Emetophobia: My Story- Emma McAuliffe- Life Coach & Mental Health Advocate
"I pick at or bite my nails till they bleed, bite my bottom lip (sometimes till it bleeds) and even picking at the skin sores because as a result I feel disgusting and feel I look disgusting…which it’s actually a form of subtle self-harm- that's what anxiety can do to you"
Since starting my blog Organised Mess a few years ago, I’ve gone down the path of sharing my experiences and struggles with severe mental and physical health issues.
Although I have been very open and public, even speaking at public and private events as a mental health advocate, what many don’t know is that in addition to battling gereralised anxiety, depressions, PTSD and chrinic pain, I have personally been battling with Emetophobia for over 8 years now and it has impacted my life dramatically. It's this fear/phobia which is the link between many of the mental health issues I have struggled with, as it's one of the primiary triggers for anxiety and panic attacks over the years!
I haven't really touched on Emetophobia in my blog or advocacy work yet, as my family doesn’t even know the severity of what has been going on. As like for many people, their understanding of the condition is it’s ‘strange’ because the general idea is that “nobody likes getting sick” and what some people fail to understand that it’s much much more than just “not liking” or “not coping” with it. Emetophobia is the extreme fear and terror of being in your own body and not being in control or facing public humiliation and disconnection.
I have only been aware of the term ‘Emetophobia’ now for the last 6 months where I was introduced to it when coming across a Facebook support page. As i watched multiple personal story videos I couldn’t help but think “oh my god, that’s me” and immediately connected with the term to explain what’s been happening for me. For those that don’t know what emetophobia is,
"it is the extreme fear of being sick, seeing someone else sick or the very idea of sickness which can send you into overdrive with fear, panic and isolation".
It’s linked with many things including anxiety, as it can often come in hand in hand with panic attacks, because of that feeling like you are not in control and feeling sick to the stomach in public can make you feel worse. The anxiety I have been experiencing the last few months has caused skin outbreaks (sores) and hair falling out (a usual cycle for me when stressed over the years). This is a result of poor eating habits and nervous coping habits. By nervous habits I mean picking at or biting nails till they bleed, biting my bottom lip (sometimes till it bleeds) and even picking at the skin sores because as a result I feel (disgusting and feel I look disgusting)…which it’s actually a form of subtle self-harm.
For many sufferers, they don’t always know what triggered the response and the phobia, for me I am well aware and have been working through it as it’s much deeper than just a one-off experience. The word ‘phobia’ is commonly understood in society, it’s not a strange concept for someone to experience debilitating fear over things like spiders, snakes (I have a phobia of snakes too), heights and flying. There’s kind of an unwritten rule of what seems more ‘acceptable’ and the ‘silly’ and as emetophobia can often fall under the ‘silly’ category, many sufferers don’t speak up from fear of ridicule. I have on occasions spoken up to medical professionals who have brushed it off and many have never even heard of it. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve spoken up and someone has taken me seriously, and that amazing person is my partner. I’m truly blessed to have this man in my life as he challenges everything I think I believe about partnerships and true love and he is my grounding force and unconditional support.
I didn’t open up to him until recently as it’s something that I even put in the ‘silly’ category for many years and it’s been extremely hard to overcome it as it’s linked in with a number of triggers all linking back to past traumas.
To give you a better idea of how debilitating it has been, I have avoided public social gatherings from the fear of being around people in general and germs, I have religiously taken natural ‘anti-sickness’ meds regularly (sometimes sneakily) as a preventative, I always have on hand a plastic bag in case I get sick, and most of my daily thoughts involve, “what if I get sick” as I look around for escape routes when in public. I have avoided travelling (and deep down I love the idea of travelling the world), past relationships have been ruined as I’ve pushed people away and I have had panic attacks triggered purely from ‘health scares,’ but from minor things that don’t seem to really bother other people that much. I have always just seen the avoidance behaviours as normal and ‘manageable’ up until recently where I became aware of just how severe this phobia is. The biggest realisation came to me recently when I had a pregnancy scare. Up until now I have avoided having children for many years and the topic of children has triggered a panic in me that is indescribable. The fear of morning sickness, school aged children with communicable bugs etc, has been a massive deterrent and a big decider in my decision to not have children, which is one of those things that is a part of life, but for me and many people it’s like jumping out of a plane with the same level of panic.
I didn’t cope well recently either with bout of sickness (tummy bug- no vomiting/ just nausea and diarrhea and panic for 10 days, and now chest congestion). To give you an idea of how dangerous this can be, I actually stated to my partner I’m scared to cough up phlegm because it triggers the gag reflex, so I would prefer to keep the mucous in, risking chest infection and long term issues, rather than deal with the fear of being sick. Now for anyone reading this, trust me I know it’s ridiculous, I know how irrational and unavoidable many of these things are, but in all honestly, the fear is as strong for me as my other biggest fear, snakes and is no different to the fear someone would exerience jumping out of a plane. Like I said, the turning point for me was reading other peoples stories, men, women, all over the world, struggling with similar triggers and sadly so many people have gone down the path of eating disorders, the fear of food and many were misdiagnosed when receiving treatment. There was a time in my life I was avoiding food because I was so anxious all the time, and couldn’t eat in public. It really has only been the last 4 years where I would eat in public, sitting down, as before I needed to always get takeaway which frustrated my family who wanted to sit down to eat and I always made an excuse as to why I wouldn't.
So although I have worked through a lot of this with counselling and coaching, there’s still memories and triggers that I’m working through and having to allow to resurface in order to let it go.
So far what I have discovered is that this irrational, debilitating fear, stems from my traumatic time in the military and my many high responsibility jobs after. Many people already know that I suffered greatly from bullying and public humiliation not just in the military but most jobs I've had, but what you may not know is that I experienced chronic sea sickness, and on several occasions was ‘in trouble’ and publicly reprimanded for not being present at my place of duty as I was so sick and scared most of the time and around that time I was extremely suicidal.
Around this time I was also the laughing joke of the navy (how I felt) where I only had a few select people who I felt really cared for me and knew the real me, and I never felt I belonged or was accepted into any groups as they were always so clicky. For me the experience cut deep right to my core beliefs of not being liked or good enough. Because one of our most basic human needs is to be accepted by others (we need acceptance and nurturing to survive), and for me there was a large portion of my adulthood where I made so many desperate attempts to be included, but wasn’t, it’s no wonder that these experiences had such a big impact on me. In a way they still do as there are parts that I still haven’t been able to work through as I wasn’t even aware they were even there still deep in my subconscious mind.
Put simply, In the navy I stood out like dogs balls, and by saying that I mean, there wasn’t a day that went by where I wouldn’t be walking on eggshells, scared, timid, broken and dead inside but needed to put on the ‘fun facade’ and drank to cope with the underlying feelings I didn't want people to see. I stood out because I often made mistakes and was always in the spot light as an example of 'what not to do'. I just wanted to be seen as 'normal' and accepted. Like I said there were occasions where I was feeling so physically sick but got in trouble for not being able to carry out my duties, that I was publicly humiliated and reprimanded rather than receive any support. So now the mere idea of being sick, doesn’t just stop as the general “uneasy feeling” but triggers for me a flight/fight response from my body and mind to say that my understanding of this is that this reiterates a belief I have that I will be “in trouble,” “publicly humiliated,’ and ‘out of control’ etc and all these things link back to my unmet need to be accepted, not just by others, but by myself.
Although these experiences happened years ago, the experiences are still imbedded in my subconscious mind in a negative way, triggering the same response and resulting is what is called PTSD. What I am currently working on now is sorting through these ‘subconscious files’ and challenging them and changing the way I think about them, but it’s not always an easy task as you have to recognise the flight/fight response at the time before you escalate too quickly and do that repeatedly and consistently with each triggered response.
My understanding of what’s going on is the key to overcome it, and it’s still early days as I continue to discover more links and triggers that bring up these things. The phobia is more related to a deep traumatic fear of humiliation and disconnection and ultimately a feeling that I have no control. Due to this experience, as a result, for years I went down the path of trying to organise everything to a high standard to minimise any chance of “stuffing anything up” and being in the 'spot light'….and in particular not going downhill mentally because I felt back then that when I was mentally unwell I was more of a laughing stock of my workmates.
I never understood the weird behaviours to be anything, even the days where I would go on organising sprees and label everything in the pantry and spend entire pay checks at Officeworks, but now as a coach and NLP Practitioner I’ve learnt so much about myself and continue to learn more about myself, my behaviours, and the way it’s all linked.
I understand what caused many of my breakdowns both mentally and physically, and in particular I am now heading down the path where I learning to accept myself exactly as I am. I’m learning to heal not just my body of past traumas and addictions, but also my mind. By practicing awareness and minimising reactive coping mechanisms like anxiety, sickness and bringing to light the battles I face, it takes away their power.
What also takes away the power is the ability to remain authentic and real and share with people the battles to show that there’s nothing to be ashamed about. For years I have kept a lot of this to myself, thinking that no one would understand, but the truth is EVERYONE UNDERSTANDS, because in our own way we have all be broken down and bruised and are fearful of rejection, hate, abandonment, humiliation, why….simply, it’s our basic human need to be LOVED.
I was particularly taken by surprise when I opened up about the “having children and emetophobia’ talk I had recently my significant other, as he listened with concern and respect and ultimately stated that we are “in it together.” He explained that he doesn't understand but trusts that it's real for me and that he will help me come up with a game plan to tackle the situations as they arise. What more could you want in a partner, seriously!
So I’d like to leave you with this, if you are experiencing a debilitating condition and feel no one will understand, have faith in knowing that you are not alone and even if someone doesn’t experience it themselves, doesn’t mean they won’t try to. Have faith that there is more good than bad in the world and that deep down we are no different from one another. We all have our basic needs and for many of us these needs are not being met, mostly because we don’t 100% love and accept ourselves, and that is a lifelong journey because we are forever changing and healing from our past wounds. Be patient, Be non-judgemental and be kind to yourself always!