A rising sense of panic

Nobody likes to be sick or to be near someone who is about to throw up. But for some people, vomiting is so terrifying, it causes intense panic. Kim Dungey reports.

Last year when Donna's daughter said she felt like she was going to throw up, the 42-year-old took her youngest child and ran away from home.

The Dunedin woman is a devoted mother who would do almost anything for her children but suffers from emetophobia, an intense fear related to vomiting.

Some emetaphobes are afraid of vomiting themselves - avoiding things like alcohol, travel, spicy food, public toilets and even pregnancy to minimise the risk of nausea - but in Donna's case she is afraid of seeing others do so.

Once, when a bus passenger threw up over her and her children, she began climbing out of a window of the moving vehicle without realising what she was doing.

When her daughter mentioned she might be sick, she ran to a friend's house for the night, leaving all but one of her children in the care of her husband.

The couple have agreed to hide her panic from the family but have noticed their 10-year-old is now also extremely anxious about vomiting.

''My husband says, `I hate you when you're like that'. And that's the way I feel too. It's stupid and irrational ...''

''I'm happy to clean up ... but I can't be near them.''

Donna's concern revolves mainly around her younger children and escalated after one of them became ill with novovirus: ''After that, there was not five minutes in the day when I didn't think about it and about cleaning stuff and trying to find ways to keep them safe.''

Twice a day she washes the kitchen surfaces, the toilet and all the door handles in the house. Table tops, remote controls and the arms of sofas also get regular wipe downs.

Outside home, she regularly cleans her children's hands with wipes she keeps in her handbag. The children are expected to put their clothes in the washing machine as soon as they get home from school and are kept away from friends whose family members have recently been vomiting.

If they do get sick, she carries out rituals, believing that storing cups in straight lines, repeatedly vacuuming the floor, not allowing her youngest children to wear green (the colour of bile) and using pink pegs for girls' clothing, yellow pegs for boys', will somehow prevent illnesses returning.

''I feel like it's good luck. I know it's not, but I'm scared to stop doing them.''

While some emetophobes trace their anxiety back to a childhood trauma, Donna remembers only having a protective mother and a fear that something bad was going to happen to those she loved.

Later, this led to her not wanting to go out and not wanting to leave her children with other people.

For five years she left home only for groceries and coffee with her mother.

Eventually she stopped going even to cafes ''because of all the places where people sit with their hands on tables. It just seemed to me like the best place in the world to get sick''.

However, forcing herself to watch online video clips of people vomiting has helped, so too have medication and alterations to her house, which have made it easier to keep clean and given her a sense of control.

''Following that, I was in tears all the time about just how free I was, how the world smelt different and looked better and everything was so beautiful,'' she says.

''When the phobia's here, it's so dark and lonely and scary.''

She has also found encouragement on an emetophobia internet forum.

''It's more common than you think and the internet's a good place for support. I thought I was the only person in the world who felt this way. When I found out that there were thousands and thousands of people out there who felt the same, that was huge.''

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