Emetophobia: What it's like to live with extreme fear of vomiting

Carlee washes her clothes at 90 degrees, bleaches her house and takes three showers every day over her extreme phobia of being sick

Olivia Blair
Friday 10 February 2017 12:23 GMT
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Carlee Loveday, 27, from Oxfordshire, has not left her house in over a year.

This is because she has emetophobia – an extreme phobia of vomiting.

Carlee was diagnosed with the condition when she was six-years-old after doctors initially told her parents it was probably just a phase. The illness has affected her most of her life and culminated in a nervous breakdown last year - the last time she left the house.

“I started restricting food as soon as I was able to. I would only eat certain colours and at certain times,” she told The Independent. She still only eats food she deems safe: food that has been prepared by herself, no one else including her parents or her boyfriend and food which is white or beige such as jacket potatoes, malted milk biscuits and bananas. She does not eat meat, eggs or milk and has never had a drop of alcohol. Red foods are one of the worst for her and she does not even like to sit in close proximity to someone eating them.

At age six, she was also diagnosed with anorexia but she disputes the diagnosis saying the weight loss was as a result of being scared of eating in case she vomited. Currently weighing 6 ½ stone, she has the BMI which would render her as having an eating disorder.

Carlee also has anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder – the latter of which is evident in the fact she says she still washes her hands until they bleed but Carlee explains all of the anxieties she has are down to her fear of being sick.

By way of compulsions, she still bleaches the house every single day, her bed is bleached once a day as are the shoes belonging to her boyfriend when he comes home. She showers three times a day and washes her clothes on a 90 degree cycle.

“It might be very difficult for my boyfriend to live with me but it is the only way I can make my life bearable, by keeping clean,” she says.

What it might be traced back to is an experience at school when another child was sick during a nativity play, however Carlee is unsure of whether it was this or if she has just always had the condition.

(Carlee Loveday
(Carlee Loveday (Carlee Loveday)

As a child, Carlee would adopt routines and compulsions in a bid to protect her against vomiting. She would wear the exact same items of clothing every single day – a black jumper and black trousers (black was her safe colour) which then had to be washed in time for the next day and did the same thing every day.

“My thinking was if I did not get sick the day before [doing and wearing the things I did] I would not get sick the next day… If someone turned up at my house uninvited that would really set me off because they had messed up my safe routine,” she says.

She also withdrew herself from other children, preferring to spend time with adults as she thought they had less of a chance of suddenly vomiting in front of her and associated other children with germs. If she went to school, it would be on the terms that she would not have to be near anybody else.

It is the association of children and being sick that is part of the reason she says she will never be able to have children herself.

“I could not deal with morning sickness or a child being sick. I cannot be near children at all. I would like to have them but I know I am not going to be able to,” she says.

Carlee says as she got older, the compulsions lessened: “I have got a bit more rational, although I still wash my hands, as a child I did not understand the logic of catching things and germs so I used my own initiatives as to how I caught it or how I would prevent it.

Additionally, Carlee says there have simply been less times of people randomly vomiting the way children so often do.

“The only things I remember of my primary school are somebody being sick in the hall, somebody being sick in a play, somebody being in the office with a bucket waiting for their Mum to come and get them.”

However, her illness did persist. Through middle and high school she would continue not to eat throughout the entire school day, instead only waiting until she was at home and in control. She did not make many new friends, just keeping close the friends she grew up with on her street.

“I preferred to be on my own if I can help it,” she says.

Speaking to Carlee on the phone, she has a very clear understanding of her illness and speaks eloquently as she describes the daily compulsions that take over her life. Over the last few years, she has acquired a psychology degree from the Open University, providing her with further understanding of mental illness. But just because you understand the nature of your mental illness does not mean you can ‘control’ or beat it, after all, it is an illness just like anything else.

(Carlee Loveday
(Carlee Loveday (Carlee Loveday)

She does not fully understand what it is about vomiting that scares her so much but says the fear of the unknown and of not being in control are some of the most prevailing worries. She has not actually vomited since she was in her early childhood.

After finishing school, Carlee qualified as a hairdresser and got a job in a salon where she met her boyfriend of nine years. But while she was seeming to function like everyone else, she kept her illness covert.

“If someone was sick at the salon, I would pretend I was sick too, I could not be there if someone was there who was ill. If I was tending to a client and someone said they did not feel very well I would have to find a reason to stop. One time an apprentice came in hungover and was sick, I was so frantic I needed to go home that I pretended my Mum and Dad had been in a car accident because I could not stay there with her.”

She eventually went self-employed up until she had a nervous breakdown late last year after visiting a client whose son had been unwell. Forcing herself to cut the clients hair, she later had a huge panic attack in a supermarket and awoke to find shoppers hurried round her after passing out – partly due to the panic attack and partly due to her hunger and exhaustion. After the breakdown, she could not leave the house for days and eventually did not leave.

“What really surprised me after the breakdown was the ability I had to revert back to all the safety behaviours I had as a child,” she says.

She has a strong support system in her family, her mother has had to give up her day job to be with her as Carlee cannot be left on her own and she and her boyfriend live in the annexe of their parents house.

As far as treatment goes, Carlee has had “pretty much everything”: regular cognitive behavioural therapy as a child, a stay eating disorder clinic but they could not treat her as it is a phobia, hypnotherapy and medication which temporarily made the emetophobia better but exacerbated the other parts of her anxiety.

As is a prevalent issue across the country, waiting lists for mental health treatment are ever-growing. Carlee was on the waiting list for an NHS therapy for 16 months but was eventually taken off because of her inability to leave the house. Private medical treatment is out of the question as she has no income.

Geoff Heyes, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Mind told The Independent: “Mental health has been chronically underfunded for decades and we are now facing unprecedented demand for services, partly due to increased awareness and reduced stigma. Carlee’s story really illustrates how people can still fall through the gaps and be left without treatment despite being really unwell.

“Fortunately, we are making progress. The NHS and the Government have accepted the recommendations made within the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, a detailed plan to improve services and support for people with mental health problems, which was launched last year. Now we need to see this plan implemented. Whether someone is living with a relatively common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, right through to a rarer condition like emetophobia, everyone experiencing a mental health problem should be able to access the support and treatment they need, when they need it.”

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in