My journey with Emetophobia

{This page contains content that could be disturbing to Emetophobes such as graphic descriptions of stressful and traumatic episodes correlated with vomiting}

Deciding to share my story was not an easy decision, as the fear of being judged is still strong, but my desire to raise awareness about Emetophobia, and hopefully help someone out there who might be lost, as I once was, is even stronger. Most of my life I wanted to be understood, but it was hard to explain my weird or irrational behaviour when even I was not fully aware of what was happening to me. It took me a lifetime to understand why and how this condition happened to me and even though some pieces might still be blurry, most of them are now clear for me to see and understand. I finally feel there are no more missing pieces to the puzzle of my life story. They're all there for me to sort out in the right order. It's still a work in progress, but whose life isn't!


I remember the first time I read someone else's life story with Emetophobia. That day was one of the most important days of my life. It was the day I realised I was not alone and that somewhere in the world there were other people like me, living similar lives, fearing the same things and fighting daily battles just like mine. That day finally steered me in the right direction and marked the beginning of my recovery process. Without reading that story, I might have spent the rest of my life still looking for my place in this world without ever feeling I can really relate to any other person on this planet. So as hard and vulnerable as it is to put my own story out there in the world, I am aware that this is part of my decision to raise awareness and help other people like me feel understood and less alone in the silent battle against Emetophobia. 

My journey with Emetophobia goes back to the first memory of my whole life at the age of two when, while in the care of a babysitter, I experienced severe abuse, which in one instance was followed by me vomiting out of stress and fear. From that day onwards vomiting would become a constant and all too common occurrence in my life. Soon after, I was diagnosed with a certain type of stomach bacteria that was supposed to justify the frequent episodes of vomiting and I was instructed to avoid particular foods in order not to feel sick. Therefore, from a very tender age I was taught that food can be dangerous and that I should avoid it as otherwise it might make me sick. I firmly believe that's when I subconsciously started creating fearful beliefs around food and vomiting. However, despite avoiding all the prohibited foods, my frequent episodes of vomiting persisted. I found out much later, in my late twenties, that I was highly allergic to dairy products, which was in all likelihood the cause of my frequent vomiting episodes all along. If someone would have understood my food intolerance at the time, perhaps I would have never developed Emetophobia, or maybe it would have been a much milder case than what it came to be. I will never know, and sometimes that can be difficult to digest.


At some point my vomiting episodes started occurring, not only following certain foods, but especially during or following extremely stressful situations. Unfortunately, I went through many stressful circumstances during my childhood and adolescence, starting with Croatia going through a civil war, followed by severe illnesses and tragic losses in my immediate family, which very early in my life, resulted in me developing an intense fear of dying in some extremely painful way. This premature fear of dying would be a seed that would eventually become the basis of my struggle with Emetophobia. 


By the time I was 17, I developed a pattern of vomiting as a response to any stressful or even exciting situation. This included exams, as well as first dates; such different emotions would be able to provoke the same reaction in me, an out of control episode of vomiting. Unfortunately, I experienced these episodes in all sort of times and places such as buses, clubs, city squares or friend's houses. It did not limit itself to public places only as I'd repeatedly vomit in my own home as well. There was no safe place for me.


I was desperate as I simply didn’t know how to make it stop, and I wanted it to stop so badly. As things span out of control, I started developing avoidance behaviours in order to prevent the embarrassment of being seen in such a condition. I started avoiding people, public places and especially public transport as I would feel trapped with no way out, but most of all I started avoiding food as my brain concluded if there was nothing in my stomach there would be nothing to throw up. Very quickly I got very thin which led to most people believing I was suffering from an eating disorder, including the first therapist I started seeing at the age of 18. Many others would follow, as many as the diagnoses that would come along with them. 


My life somehow went on and I apparently seemed to have things under control as I graduated high school with flying grades and signed up to the best university. Besides my weight, nothing could indicate the internal distress as I kept a really strong facade and I focused on anything else just to distract myself from the thousands of unanswered questions that were filling my mind. My strong facade and a very self-deprecating, sarcastic humour distracted people and sometimes even managed to fool me into believing it would all go away on its own. I was completely obsessed and absorbed by school. I was raised to be such and I found in it a good distraction from whatever was happening to me. It’s only now that I can see how smooth was the transition from an anxious child, to an increasingly distressed, troubled adolescent and eventually to a deeply damaged and fearful adult. Now I can see that transition clearly but at the time I was totally oblivious to what was happening, as most as my family and friends were. By the time I realised my life was not guided by me but an invisible prison keeper, it was already too late, I was already at the mercy of this silent condition that crept into my life in a way I didn't even see it coming, developing within me, growing alongside me and eventually outgrowing and overpowering me.

Eventually with a help of a great psychiatrist, who was as unaware of my real condition as I was at the time, I managed to get some things under control and I managed to move away from home to Italy, the place where I thought I'd find my freedom. Italy was a place I loved deeply as it was the place where I did find freedom from a strict upbringing, I experienced life to a certain degree and I discovered my passion for Psychology. Being away from home and from where it all started, for some time, fooled me into believing that I actually escaped the whole nightmare and that I would be free from all those demons that haunted me since I was a child. Again, I would learn the hard way, by making many painful mistakes, that escaping was not the solution to my problem. During that time, unfortunately, I experienced another extremely traumatic experience with vomiting, the one that would seal the deal with Emetophobia. I happened to catch a stomach bug and during a violent episode of vomiting, something got stuck in my throat and for some time I was left with no oxygen. I don't know how long it lasted, but it seemed an eternity to me. Certainly, it was long enough for me to have the time to think that was the way I was going to die. Obviously, I didn't die, but from that day onwards I would slowly start avoiding living, first in a very subtle, nearly unnoticeable way and later on, in more obvious and more drastic ways. 


I lived life always looking over my shoulder, sensing that it was always around, waiting to catch me in a moment of weakness. I lived like a prey in the middle of an open field, knowing that the beast was somewhere around, lurking in some bush, just waiting for a moment of distraction to attack. I felt vulnerable and exposed at all times, as my fear never left my side. I started avoiding things that would make me weak and vulnerable, as I always felt I needed to be ready and strong for when it would come to strike me. I lived on full alert. I ran away from places, people and relationships in the hope of leaving behind that fear of something that didn't even have a name, something yet unidentified, but so powerful that it scared the life out of me. By that time panic attacks were a daily struggle, a struggle that would slowly ruin everything I tried to build in my life. Living life while being constantly terrified of being struck by panic attacks which would inevitably lead to vomiting and dying was consuming to me, and to those around me. It's not a surprise that I ran away from any relationship which would become more emotionally intense, as I couldn't deal with such emotions as they made me vulnerable and being vulnerable was not an option as then I'd be an easy target to whatever was constantly at my heels. I always had to be in control and on top of things to feel some kind of apparent safety, so whenever I'd feel out of control, I'd do the thing I learnt to do best, run away. Today, it's so sad seeing how I escaped from things in a desperate attempt to hold onto some kind of control while in reality, the things I was really losing control of were my own thoughts and my own body, the only two things I couldn't escape from. The biggest irony was that I ran away from so many good things in my life and I ran right into the embrace of a thousand fears and 'safety routines' which would be the ones that would lead to my downfall.

In the coming years, I would subconsciously start avoiding things that could make me sick. I stopped drinking alcohol, as it used to often make me sick. I started avoiding just a few foods here and there and gradually came to avoid entire meals. I was becoming increasingly distressed at all times and lived in a constant flight or fight mode. The panic attacks increased in number and intensity as the years were going by. I bounced from one therapist to another, as the diagnoses that I was getting were just not adding up. I always felt as there was a missing piece to the puzzle. I read all the possible books about anorexia and bulimia, as those were the most commonly diagnosed.

I read those books from cover to cover, trying to read between the lines in the desperate attempt of finally recognising myself in someone, or something. The anxiety, the depression, the panic attacks, the isolation and the fear of judgment were all there. So many things seemed to add up, and yet there was one issue that was always sticking out: I never had the need or wish to be any thinner. I actually hated being thin and I would have done anything to put on some weight. I looked in the mirror and I saw exactly what was there, a very thin, at times severely malnourished body. Despite knowing in my heart that I couldn't possibly be anorexic, I actually really wanted to be. As crazy as it sounds, I would have preferred to be anorexic than continue not knowing who I was and what I was suffering from. I desperately needed to belong somewhere. I wanted to identify with someone. I didn't want to be the oddest person in the world who didn't belong anywhere. And yet, that is exactly how I felt. I desperately needed to belong somewhere. 


As I graduated from my Bachelor's in Psychology, I suddenly lost interest for studying. The academic success was not giving me the high it used to. It just couldn't fill the growing void I was feeling inside. Losing the love for studying left me completely lost, as that was the only thing I knew how to do, the one thing I was so well trained to do, the only thing I couldn't fail at. But suddenly it didn't matter anymore. The moment I held the degree certificate in my hand I realised it was only a piece of paper, and one that didn't make me feel any better, that didn't make it all worthwhile. It couldn't erase the fear and the pain I was living with and therefore, that piece of paper meant nothing to me. The awareness that something I aimed for all my life, a university degree, could not make me feel better, suddenly crushed my whole world. I didn't know who I was, I didn't know where I belonged and I didn't know what to do with my life, or whatever was left of it. I was truly lost.


I craved love and acceptance more than anything, but when I would get it, it just never seemed enough. I could never find peace, and so I just kept running. What I really needed was protection and safety. It took me many, many years to understand that all the love in the world wouldn't have mattered as I didn't love myself. How can you love yourself if you don't even who you are and where you belong? As much as I knew how wrong it was to label people, I was in desperate need of a label, one that would finally tell me where I would fit it. 


When I was 26 I met the guy who finally stopped me from running away and instead made me run away with him and got me to settle down. And this is how I ended up in Malta, a tiny island in the Mediterranean. I hoped the change would help, but that time, deep inside I knew I was not leaving anything behind. All my problems were packing and coming with me, whether I liked it or not. Moving to a new country is never easy, especially if you're moving to a country with a different culture, different language and different climate. There were many things to get used to, and none of them were easy, especially for someone who already carried a big burden on their shoulders, a burden I tried to hide for a long time in the desperate attempt to fit in and start afresh. Hiding my problems was not the best idea. It actually made things worse as it strengthened my symptoms even further. The fear of being seen for who I was and potentially being judged for my condition was increasing my anxiety by the day. I went from avoiding a dinner here and there to spending four entire years without ever having dinner. From avoiding a couple of dishes, I came down to eating just a couple of dishes over and over again. From skipping large and crowded events, I started avoiding even small gatherings with friends and family events. My comfort zone started becoming smaller and smaller until it came down to the four walls of my own house, and even those would often not be able to save me from the terrifying panic attacks that sometimes went on for hours, or even entire nights. 


Even though I was trying to hide my problems from my new environment, I was in no denial. I was fully aware of my problems and the importance of having the support of a good therapist. It took some bad experiences before finding the right therapist, but eventually I found a person that would become my reference point for many years to come. I would embark on a five year long therapy journey with a therapist who became a crucial part of my support system on this island. A person I learned to respect and then to love like a family member as she stayed by my side through thick and thin while we both racked our brains to find the missing piece of the puzzle. She has been a great tutor, the most wonderful human being and a person I will always cherish as one of the best people I was honoured to have in my life. And even though we didn’t manage to solve my Emetophobia problem together, as that was not her specialisation, in those five years I learnt priceless lessons about life; I got to truly know myself; I got to work on and improve the relationships in my life and overall I believe it helped me to grow and become a better person. I’m sure that without her guidance and support I would have never found the missing piece of my puzzle, the Emetophobia.


At the age of 31 something finally clicked in me and I Googled the words "fear of vomiting". That was the first time I ever read the world Emetophobia. Almost immediately I understood that I had found where I belonged. The feeling was overwhelming to say the least, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. As hard as it was to find out I suffered from quite a rare condition, at least I could finally feel I belonged somewhere and that I was not the world's odd one out. I was just like all those people, same fears, same avoidance behaviours, same panic attacks...all stories which sounded so much like my own.


Discovering what I was suffering from was an incredible relief, but a sad realisation followed soon after as I realised there was no professional help for that condition in Malta. There was an eating disorder clinic that I was referred to as the closest thing to the support I required. Reluctantly I joined that clinic, knowing that I was not suffering from any eating disorders, but still believing when I was told they would have helped me by creating a tailor-made program for my specific condition. It sounded too good to be true, and it was. I will not elaborate in too much detail out of respect towards the wonderful people and the most relentless warriors I met in the long seven months I attended the clinic. The only real reason I felt it was important to mention this is because during those seven months my condition got worse than ever before because it was neglected, belittled and treated in the most unprofessional of ways. There's a reason why we seek help from specialised professionals when we have a specific problem. Not all health professionals will know how to treat all health issues and often, their lack of knowledge can be more damaging than one can imagine. The wrong treatment can be much more detrimental to one’s health than no treatment at all. There was a point during those months when I told the psychiatrist, who was supposedly following my case, that I was ready to face my fear and that I came to the conclusion that, if it happened to occur, I would simply allow myself to vomit without avoiding it by all means. For an Emetophobe to come to this point takes an incredible amount of courage and honestly desperation. But I was ready. I wanted my life back, so I was ready to face it. What I was not ready for was the answer I got from the professional who should have known better than to say, "I wouldn't do that, as you never know what might happen". In that moment, my brain collapsed into a total chaos. A part of me knew that what he said was the most ignorant and most harmful thing he could have ever said to an Emetophobe, but the other part of me, the one where Emetophobia comfortably resided, got the acknowledgement of a lifetime, recognition from a highly trained professional who just acknowledged the risks of vomiting, as..."you never know what might happen". I didn't want to believe him, but I'm afraid I did. If he thought it risky, then it must have been true. My Emetophobia thrived and in a short time it brought me to my knees as never before. And all this because of that one sentence that meant so much more than that person could have ever imagined. That sentence was nearly a death sentence as after that I lost my will to fight, or to live. After that my fear grew to unseen heights.  My panic attacks terrorised me at any time of the day or night and my anxiety was at an all-time high, preventing me from going out of my house because I was desperately attempting to keep myself apparently safe. I ate only a couple of dishes, fearing that anything could make me sick. Fear was monopolising my whole life and I was completely paralysed by it. There wasn't a time of the day of night when I didn't fear imminent panic attacks that would lead to vomiting and eventually to dying. It was a living hell.


Having said this, I just want people to keep in mind that not all medical professionals will always be right or knowledgeable on every single topic. They are human and they can make mistakes and sometimes give bad advice. You should always use your common sense and when you doubt the advice you’re given, do look for other opinions; you have the right and the responsibility towards yourself to do so. It's your life on the line, not theirs. And I also want professionals to know that it's ok to admit that you're not capable of giving advice on topics you are not familiar with, as the wrong advice might seem a small thing to you, but it can make or break someone's life. Admitting you don't know everything doesn't make you a bad professional, but it does make you a good human being. 


Thankfully by that time in my life, I already had an online shop, selling my own hand made clay decorations, which was growing and kept me busy all the time. I worked an insane amount of hours per day, consuming my hands to the point of damaging my tendons, desperately trying to keep my mind busy, to avoid even the thought of a panic attack, as only one thought could cause it to materialise and I'd be thrown into that spiral of hell, out of which, I never knew whether I'd come out of alive. I slept badly, mostly haunted by the most horrific nightmares which would often send me into full blown panic attacks as soon as I'd wake up. In the mornings, I would feel more tired than when I went to sleep. The mornings became terrible, as waking up to such a reality was waking up from one nightmare, only to walk into another one. I came to the point of not wanting to wake up at all. In order to survive one single day, I had to face a whole series of battles, ones I was not willing to face anymore. I wanted it all to be over. I was never a quitter, I fought all my life, but I was so tired of the fear, the pain and the terror I was living under. I just wanted to stop the pain and I felt I had nothing else to give, or to lose. It had already taken everything away from me. In those moments, I felt as alone as ever because nobody could really understand, and I was tired of trying to make them understand. The only thing that kept me going in those moments was my work. I had my online shop, I had responsibilities and I would never allow myself to disappoint my customers. I was still an impeccable perfectionist at heart. Making my art was what saved me from ending the battle. It supported me through the hardest of panic attacks, it filled even the most terrifying days and it even gave me a purpose when I didn't feel I had any in this world. So I worked from dusk till dawn. I knew that was not enough to live, but it was enough to survive.

After having spent so many years of my life starving myself, spending days and nights being hungry and thirsty, and still denying myself even a drop of water because of my fear of vomiting, I came to the point where I felt I had nothing to lose. I didn't care much for living, so why would I fear dying so much. Touching that rock bottom somehow made me nearly indifferent to the possibility of dying and I simply decided to start eating more. Despite building some kind of comfort zone in my own home, going outside was a mine zone, which I was not ready to face. It terrified me. So I spent my days working, eating, fighting my fears at all times, but nonetheless, still eating and still working. I wasn't living, but I was still surviving.

At that point, my husband did the best thing he could have done for me. He reached out to one of the leading professional in the Emetophobia field in the UK and that's how I finally got to speak for the first time with someone who didn't look at me as if I was completely insane, but someone who's heard stories like mine many times before. For the first time, I heard someone talk about Emetophobia in the way that I knew it, and that's when I knew there was hope. If they knew people like me, if they treated people like me, then there must have been hope even for someone like me.

After being assessed and formally diagnosed with Emetophobia for the first time, at the age of 33, I was recommended to the wonderful therapist that I'm still working with. Like any real and good therapy, it's hard work and extremely demanding. It's challenging me to change my whole belief system. Life is still hard and there are still days when I don't feel the power to push on, but then somehow, I always find it. Now I go out of my house every day, even if just for a short while, but I do it no matter how I feel. I've increased the variety of foods I eat and I'm finally tasting some foods I've missed for what feels like a lifetime. I've reduced my working hours and I'm spending more time doing relaxing things like reading, walking, meditating when I manage, cuddling up with my dog, sometimes baking and as of lately, working on a wonderful project, this website. 


I've always known that I would have had to find a purpose to all the pain and suffering Emetophobia has put me through, and still does. I felt that if I found that purpose to it then I'd make peace with my life, with the things I lost, the things I never got to experience and all the freedom Emetophobia has taken away from me. I realised that the lack of awareness on the topic of Emetophobia was one of the factors that made my condition so much worse. People's lack of understanding and their silent, and sometimes not so silent, judgments made a difficult journey sometimes unbearable, besides making me feel extremely lonely in this difficult battle for survival. 

I still have a long way to go but I know that I'm on the right track and I know that every day I'm making small steps towards my recovery. Some days are harder and the steps I take may even be backwards, but other days I get to see a tiny little light in the distance which I suppose is the famous light at the end of the tunnel. It sounds like a cliché, but I don't care, I just want to come to the end of that tunnel and breath again, breathe in my freedom and breathe in my peace. I just want to stop surviving and start living again.