I spent Thanksgiving of my sophomore year lying in my dorm room bed, too sick to move. Nauseous and lightheaded, I rolled around in my bed, shifting from one side to the other in a desperate attempt to sleep. I was still hungry since I had only managed to eat a few bites of a Thanksgiving dinner before the nausea had hit, forcing me to run to my room and shut myself in.
One day later, my body would start reacting the same way to liquids, even if it was just water. Give it a few days, and I would suddenly start to feel nauseous in class, out on the street, at parties, everywhere.
The nausea would ebb and flow throughout the rest of the year, but its persistence alarmed me and forced me to go see any doctor I could find, and when no doctor could figure out what was wrong, I sank deeper and deeper into worry. It became increasingly debilitating, and soon I was ducking out of dance rehearsals, avoiding the gym, and even skipping class for fear of becoming nauseous and possibly throwing up in public. I started bringing around one or two plastic bags everywhere, fearing that I would actually become sick while out and about.
After multiple doctors and hundreds spent on blood tests and appointments, it didn’t hit me that something psychological was at work until November while I was studying abroad. My throat felt like it was closing up while I was eating in a Berlin market. Then it happened in another market in Prague, a café in Vienna, a nightclub in Budapest. By the time I returned to Paris to finish off the rest of my quarter there, I wasn’t able to take public transportation anymore without gagging and feeling like I was going to vomit, so I’d walk the long 40 minutes to class each day.
When people asked, I just told them that I loved walking. Really, really, loved walking.
But I would be fine if I didn’t eat. I stopped eating before my classes, stopped eating out with my new study abroad friends. Sometimes, I would wake up in the morning and purposely starve myself until dinnertime when I would buy food, take it back to my room, and binge eat because I hadn’t had anything all day. My stomach would gnaw at itself, and I would fold in half because it hurt me so much.
By mid-December, when I was back in Vancouver where I’m from, I would wake up in the morning, and my throat would feel like it was closing immediately. I couldn’t eat in front of anyone, including my mom. A physician diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and strongly recommended that I see a therapist as soon as possible. My mom and I were convinced that I could spend three more weeks in Vancouver before leaving for Chicago where I go to school, until I had a panic attack at a mall where it felt like someone was lifting me out of my own body—I felt like I could faint or die. We decided to leave for Chicago immediately to start therapy before school kicked off again.
One week later, I met my therapist Megan* and was officially diagnosed with GAD and emetophobia, an irrational fear of vomiting that is very rare, but entirely capable of leaving people unable to function. Many emetophobes avoid public situations involving food or anything they believe would make them vomit. In the most extreme cases, people can’t even bring themselves to leave their house. On December 18th, 2012, I began exposure therapy, with my therapist Megan helping me slowly tackle one fear after another by putting me in situations where my anxiety would flare up, and then forcing me to stay there until it subsided.
The process could be so unimaginably uncomfortable.
After my initial assessment, it became clear that a combination of extreme stress from school and my personal life triggered my anxiety. What made it worse, however, was that I had started avoiding situations where my nausea and lightheadedness would flare up, running away whenever the sensations started. By avoiding so many of the activities I loved before the anxiety kicked in, I gave it strength and trained my mind to listen to it, to reason that my anxiety was rational. Before I even knew it, I was fighting something that I couldn’t even physically see.
And so it was Megan’s job to ease me back into those situations, but it was my job to keep putting myself back in them whenever I was away from her. As it is for anyone just beginning exposure therapy, just the thought of staying in a restaurant or a bus while nauseous is daunting and initially took more than enough willpower out of me.
Fast forward two months later, and you’ll see that I’m writing this in a diner. Am I completely at ease? Not completely. But I think the fact that I can now clear off four breakfast pancakes in one sitting means I’ve come a long way.
It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that anxiety will be something that comes and goes for the rest of my life, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t wish there was a “magic” cure that could keep it away—far, far away. My throat still feels like it “shuts” on me two or three times a day, and there’s still always one moment every week where the anxiety is so overpowering that all I can do is lie down, roll around, and stare at the ceiling once in a while hoping that my muscles will stop tingling and that my throat relaxes again.
But then there are the countless moments during the weekdays and weekends where I can go to dance practice and stay there, can take the train to Chinatown, and can go out on Friday and Saturday nights. There are days when it’s hard to even get out of bed, but those are the same days where I make a point of getting up because sometimes, that’s all it takes for the anxiety to go away.
I still see Megan once a week, and there are still some things that I can’t go through with complete ease. Something that I do look forward to, though, is the day when I’ll be able to eat a whole meal, hop on a train, and ride it before heading to a packed concert.
That’s the life I led, and the thought of living it again makes me even more determined to get it back.