This is a blog post that I’ve been considering writing for a while but have been very nervous about posting. Seeing as it is Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought that this was a good opportunity to share my story. I suffer from emetophobia, which is a fear of both myself and other people being sick. I do refer to this in this story so please don’t read if you think this might be triggering for you. This is a long read, so get a cuppa and a biscuit ready!
I have had anxiety, and more specifically emetophobia, for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of a child being sick in the nursery playground when I was 3, and the blinding panic I felt as a result. I didn’t speak in public as a young child. I had something called selective mutism which is an anxiety disorder where you are unable to speak in social situations. It makes me sad that as such a young child I was already so anxious.
I started speaking in public when I started school, but I was always very shy, right up to University. Throughout primary school, every time a child in my class said they felt sick I would be restless and scared, willing the teacher to send them to first aid in case they were sick. I didn’t enjoy school, I cried a lot and, looking back on it, can recognise that I was very anxious.
My anxiety seemed better when I first started secondary school aged 11 and I was much happier to go to school. However, a month into term, during a Geography lesson, we were asked to hand in our homework and my heart dropped when I realised I had left mine at home. The teacher gave me a warning and told me to bring it next time. For most children, this would have been no big deal. For me, I was absolutely devastated. A few days later, I was kneeling on my bedroom floor packing my bag for school the next day. I remember twisting around to pick something up and getting a sudden sharp pain in my right leg. For the next few days I was in terrible pain and didn’t know why. We thought that I must have pulled a muscle in my leg and that it would sort itself out, but it didn’t. It got worse and worse until I was unable to put socks on because the pain was so bad. I went to A&E three times that week, as well as to the doctor and an osteopath. On my third visit to A&E, they realised that my right leg was freezing cold and I got admitted to hospital and diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). This is often caused by an injury or surgery, and doctors couldn’t understand how I had got it. Eventually they decided that it was probably caused by anxiety, and triggered by how devastated I had been about receiving a warning at school. I went through physio and occupational therapy, and while I do still get some pain, I am very fortunate that the CRPS is as mild as it is, as it can be life limiting for some people.
Two years later we moved house and I had to start a new secondary school aged 13. Starting a new school where everyone already has their friendship groups is daunting for anybody. Unfortunately, I did struggle to make friends at first, often eating lunch by myself and spending break times sitting on a bench on my own. I was still struggling with the CRPS and I think a lot of people didn’t understand and thought that I was attention seeking. I did begin to enjoy school more as time went on, and I made a group of lovely friends who I am still friends with now.
Fast forward a couple of years, I was 16, and it was time to do my GCSEs. At this point I still did not know that I was suffering with anxiety. I would feel extremely nervous before exams, terrified that people might get sick with nerves, and during the exam I would be feeling so worked up that I could barely concentrate on what I was doing (with hindsight I can see that I was having panic attacks). After having to leave an exam part way through, my head of year referred me to the school nurse which I am so grateful for. The nurse was lovely and we talked through some of my worries. I decided I wanted to tell her about all my worries involving people being sick but I didn’t know how to say it. My mum suggested that I write it down and give it to her which I did. She was really kind and said that she recommended that I see my GP about it as they may be able to offer me more support. Following my visit to the GP I was diagnosed with an anxiety and panic disorder and was referred to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It was suggested that I started taking amitriptyline, but at this point I felt very worried about taking any medication and so turned it down.
I explained to my CBT therapist how terrified I was about the thought of other people being sick, and was even more terrified by the idea of being sick myself. They were very understanding and reassured me that I wasn’t the first and only person to feel like this. Up until this point I hadn’t realised that I had anxiety and so it was comforting to know that it wasn’t just me. I started undergoing exposure therapy, which involved me looking at pictures and videos of people being sick. I was also taught about what was happening to my body when I had a panic attack, so that I understood it wasn’t just my body shutting down. This CBT did make me feel like I could manage situations with people being sick a bit better, and so I decided that I did think I could manage going to University. Up until this point I hadn’t wanted to go, as I knew a big part of Uni culture was people drinking excessively and then being sick which I hadn’t felt I could manage.
I decided to go to the University of Reading to study English Language. The one thing I was really worried about was having to share a bathroom in case people were sick in it and then I would have to use it. I then found out at one of the open days that I was eligible for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) due to both my anxiety and my CRPS. This meant that I could have an ensuite room at Uni, and the difference between a standard room with a shared bathroom and my ensuite room would be paid for by DSA. This meant that I felt able to go to University and I am so grateful that the DSA gave me that opportunity.
Aged 18, I started University. I was nervous but also really excited. I loved University at the start, I really got on with my flat mates, was enjoying my new independence and was interested in my studies. Unfortunately, this honeymoon period didn’t last long. I got seriously unwell with viral meningitis followed by post viral fatigue, meaning that I spent a lot of time in my room asleep. At this point, the doctor suggested I take amitriptyline for the migraines I was getting with the post viral fatigue. I was desperate for them to stop and so agreed to start taking it, which I did find also helped my anxiety and my sleep. I didn’t have many friends as I spent so much time on my own, and was still very shy so I decided to get in touch with a girl I had been good friends with at primary school who I knew was also at Reading. We became best friends again and I lived with her and some other friends for the next two years. During this time my anxiety was pretty low and I was leading a normal life and was happy.
The summer at the end of second year, when I was 20, I started not feeling very well. At this point I had not been sick since I was 9 years old. I started feeling sick a lot of the time and having panic attacks more frequently. I was sick once during this summer and that made things even worse. I started being terrified I was going to be sick again, which wasn’t helped by the horrible nausea I was having most days. As I had been sick in the middle of the night, I started getting terrified about going to bed in case I woke up sick and so was staying up until 4am most nights so that I could be sure I was okay before I went to sleep. I did manage to go back to Uni for my third year, but was still suffering with this nausea. I tried cutting things out of my diet such as caffeine, alcohol and acidic foods such as tomatoes, which didn’t make much difference. One afternoon I felt horrifically sick and was in a blind panic that I would be. I wasn’t, and when I woke up the next day the nausea had just gone. It was like it had magically disappeared, it was so strange.
I enjoyed the rest of my third year and graduated with a 2:1 which I was delighted with. I applied to do a PGCE for primary school teaching and got accepted by the University of Cambridge. I really wanted to be a teacher but there was one thing I was terrified of; that a child in my class might be sick. I decided I needed some support and found The Thrive Programme which I’ll leave a link to here if you want to find out more about it. It’s effectively about changing your thinking styles; increasing your self-esteem and lowering your social anxiety and locus of control. I got in touch with one of the consultants and started seeing him that summer. During that summer I also worked at a language school. My self-esteem was increasing and this was the first time in my life that I was honest and open with people about my anxiety and emetophobia. It felt so good not to have to hide it and everyone I worked with was really kind and supportive. This was a happy time!
I started my PGCE at the University of Cambridge that September, aged 21. I loved my time there, I was really interested in the lectures and seminars and enjoyed my teaching practices in school. My anxiety was quite low at this point. I did feel frightened if a child said they felt sick, but I never had a child be sick in my care so I didn’t have to deal with that. It got to April and I started not feeling well. I was feeling dizzy and after fainting I went to the doctor who diagnosed me with labyrinthitis, which is an inner ear infection. About a week later I started feeling sick a lot of the time. I got through the rest of my teaching practice which I was loving, but unfortunately wasn’t feeling well a lot of the time. I passed my PGCE and had a mini graduation ceremony followed by the May Ball which I have very happy memories of. I’d also got a job as a teacher at a local primary school which I was looking forward to starting in September.
At the end of the teaching year, I went back to the GP who suggested I go and see a private psychotherapist who I started seeing weekly. My medication was also changed from amitriptyline to mirtazapine and I was given anti-sickness tablets which I was taking at least twice a day.
In August, aged 22, we went to France. I was still feeling very nauseous a lot of the time and was having terrible panic attacks if I thought I might be sick. In France, I started getting very panicky about going on the motorways, and was getting myself in such a state that I was feeling I might be sick, which made me more anxious… it was a vicious cycle. The whole time we were in France I was desperately homesick and felt so anxious that I just wanted to be at home where I felt some level of safety. When we got back to England, we went on a walk in a local wood. I started feeling really sick, followed by extreme panic when I realised I didn’t have my anti sickness tablets or water on me. I was very nearly sick in the wood, and again in the car on the way home. This completely terrified me; how I’d gone from absolutely fine to nearly throwing up in a couple of minutes.
I started my job as a teacher, and while I loved working with the children, I hadn’t been given the age I had been trained for (which was Early Years) so felt like I was struggling to keep my head above water. By half term I was extremely unhappy and the anxiety I was having about feeling sick was growing. We went away for half term which was lovely but very difficult. I had such a severe panic attack on the motorway that I was nearly sick and have been too terrified to go on a motorway since then. The sickness feeling was getting more frequent and intense. I returned to work, the doctor having given me beta blockers and diazepam to take as well as my mirtazapine and anti-sickness tablets. I was starting to feel very sick at work, and had started getting very anxious about the half hour drive there and back. I started leaving work as early as possible so that I could get home before it started getting dark. Two weeks into this half term, I went to stay with my sister at Uni for the weekend. It was like that was the breaking point; I got hysterical crying about how sick I felt and that I just couldn’t go back to work. My sister ended up coming home with me because I wasn’t in a state to get the train, I had to take diazepam even to get on with her and still ended up having a panic attack.
I called in sick on Monday and went straight to the GP who said that I wasn’t in a state to be working and signed me off with anxiety. The next few weeks went by in a blur of feeling horribly sick and more and more panicky about going out. I started having panic attacks if I had to go out even just to the village and was very frightened about going in the car. I continued to get signed off work. I was terrified to leave the house in case I got sick when I was out and wouldn’t be able to easily get home.
After 4 weeks, after a lot of thought, I made the difficult decision to resign from my job. I couldn’t see that I would be well enough to go back at any point in the near future, and I didn’t want to have to keep getting signed off for week after week. I also thought it would be best for the children to have a proper teacher instead of having to keep having supply teachers to cover for me.
At this stage the GP recommended that I see a private psychiatrist. I’m very fortunate that this has been possible for me, but many other people wouldn’t be able to afford this. I don’t believe that seeing a good psychiatrist should be a luxury. When I first went to see him, just before Christmas, I was in a very bad way. He suggested that I sto p taking mirtazapine and go back to taking amitriptyline and also olanzapine. I was glad to stop taking the mirtazapine; my friends and family said that it had blund my personality and it seemed like I just didn’t care about anything. My best friend said that I had stopped laughing which makes me very sad looking back on it. I was very hopeful at this point that the medication would make me much better. I started taking the amitriptyline, increasing the dosage every couple of days as I had been told to. I began to feel extremely sick, to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt too sick to eat and often just held a ginger biscuit under my nose for the smell, praying that I might get some relief. I was in a constant state of fear, terrified that I was going to be sick. It felt like the rest of the world was happily celebrating Christmas and I had never felt worse. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain how awful I felt at that time. I didn’t see any hope for the future.
I persevered with the tablets and, with time, the side effects did begin to subside. Sadly however, it wasn’t the miracle cure I had been hoping for. With time however, things did begin to get a little better. I began to go down to the village with my parents, or drive a little way round the block. At first everything was a huge effort, but the more I did it, the easier it became. I started feeling sick a lot less of the time which made life far more bearable.
After two of my friends came over one day, I felt so sad that I had lost the independence they still had and got a fresh wave of determination to get my life back. That afternoon I got into the car and we went to a local National Trust place for a walk. The next day I managed to go into town for the first time in four months. I went to the cinema with my mum and a friend and I felt happy. I was no longer trapped at home unable to go anywhere.
For my 23rd birthday, my friends surprised me by all coming home and we went out for afternoon tea. I realised how far I’ve come; able to go into town with my friends (and mum) and have a lovely time without feeling too anxious and on edge in case I begin to feel sick.
So that brings us to the present day. I am still seeing the psychiatrist every few weeks. I am working through the Thrive programme (that I mentioned earlier) again in the hope that will help and I have also just started seeing a hypnotherapist. I am able to do far more than I could. I am still really struggling to go out on my own, every day I am terrified that I might be sick and I am on constant high alert for anything that could make me unwell. I am sad that I have lost my independence, I am still struggling to drive and can’t do things that I wish I could. But I am hopeful that one day (hopefully soon) I will be back to being happy and independent.
Well done if you’ve made it this far! I hope that this can help you in some way, whether it’s to help you understand more about emetophobia and anxiety or whether you’re suffering from similar problems yourself.