I think actually, emetophobic is a bit strong for my personal mental health issue. I’m not phobic of being sick myself, I am more anxious about sickness bugs – once I have one, I’m fairly calm, as long as I can stay away from anyone else who could then contract it. So it’s not necessarily a fear of actually throwing up, but just a lot of anxiety around contagions. But ultimately – major control issues, major dislike of vomit.
Anyway, when I was a kid it was easier because I could use the sighting of a pair of magpies to convince myself a bug was unlikely to hit. I could ward off bugs by 1. Not wearing jeans 2. Not wearing pink or purple 3. Not seeing my aunty on a Wednesday 4. Not watching ballet or anything relating to Romeo + Juliet (including West Side Story, by the way) 5. Not eating Tikka Masala. Because in the past those things had all been part of a day on which I vomited.
But now I’m an adult, and have had the OCD ripped from me like the seizing of a security blanket, by adulthood and well-meaning counsellors, I am now duly aware of how exposed I am to every bug going. Because even if your child is well versed in the finer points of hand washing, the kid she licks might not be. Faecal matter – relatively easy to avoid among adults – seems to be everywhere. It’s like the ultimate accessory when you’re under 6.
When you’re a new parent around other new parents, everyone’s talking about sick and poo constantly. Do they mean standard milk-puke, or is this baby ill? I’d often wonder. Then over time you quickly learn to identify those parents who put their own need to get the house above observing basic quarantine rules with a baby or toddler. I’d love to be cool with those people, no judgement etc. etc. but it is the one area of parenting I actually am super judgey if it happens near my face or body. Because it’s the beginning of a panic attack. And it feels selfish to put me and my kid in the danger zone. I know, it’s nuts. I wish I didn’t feel like this, of course. But I do.
It means I can be quite anti-social, cancelling things if I think there’s a chance I could be around sick people (mainly children), and ghosting people who repeatedly turn up ill or with ill kids. I regularly experience that winding shot to the chest when I hear something that makes me think we’re vulnerable to a bug – a kid’s been sick at school, a friend we just saw is ill, a bug is going round. I’ve even got that fight-or-flight injection of adrenalin when a bug is going round Instagram. Even if those people live in different counties and we’ve never met. It kicks me in the chest and I feel trapped. I feel sad and tired. I feel sick.
It was one thing when it was just me. I had coping mechanisms, and generally I could leave any place I felt wasn’t ‘safe’. But when I had my daughter I realised to just take her with me in those moments would be awful. Firstly because I shouldn’t deny her the social experiences, and err…SCHOOL just because I was nuts. And secondly because it would be so awful if I passed on my weird fear. So I locked it down. That was enough motivation. But it was also more challenging than before because I didn’t want her to get sick. Leaving her in harm’s way (as I saw it) was worse than risking it myself. I should protect her, right? That was my job. If I could quietly manipulate us out of a situation without her noticing, or anyone else noticing, I would. So when we turned up for her pre-school sports day and a boy was vomming into a bucket? I turned back to the car and took her to the beach. When a friend constantly turned up with a sick kid, I stopped seeing them.
Now she’s five and at school, I have no choice. She’s more aware of the subtlest changes in our behaviour, so I am doing a better job of keeping it from her. And that’s easier because it really IS getting less serious; I am doing far better these days. She’s had two sick bugs since starting, and that’s helped too. I know what happens, I know what to do. Which means I guess subconsciously I think I have some semblance of control. I was sick as well, and remembered: it’s not actually that bad. I still have my moments – flu season has left me feeling exposed, vulnerable, exhausted and so sad that I still feel the affects of anxiety so acutely sometimes, and that it can ruin otherwise awesome moments. But I’m definitely getting there.
Common thoughts in my head:
- That kid looks a bit pale, he’s not smiling today. Is he sick?
- That fart was a bit different to usual – is that kid ill?
- She’s been in the toilet longer than usual – is that kid ill?
- The swimming pool is being cleaned – was someone sick?
- That car has pulled over, is someone being sick?
- The kid’s gone a bit quiet – does she feel sick?
- There’s a strange stain on that wall – was someone sick on it?
- I won’t sit near the loo on the train because that’s what you’d do if you had a bug.
- Did someone just say ‘sick’?
- There’s a supply teacher – is our regular teacher sick?
- Her kid is sick. When did we last see them?
Things I Google every time someone is sick. In case the answer has changed since last time:
- What is the incubation period for a sick bug?
- How soon after catching a sick bug will symptoms begin?
- Do probiotics really prevent sick bugs?
- Does charcoal really stop vomiting?
Things not to say to someone like me, face to face:
- “I was sick last night.”
- “I saw someone be sick last night.”
- “My kid was sick earlier but I think it’s just a bug.”
- “I feel sick.”
- “My hair still smells like sick!”
- “You look pale.”