24 October 2017Last updated

Real Life

Photography cured Dawn Cox of her fear of falling sick

Dawn Cox, 49, had such a phobia of vomiting, she refused to eat, and her weight plummeted to 35kg. And then she discovered a love for photography...

As told to Kirsty English
26 Aug 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • Photography takes my mind off feeling sick. I drive for hours with my camera, stopping when a scene catches my eye. It was a turning point.

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  • I’d eat just a biscuit a day. But things spiralled out of control during one horrible episode – for two weeks, I didn’t eat at all, I just had water.

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When I look back on my childhood growing up in rural Kent in the UK with two younger brothers, I can see how I came to be how I am.

My mother was never a very relaxed person, always buzzing around nervously, insisting we wash our hands, and constantly warning us of bacteria and bugs that lurked on our skin. She was always saying, ‘Don’t touch that, it might be dirty!’ or ‘Be careful what you eat in case there’s something wrong with it.’ We just thought mum was overprotective, and most of the time we didn’t think anything of it. Except when one of my brothers was sick – she’d then look as if the blood had drained from her body.

I shared a bedroom with a brother who used to fall sick quite often, and sometimes it would be quite severe. There was never really an apparent reason. It was just that he had a weak immune system.

But every time he was sick, I could see the panic in mum’s eyes. She’d stay up the whole night, terrified of the moments he’d purge violently in the toilet. Over time I too began to believe that vomiting was the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone. The noise of it sounded scary, the smell foul; the idea of it was just repulsive.

I began to understand and relate to my mum’s obsession with keeping clean and eating safe foods. I decided I would do anything to avoid a stomach bug.

There was this constant sense of panic whenever I would step out, or be in a place where I could potentially be exposed to bugs. I can’t imagine a time without the panic – it was always there.

Even if I was feeling unwell as a child, I managed to keep the sickness under control. I can safely say that I have never vomited in my life.

Over the years, I learnt to control the urge to vomit and like mum, I never ate anything that could potentially make me sick. I would scrub new potatoes until they shone and if I cooked meat, I would cook it to a cinder so that I knew there was no risk of bacteria.

As I got older, the fear turned into an obsession. I would be too scared to try out any new food and would completely avoid certain foods if I knew they could trigger some kind of an allergy. I would spend a lot of time washing my hands before and after every meal.

Then I began to read about my obsession and soon discovered that I wasn’t the only one with this kind of behaviour. So I went to see a psychologist.

‘I think you have a phobia called emetophobia, a fear of being sick,’ he told me.

The symptoms fitted me like a glove – sufferers will basically do anything to avoid being sick, and that was exactly what I did. The very thought of throwing up would send me into a panic – I have no idea what would happen if it actually happened.

It was a relief to know I had a recognised phobia – it was something I’d suffered from as long as I could remember.

There are wide-ranging symptoms and it can have a severe impact on a sufferer’s life. For me, I don’t like going far from home, and I don’t like travelling or eating out. Chinese or Indian takeaways are definitely a no-no. I’ve known some sufferers to even refuse operations in case they get sick afterwards.

I managed to keep my phobia under control most of the time, and later held down a job as a secretary.

I met my husband Peter, now 52, a self-employed delivery driver, when I was 16 – we got chatting in an amusement arcade. Soon after we married in 1988, I remember catching a stomach bug and feeling ill for 24 hours. I decided it was better not to eat and let my stomach settle.

But not eating soon became a habit and I began to survive on a few pieces of toast. It had to be something plain, which wouldn’t make me sick.

When our two children came along in 1994 and 1996, I coped surprisingly well – when they were at home. I was always an anxious mother and suffered from postnatal depression when they were babies and toddlers. This didn’t help – I was trying to fight my phobia too.

It was when they started school – away from my controlled home environment – that things started to go wrong.

Of course, at school there was the huge potential that my son and daughter would pick up a bug and bring it home. This worry would often play on my mind. But as I didn’t want to bring them up like my mum did, always constantly nervous about touching anything, particularly food, I tried my best to keep my phobia under wraps – although I always overcooked their food and insisted on regular handwashing. If a chicken casserole recipe said cook the chicken for one-and-a-half-hours, I’d cook it for three – just to be on the safe side.

Things got particularly bad in my early 40s, about nine years ago. I can’t pinpoint a particular reason why, but I started to feel sick from the moment I woke up until when I fell asleep.

At the time, I didn’t feel any more anxious than normal and it wasn’t a feeling of panic, it just crept up on me. But it soon turned into a vicious circle. As I felt nauseous all the time, I didn’t want to eat anything because food was more likely to make me be sick, I reasoned.

Months turned into years and slowly my weight plummeted to a dangerously low 35kg. At its worst, I survived on one cracker or one digestive biscuit a day.

I was referred to a psychiatrist by my GP, who helped me talk through my symptoms. But it didn’t stop the way I felt. Looking back, I think I had some sort of nervous breakdown as things spiralled out of control during one particularly bad episode. For two weeks, I didn’t eat a crumb of food, only water. My psychiatrist sent me straight to hospital.

Now this sent me into a complete panic. For someone with a fear of falling sick, hospitals are the last place you want to go.

I was put on a drip to help with severe dehydration and malnutrition. But the hospital treated me as if I were an anorexic, and tried to get me to eat.

I refused to let anything pass my lips. My total lack of eating had by now made me feel even more sick, and doctors suggested I be fed via a nasal tube so they could get food into me. This idea filled me with dread. I tried to tell the doctors that I wasn’t anorexic, that I was an emetophobe, and that the idea of having a tube in me made me gag – and that would make me sick. There was no way I’d allow them to feed me via a tube.

In the end, to keep the doctors happy, I made myself eat a digestive biscuit, and discharged myself the next day. I felt a physical compulsion to get out of hospital because of all the bugs and all the people being sick.

I went back to my GP and told him I was convinced there was something physically wrong with me, that all this wasn’t in my head. I was desperate to find an instant cure.

Doctors carried out several checks on me, including an endoscopy and a barium meal, which aims to look for problems in the stomach and the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum.

I had to drink some barium liquid, then lie on a couch while X-ray pictures were taken over my tummy. They were looking for problems such as ulcers, small fleshy lumps or tumours.

They found nothing. I continued to feel sick.

I went back and forth to the GP, feeling more and more frustrated and angry that no one had a solution to my nausea.

My GP prescribed me antidepressants at one point, but I read the side effects and one of them was sickness. I took the first tablet and had a massive anxiety attack that I was going to be sick – and never took another.

Meanwhile, Peter was working himself into the ground trying to support us all. As I became too ill to look after the children, he gave up work to care for me and the children. I wouldn’t even leave the house for fear of falling ill. We sold our house and lived on equity and savings for two years with no outside help. This meant we lost all the money we’d saved up from the age of 19.

During this time I tried everything to get better – hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy… none of it seemed to work.

But somehow, over time, I gradually began to feel better, and was able to eat more. I guess you have to reach rock bottom in order to pull yourself back up. It was like a switch in my body had been turned off and something had switched it back on. It really was a case of mind over matter, and I started to try and ignore the sickly feeling.

And the more I ignored it, the less I noticed it.

Peter went back to work and we moved from Essex to Kent, UK, to be near my family.

My sickness phobia had robbed my family of any financial security and threw our lives into turmoil. But I was now determined to get on top of things.

When my daughter was a teenager, I bought her a camera as she wanted to have a go at photography. She picked it up a couple of times but mostly it was left unused. Something made me pick it up a few years ago, and I started snapping away. I started messing around with photos on the computer, using graphic imagery to change the look of an image. I loved the way I could see the world differently through a lens.

It also helped take my mind off feeling sick.

Photography has been a major turning point for me, making me realise I can enjoy life and hopefully build up a business based on my new skill. I can drive for hours with my camera, then suddenly stop when a scene catches my eye. I can feel totally absorbed by the moment, and I hope this comes out in the photos.

I love creating a sense of calmness in my photos – and am now taking on commissioned work for local events and weddings. I love it!

If I can use my pictures to raise awareness of emetophobia, even better. I’ve learnt that the only person who can help you is yourself, and it’s possible to live with this phobia.

Often it is misdiagnosed as anorexia, OCD, or simply attention-seeking, but through online forums I know I’m not the only one with a fear of vomiting. 
It is a misunderstood condition within medical circles, and I hope telling my story will help others.

Dawn Cox lives in Kent, UK, with her husband, son and daughter

As told to Kirsty English

As told to Kirsty English