would take every fiber in my being to will myself to.
I've had relatives and friends tell me that a parent's instinct to care for your child should overcome all of your fears. But when it comes to vomiting, that's just not the case for me. I feel terrible about that, but that's my truth. I'm sure if my children were covered in vomit and crying for me, I would go to them. But it would take every fiber in my being to will myself to.
Thankfully, my husband is sympathetic to my emetophobia, and he's been incredibly helpful. During his first 5 years of life, my son has experienced several stomach viruses, and my husband has been around to help him every time. Once, when he was 3, he was sitting on the toilet crying that his stomach hurt. I stood in the doorway of the bathroom dancing like a fool to try to cheer him up, because I knew vomiting was imminent. Fortunately, my husband arrived home from work at that moment and took over bathroom duties just as my son puked all over the bathroom floor.
When my son does throw up, I usually volunteer to clean up the vomit rather than care for my son. Somehow, I find the actual vomit less offensive than the vomiting child. My fears center around the unknown: when will the person throw up again? Will I catch the stomach bug it when it happens?
I wish I could just lie in bed and relax, without this flurry of fears whipping through my brain.
My daughter is 20 months old, and she last had a stomach virus when she was an infant. At that time, I begrudgingly cared for her because she was a baby and therefore in the "barely tolerable" age zone for vomiting.
At night, I often lay awake scared that one of my kids will yell "Mooooooooom!" and it will be because they're sick to their stomachs and about to hurl their guts out. My son calls out for my husband at least as often as he does me, but my daughter is a mommy's girl and is glued to my hip. If she's sick, she's going to want me to care for her. I'm not sure I'm up to the challenge. Worrying this way is exhausting. I wish I could just lie in bed and relax, without this flurry of fears whipping through my brain.
I know I need to get better so I can do better for my kids. I know that parents aren't just parents when it's fun or easy — we're parents when it's challenging and when their kids need them. I know I'm fortunate to be the mom of two healthy kids who suffer from the occasional stomach bug, like all kids do.
In the meantime, though, if my kids call out for me in the night and it's stomach-related, I'm going to call out for their dad.