Whenever Lisa* would visit for dinner, she?d quietly open the drawer where the tea towels were stored, and take out a fresh one to wipe her hands on. Dinners in our family are always healthy with organic meat or fish, fresh vegetables and herbs, and olive oil and spices for dressing.
Lisa would be focused on her food like a surgeon performing a life-saving operation. Small discolorations in chicken would be removed with precision, her knife becoming a scalpel. As plates were cleared, these fragments of danger left on her plate would be scraped into the garbage bin. The bin would be opened with her foot to avoid germs connecting with naked skin. The kitchen sponge, a terrifying rectangle of germs, would receive the same treatment. Never touch it.
We didn?t know it at the time but Lisa had emetophobia – a pathological fear of vomiting.
We don?t know how or when it started. We did know she didn?t like the idea of being sick but who does? We figured her dislike of ?sick? was no different to my husband?s dislike of large brown crickets. You don?t come across either every day and with enough planning both can be largely avoided.
But it was different. Painfully, horribly different.
Her fear of being sick shifted to a physical response of actually feeling sick most days. ?There has to be something physically wrong that?s making me feel sick all the time? she would say. And so she went down every possible avenue available to find the root cause. One day we received a photo of her sitting on a hospital bed waiting for the doctor about to give her a colonoscopy. All clear. Dieticians, nutritionists, herbalists. All clear. Allergists, endoscopies, blood tests. All clear. She started to investigate a fecal transplant which is a procedure that takes fecal matter, or poop, from a tested and healthy donor, and after processing, places it in the person who is unwell. It was starting to get very serious. She went everywhere except one place, her mind.
Most phobias aren?t rational. They are our minds hurtling into a terrifying fantasy. Her phobia, a fear of vomiting, took her on that terrifying fantasy every minute of every day. Breakfast was rare as the less you have in your stomach, the less you have to throw-up. Food groups are scrutinised with any potential culprit of sickness being removed from the diet including gluten, dairy, alcohol, chicken, and takeaway food. Eating out stops as you don?t know the hygiene practice behind the counter. You take your own food to the cinema, friend?s houses, and picnics. Public toilets are avoided at all cost but if you must go, that porcelain pot is wrapped in toilet paper like a child?s ?pass-the-parcel? gift. As the mind continues to reinforce the horror of being ?unable to cope? should ?sick? actually happen, behaviours become more radical. Work and relationships become unfortunate casualties.
When an adult who is close to you is going through this, and the results of all the medical tests are coming back as ?normal?, at some point you begin to realise that it’s a good possibility the “sickness” is psychological. But it’s so hard to say. Do you allow the process of elimination to continue? Will they ever consider the problem could simply be with their thinking? Eventually, it becomes necessary to break the cycle and at least explore that undesirable possibility. The fecal transplant idea was when our big ?stop sign? came out. Tearful conversations, accusations of non-support and ?you don?t believe me and now you?re suggesting I have psychological issues? were slapped down on the table.
We do know through scientific evidence that there?s a strong connection between the mind and the body. Unhelpful thinking can cause physical responses. And vice versa. We reached an agreement to explore how her thinking may be impacting her ability to live each day without feeling sick. We researched a number of evidence-based interventions including therapy and psychology-based educational programmes.
Fast forward to today. Lisa has been travelling overseas extensively which would?ve been near impossible previously. The anxiety associated with eating sushi in Japan and unhygienic street stalls, staying with and eating with friends in London, 2-star hotel accommodation with 1-star cleanliness, and the general stress of the unknown would have prevented such adventures. But she is no longer an emetophobe. She?s a happy, thriving, flourishing, confident and exuberant adult. The view from outside has been like the metamorphosis from moth to butterfly. The nervous fluttering of wings of a timid grey moth to the confident and colourful strength of a butterfly.
What changed? With the help of a coach she dug deep into her mind to uncover beliefs she held that weren?t helpful to her in leading the life she wanted. She had to pull these out and attach evidence to them. When the evidence was hard to prove, these beliefs started to fall apart. Her self-esteem was also pulled out, put on the table and dissected. Where does it come from? How does it change? Can it change? Yes, it can. In two weeks in fact.
Her confidence was overhauled in a way that made sense to her, was authentic to her, and she was able to own it. With confidence comes the ability to take on small challenges such as ? eating cheese again. A small amount but enough to boost her confidence more and provide her with the evidence that it didn?t make her sick.
Over a period of 2-3 months, the moth turned into the butterfly. Initially, the butterfly stayed within the gardens that felt safe but over the next few months she started to explore gardens further away and she felt powerful and in control. She strengthened her psychological foundations to overcome her worst fear. The world is now her garden.
And I?m now a Thrive Consultant.
*not her real name
Michelle Carlyle is a co-founder/owner of Thought Ratio. She?s also a licensed Thrive Programme consultant, mentor, runner, cyclist, facilitator, speaker, entrepreneur, MBA graduate, and step-mum.
Thought Ratio?s vision is to educate people so they can thrive and flourish in every aspect of their lives – overcoming fears, phobias, and anxieties. After witnessing the incredible pain caused by Emetophobia, Michelle now works with individuals wherever they are in the world to overcome it, and other fears and anxieties. ?Everyone has the capacity to thrive in every aspect of their lives.?