Kid vomit is common, inevitable, and terrifying to me.
“No one likes to throw up.”
“The stomach flu is the worst!”
No, you don’t understand. See, I have emetophobia. It’s an honest-to-goodness phobia of vomit. Shaking, crying, cover-my-ears-and-run-into-the-other-room, panic attack, phobia.
I’ve had it ever since I can remember. People with normal, healthy brains don’t realize how crippling this phobia can be. I never go anywhere without a “just in case” plan. A plastic bag tucked into my purse, or an escape route in case “it” happens.
There are movies I’ll never watch (”The Sandlot”) and things I chose not to do with my life (become an RN like my mom) because I knew I would be confronted with my fear. There were clothes I refused to wear after a bout of illness as a kid, convinced they had something to do with it. And there are certain times of year that I still hate because I associated it with a time I got sick. (I’m looking at you, mid-October.)
At family gatherings, my dad still colorfully retells the story of the time I was 10 and jumped out of the car into the road because my brother said he was going to throw up. A literal Mac Truck on a Colorado back road was less frightening to me than being trapped in a car with a sick person.
When I was a kid, I remember telling myself that by 30 I’d be grown-up enough that I wouldn’t be afraid of vomit anymore. Adults don’t have such silly fears.
I grew up. Fell in love. Got married. And vomit was still one of the first things I considered when my husband and I talked about having kids.
Pregnancy means morning sickness. For weeks on end. And some women throw up during labor!
Then there’s the actual children themselves. BabyCenter.com says to expect a stomach bug about two times per year with young kids. Between that and drinking out of old sippy cups, or car sickness, or any other number of reasons, kids puke a lot. (If you’re wondering, baby spit-up is just fine for me. An inconvenience, but not panic-inducing. Probably how you “normals” feel about it.)
But being a mom was something in my soul. A desire I couldn’t escape. Even so, 17 weeks into my first pregnancy, I worried about my fetus and the day it would catch a dreaded stomach bug.
That day happened right before my daughter’s first birthday. Every parent knows waking up to that horrible retching sound from your child. The punctuating cries and coughs. It is an awful, unmistakable sound.
And in that moment, I ran to her, not away. Honestly, I didn’t expect that of myself before it happened. But my instinct was to comfort her, care for her, and, hopefully, to minimize the damage. It wasn’t until after she finished vomiting that the shaking, sweating panic set in.
Did I tap into some super power? No. But for the first time in my life, I felt like I had something stronger than my fear ― my love for my kid.
Am I cured? Hell, no. I’m 33 this month and the phobia still regularly lurks at the corners of my conscious thought. My daughter’s battle with a wicked stomach virus last week that she so generously shared with me was a special kind of hell. I recently tried watching Netflix’s “Santa Clarita Diet” and couldn’t even finish the first episode.
I still sleep with a “just in case” receptacle under my bedside table. You want a playdate even though your toddler threw up “a little bit” last night? Absolutely. Not.
I feel myself pull back from hugs and kisses if the person offering them complains of a persistent stomachache. I can’t bring myself to snuggle a vomiting toddler the way I will a coughing, feverish one.
“Sorry you’re feeling horrible, small child, and you can’t understand why, but mommy’s too much of a basket case to sleep in your bed right now. She’ll be right here on the floor.”
It breaks my heart, but I cannot bring myself to cozy up to my little vomiters. My husband, wonderful man that he is, still does most of the cleanup when there is an “event,” but I usually can shut off the panic long enough to hold their hair or stroke their back. It’s after the fact that I go in the other room, shaking, to have a full-fledged meltdown and pop a Xanax.
I will never outgrow emetophobia. I’ve made my peace with that. But it does help that when I hear that awful, gulping sound in the middle of the night, my instinct to run toward my kid is just slightly stronger than my instinct to run away from them.
Isn’t that all any of us parents can hope to do? Do the best we can for our kids despite our own shortcomings?