Overcome Anxiety – Part 1: From Emetophobic to Thriving

This is my personal tale of how I found my drive to thrive and was able to overcome a phobia – part 1 – and go from emetophobic to thriving – through the Thrive Programme. This is part 1. Click to read part 2.

There is a story that I first heard during an episode of The West Wing. In it, Leo McGarry tells Josh Lyman:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’

The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

The West Wing, Season 2, Episode 10 Noël.

I have been trying to find my way out for years. Feeling trapped by anxiety, I have sought help from anyone and everyone. It took years, but finally, I found the way out. I hope that my story helps others to see that there is hope and there is a way to get better.

The New Me

I remember the first time I presented to 240 people at a conference in the U.S. As little as two years before, I would have been beside myself with terror, hyperventilating and unable to speak. I probably would have said no to the opportunity. Now, I enjoy the challenge. But curing my speaking anxiety is only a happy side-effect of the Thrive Programme.

A few months before that, I went to the dentist to complete the treatment of a tooth that had given me a toothache for over 4 years before I even started treatment. I did not go sooner because I was TERRIFIED of the dentist! At this last of many visits, I greeted the nurse with a smile, and proclaimed to the dentist that I was very well, “after all, what could be better than to start the day with a 7 am dentist appointment – my favorite thing!” But curing my intense anxiety about dentists is only a happy side-effect of the Thrive Programme.

Think about it though, I put up with a chronic toothache for four years because I was afraid of the dentist. I did not have my teeth straightened because I was afraid of the dentist. I avoided cleanings and checkups because I was afraid of the dentist. All my dental treatment since I was sixteen has been emergency treatment … because I was afraid of the dentist.

The Old Me: Daily – and Nightly – Misery

The real reason I went through the Thrive Programme was to overcome a lifelong struggle with emetophobia. If you aren’t familiar with that term, it is no surprise. Even therapists look at me blankly when I tell them what I had. Emetophobia is a pathological fear of people – in my case myself and anyone else – vomiting. Even the words vomit, throw-up, sick etc. would send a chill down my spine. I could not watch scenes on TV or in movies where the characters threw up. Although during the 45 years I suffered from this phobia, I did not tell many people that I had it, those that I did tell would well-meaningly say “Oh yes, I don’t like it either” or “When people throw up in front of me I feel that I will throw up too”. They were being kind. But they had no idea.

david-east-152755-683x1024 Overcome Anxiety - Part 1: From Emetophobic to ThrivingEvery waking moment of my day there was a monolog going on in my head about what might happen and how I could avoid it. I would scan continuously for signs that people around me were feeling unwell. It didn’t matter if they were unwell with a cold, a broken leg, or a stomach upset, every ailment raised my anxiety levels through the roof. Pain can make people vomit, stress can make them vomit, a cold, a bug, bad food, too much to drink, spinning around too much – you name it, I could link it to the potential, no, the likelihood that they would vomit.

Every waking moment of my day I was anticipating situations that could expose me to “risky” situations. I would think ahead to meetings and plan where I should sit. I would turn down social invitations – no pubs, clubs, restaurants, theaters, sports venues, etc. Every moment of the day I would think about the possible awkward conversations I might have and plan my answers – always with the intent of avoiding social & group situations, travel on public transport, driving others in the back of my car, traveling in the back of someone else’s car, going on a long or slow elevator ride, traveling by boat, plane, bus or train.

At night, I dreamed of situations where other people were vomiting. I would awake breathless and clammy and would have to double check that I did not feel ill myself. For years, I did not vomit even if I felt like death warmed over. Better to feel awful than to experience …what? Death? Embarrassment? I cannot even really say what I was afraid of. It felt worse than death. It felt worse than sitting on the cold bathroom floor rocking back and forth praying that I would not succumb.

Losing Ground

I missed a term of college because someone left the room abruptly in the middle of a lecture. Spending time with friends who threw up at a party or missed school or work was no longer an option. I gave up eating food that had on one occasion made me nauseous. When I did travel, I carried a pillow liner and my own pillow case so I would not be exposed to the germs of the last occupier. I canceled trips, dates, and events because when the time came I could not face them. I turned down promotions and changed jobs because I would have to travel more by plane and with colleagues. And friends or family in the hospital could not expect a visit – for obvious reasons.

One weekend I was chatting with my partner about my job, waxing lyrical about how much I was enjoying the role. By Tuesday I had been offered a promotion and had been told I would need to travel to our overseas offices on a regular basis. I longed to say yes, but instead came home to my partner and announced it was time to leave the job, the work was untenable, management unreasonable, I was done! As you can imagine, my partner struggled to reconcile this attitude with my enthusiasm for the job only two days prior!

Eventually, I was asked to come to the US for work. I tried to find ways to avoid the trip, I again considered a job change, but at the time it was not practical. The Economic recession meant we were all hanging on to whatever job we could get. Somehow, I managed to get to the U.S. and once there, did not return for four months (three months longer than the original plan). I missed family plans and skipped commitments in the U.K. because I could not get home for the promised monthly visit.

Life continued in the same way. I felt that half my energy was being used in managing my phobia. I tried therapy, counseling, medication. Nothing worked. All I did was spend large amounts of money, all to no avail… continued
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