I want to talk about phobias today, so I want to warn you that this post could be triggering for those of you who are battling one - or more - of your own. If that applies to you, please proceed with caution.
Phobias are life-limiting. On the darkest of days, if you let them, they can consume you. I know this because I have a phobia that I battle with every single day of my life. Sometimes this phobia makes crazy thoughts appear in my head. The only reason, I believe, that it hasn't yet taken over my life is that I know that allowing it to do so would actually be crazy. But that doesn't mean that it hasn't tried more than once. And, if I am completely honest, it does stop me from living a strictly normal life. It does mean that many of my days are tinged with an undertone of worry.
I am emetophobic.
For anyone who doesn't know, that means I have a fear of vomiting. For me, it is specifically a fear of vomiting myself. For others, it covers anything and everything to do with the subject. So I suppose, in a warped kind of way, I should consider myself lucky in the grand scheme of things.
There's a backstory here, of course. Phobias, I have learnt, don't just come out of nowhere. Something triggers them.
Last May my eldest child had an asthma attack serious enough to land him in hospital. For most of the day I sat with him and he either slept or talked to me through an ever-present oxygen mask. After nine hours of this, my husband came to take over for the night and I went home to look after the little one. When I left there was talk of intravenous steroids, and I walked out of the hospital feeling tight-chested and haunted.
In the very early hours of the following morning I started throwing up. Looking back, I think it was the shock. It only lasted a couple of hours, but at some point I got something lodged in my windpipe and started to choke. I very clearly remember thinking, "So this is how I'm going to die; on my bathroom floor covered in puke". In those few seconds, I just kept coming back to how ridiculous it was that this would happen on the one night that there was no one there to help me. I was desperate and terrified and I guess my survival instinct just took over. I used the very last of the air in my lungs to cough hard, knowing that it was over if that didn't work. When you truly and honestly think you're going to die, it's amazing how strong your will to live becomes. How your body seems to know what to do to give you the best chance of survival.
Obviously the coughing worked and I am still here. But even now, I can't think about that night too much without feeling the fear of what could have been. Of the fact that my littlest one could have woken up later that morning and had no idea why his cries went unanswered. Of what his father and brother could have found when they came home. It sounds dramatic, even as I type the words. The whole thing sounds like the kind of story that makes you want to roll your eyes a little bit. To be honest with you, sometimes I wonder if it truly was as desperate as I thought it was. But all I really know is that I was so, so scared that night.
So now I'm afraid of it happening again. And, as any parent knows, kids pick up a lot of bugs. If my boys come home with snotty noses, aside from the fact that I hate to see them suffer, I am not in the least bit bothered. I will let them wipe their little snouts all over me and not give a damn when I inevitably get a scratchy throat a few days later. But if either one of them throws up and I know there's no possible explanation other than a stomach bug, I am immediately almost paralysed with fear. I will clean them up with a pounding heart and shaking hands while crazy thoughts of surgical masks and latex gloves spiral through my head. And it's not the vomit itself that bothers me; it's that fact that I know I might be next.
This also means that soft play centres are a horror story waiting to happen for me. When my eldest was about 18 months old he caught norovirus from a soft play centre, which my husband and I also came down with a few days later. So I know that they are breeding grounds for the dreaded stomach bugs and I find myself feeling panicky every time we go to one, which usually results in me refusing food for a few days afterwards while I wait to see if anyone has picked up a virus. If I could avoid the wretched places, I would. But one thing I am utterly determined about is that this phobia is not going to rule my children's lives the same way that it tries to rule mine. It is not going to stop me from being the mother they deserve, no matter how scared I am.
The thing is, whenever I've tried to explain this phobia to anyone, they've pretty much looked at me like I'm crazy and said, "Nobody likes being sick!" which is, to be blunt, just about the worst possible thing you can say to an emetophobe. Because it's not that I "don't like" being sick. It's not even that I absolutely detest being sick, in fact. It's that I am utterly petrified of it. And sometimes I wonder, when fears of spiders and flying and the dark are perfectly legitimate phobias... How come my fear - a fear with a very solid foundation - is somehow less believable or "normal" than any other, more common phobia? Because every time I think about what could have happened last year, I get this horrible falling sensation and I know that what I am feeling is not just fear; it is terror itself.