For once I am happy to be outside among the bugs. The bugs out here, while annoying, are at least tolerable to some degree. I can’t say as much for the bugs inside my house. While shopping in Trader Joe’s yesterday evening, Mikey starting acting like a little boy on the verge of a stomach flu. For an emetophobic like me, it was very bad news.
I don’t know why I am this way. I don’t know why I have to shoulder this phobia like an albatross around my neck. I do know the inability to comfort your child because of a fear you can’t control is excruciating. Devastating. Debilitating. But not as much as the fear itself. The fear always wins, and the disappointment I have in myself collects in my stomach like bile, leaving me to feel just as nauseous.
I can postulate any number of reasons why I am plagued with this phobia. I threw up as a child often due to severe motion sickness. And by severe, I mean my mom would bring a change of clothes for me on simple trips to the grocery store. I remember clearly one trip to Canada when we were living in upstate New York. I had to be younger than Mikey. I kept vomiting, over and over, into diapers. I was crying and my parents were bickering with each other. It must have been so exhausting for them, dealing with a child who couldn’t go more than a quarter mile in the car without baptizing the contents and passengers. Some therapists believe the trauma triggered my phobia. Others say it’s hereditary. My mother has a phobia, as does my maternal grandmother. Most likely, it a combination of both: a perfect storm of nature and nurture.
Back to Mikey. We got home, and he threw up on the Mister as he was putting him to bed. I was outside, feigning some important task. If you have a phobia, especially one like mine, you are aware. There is no other way to describe the incredible ability you develop to read body language. And so, when my radar starts to beep, I leave. But when I heard his screams, I couldn’t deny the mother in me any longer and came running back.
I bumped into the Mister on his way to change out of his sopping clothes.
“He threw up.”
“What can I do?” I pushed the words out of my mouth like flat, heavy stones.
It was like a slap in the face. I looked at my sobbing Mikey, wet and scared and feverish and defeated by his own intestinal tract. I asked him what happened as I steered him towards the linoleum of the bathroom.
“I f-f-frowed up!” He was beside himself. So was I.
The mother in me wanted to pick him up, press his soiled little body against mine, and rock him into good health. Instead, I closed my eyes and tried to catch my breath as I gingerly tousled his hair and grazed his shoulders with my fingers. I murmured trite platitudes as my chest tightened, my breath shortened, and the cold sweat of fear trickled down my neck and formed rivulets between my shoulder blades.
I don’t hate much, but I hate emetophobia.
I’ve looked for treatment. I’ve consulted therapists. It is, I discovered, one of the more common phobias. People don’t admit to it often because on the Official 1-10 Scale of Cool and Acceptable Phobias it ranks a meager 1. Instead, you’ll hear things like “social anxiety” or “claustrophobia” or “agoraphobia.” For years I used these labels, too, but I stopped once I realized there might be other people like me, and that by being honest I might be rewarded with a comrade in fear. I truly, really, believed I was the only person with this phobia until I googled it in 2003. I was shocked to discover it had a name, and that celebrities like Joan Baez, Denise Richards, and Matt Lauer have it, too. Oh, and Howie Mandel. Probably. It’s been rumored his OCD regarding germs is about emetophobia.
Sadly, this is one of the harder phobias to successfully treat. Even worse, of the four types of emetophobia, I have the more difficult to treat fear of others vomiting. For whatever reason, the usual techniques in the psychiatrist’s arsenal just don’t stick. There is no purple pill for me to take. And believe me, this morning when the Mister left for work and left me to take care of Mikey until 8:30 tonight, I would have swallowed an entire bottle if I thought it would help.
Somehow, I survived. I had him lay on blankets and had bowls at the ready. I allowed him to take slow, controlled sips of water and juice and waited to see what would happen. We had a couple of close calls when his stomach started to feel “crazy” again, but he never threw up. It didn’t matter. If you have a phobia, you know the anxiety of waiting for an event to happen can be more incapacitating than the event itself.
By dinner time, Mikey was almost back to normal. Whatever bug made him sick had left, leaving in its place guilt and disappointment in myself. I’m disgusted I can’t be there for my boys when they need me. I don’t want to be a perfect mother; they don’t exist. But I don’t want to be so imperfect, either.
So I keep looking for a cure because I will not let this fear control me. My stubborn, relentless, terrier-with-a-bone personality finally has a purpose. I won’t give up. I won’t stop researching. I won’t die with regret.