A waitress hospitalised by her severe fear of vomiting claims she lost friends and almost her relationship over the intense phobia – after it made her housebound.
Sian Maclean developed the fear of vomit, called emetophobia, when she was just six-years-old, after someone was sick at the airport when she was about to leave for a family holiday.
The 22-year-old’s phobia was so intense she even ended up in hospital because, after falling ill from taking too much medicine, she lost control of her body and had symptoms of a heart attack while she was vomiting.
The traumatic hospital visit ended up sending Sian on a year-long ‘downward spiral’, where she wouldn’t leave the house in case she saw someone be sick or fell ill herself, causing her to lose her job and many of her friends.
But incredibly, Sian, from Reading, in the UK, has now managed to cure her own phobia using exposure therapy, which saw her watch YouTube videos of people being sick until she became immune to them.
“Emetophobia is more than just being afraid of being sick, it controls your life in so many ways,” she said.
“If someone around you feels unwell you go into panic mode, lock yourself away and get some bleach out – it feels like the end of the world and you shiver and shake.
“One time I ended up being sick a lot and I started having intense body movements, it was like I was having a heart attack because my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest.
“My mum rang an ambulance because I couldn’t control my body and I knew something was wrong and I was taken to hospital.”
It turned out Sian had a panic attack because she took too much medicine and her body did not know how to react.
“My time in hospital was traumatic and afterwards I was terrified to get sick again,” she said.
“I spent the year after feeling awful and, looking back, it was shocking because it got to a point where I was terrified to leave the house in case I saw someone being sick or I felt sick.
“I hardly ate and it triggered a lot of anxiety, meaning I felt sick 24/7 and sometimes I’d go to my mum’s house at 1am to sleep on her sofa or bathroom floor in case I was actually sick.
“I got fired from my job because I phoned in sick constantly but it was hard to tell if I was actually feeling sick or if it was all in my head.
“My house became a state, my parents were upset because I wasn’t working, and I lost friends because I made up excuses not to go out with them.”
Sian said it almost ruined her relationship as her boyfriend Max thought she wouldn’t leave the house because she was lazy.
“I was so upset with myself and I had no quality of life,” she said.
As Sian was so young when she first began experiencing emetophobia, she didn’t fully understand what the condition was until she did some online research.
In 2015, she went to the doctors to find answers, where they performed tests on her stomach, including an ultrasound, in case the problem was physical.
When they realised it was a phobia doctors then prescribed Sian anti-anxiety medicine to stop her feeling sick all the time, which helped, and she was offered hypnotherapy, which was unsuccessful.
“When I was younger, I’d ask to go home if someone else at school was feeling sick,” she said.
"I wouldn’t go to sleepovers with my friends, and I was worried about getting on a plane in case someone was sick as I wouldn’t be able to leave.
“The older I got, the more aware of it I was.
“Even after I was diagnosed, it was really hard to talk to people about it because they found it hard to understand and just say ‘I don’t like sick either’ – but with me, I can’t control my responses to it.”
After spending a year practically housebound following her hospitalisation in September 2017, Sian decided to take a stand against her phobia in May this year.
Sian’s battle to overcome her phobia
Over several months, Sian spent five minutes per day watching YouTube videos of people being sick.
Exposure therapy involves exposing someone a particular source of anxiety, such as vomit, which they would normally avoid.
The idea is that it will help the person overcome the fear because the more they see their trigger, the more normal it becomes.
“It was horrid at first, no normal person would even want to watch videos of people being sick,” she said.
“The big thing for me was the noise of people being sick, and the first few times I started watching the videos I would go into meltdown after about three seconds.
“I forced myself to watch them once a day, and the more I watched and got myself into a positive mindset, I became less terrified.
“The change I’ve noticed is amazing and I can leave the house now.”
Sian is still working towards fully overcoming her emetophobia, with her main focus now being how to cope with vomiting herself, but she believes this will come with time.
“I’m not cured, but I’m a thousand times better than I was before, and I want to work towards being ok if I’m sick,” she said.
“Last Christmas, my boyfriend was unwell and I managed to clean up his sick and look after him – I dealt with it quite well but still wore a mask and used bleach.
“My advice to others with the phobia is that you’ve got to take it day by day.
“Emetophobia is just like any other phobia and is valid whether you believe it or not – you wouldn’t expect someone with a fear of heights to climb a mountain.”
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