And I'm writing this for Jonathan so that he will never doubt that his mommy loves him or wonder if she is willing to do the hard work to fight for him.
It has become very clear to me this year that I have something called Emetophobia, which is an irrational, debilitating fear of throwing up. A lot of you know that I have always struggled with general anxiety, but a phobia is more than that. By definition, a phobia is "an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation." (M-W.com) It's specific. Phobias can be so intense that people with them will do almost anything to avoid the object of their fear. For example, women with Emetophobia will often delay pregnancy or completely avoid it strictly because they are terrified of morning sickness and because having children may increase their exposure to throwing up, as children often get sick easier than adults. It is common for people with this phobia to avoid being around children and social situations to reduce exposure to germs. I know of a counselor with a history of Emetophobia in British Columbia who refused to fly, have surgery, or take medication because any of these things could bring about vomiting.
So what is my story? Well, I went through an extended illness when I was twelve to thirteen that resulted in me feeling on the verge of throwing up all the time without ever actually vomiting. As a result, I developed a terrible fear of waiting to throw up. Getting sick itself has never been at the center of my problem, although of course I dislike it like anyone else! As I've gotten older and been exposed to others who have come down with a stomach bug, it has become obvious to me that I'm not even really afraid of waiting for myself to throw up anymore. My terror comes when I get it into my head that someone in the same room or house with me may throw up at some point. When that happens, I find myself listening intently for any audible sign that a person is starting to vomit. This has come and gone over the years, but it didn't grow into anything significant until this spring.
In February, Jonathan came down with two stomach bugs within three weeks of each other, and then he threw up one time twice in May, during two separate weeks, due to eating too much before bed. All four of us got some form of a stomach bug the second time Jonathan got sick in February; so, even though I began to understand at that time that my reaction to throwing up was was irrational and neurotic, it wasn't until Jonathan threw up twice from eating too much in May that my Emetophobia flared out of control and began to center on Jonathan. The reason for this was that it dawned on me that Jonathan may not have an iron stomach like everyone in my family. Therefore, my budding phobia labeled Jonathan as an unpredictable "vomit time bomb." The unpredictability of Jonathan's vomiting not being tied to an illness caused me to immediately go into "waiting for someone to throw up" mode. I began having panic attacks as soon as the sun went down each night (because Jonathan had thrown up in the middle of the night each time), along with a particularly acute panic reaction each Tuesday night, which was the night of the week that the bug first hit us in February.
On top of these things, I began to interpret Jonathan's behavior as a sign that he was going to throw up - if he wouldn't take a nap, if he easily took a nap, if he resisted going to bed, if he went too bed much easier than usual, etc, etc. The triggers have seemed limitless at times. I also developed a huge fear of taking Jonathan to the nursery at church because he might catch a bug, and I would nearly hyperventilate if Jonathan came into our room in the middle of the night to sleep. Except for a handful of nights, I have been unable to sleep without pills since May. It has been a terrifying existence.
And an incredibly painful one. Jonathan is my heart. He is an extension of me. I adore him, and I find all the unique things about his personality so delightful that I feel my heart will burst from the joy of loving him some times. The fact that my phobia has "picked him" as its focus has caused me an insane amount of guilt and sadness. How can a mother be afraid of her own son?
I have been immensely grateful through all of this that Jonathan is as young as he is right now. He is at a very important, impressionable age, but he also will not remember a lot of this as he gets older if I can get a handle on it in a timely manner. Using my psych training and feedback from my mother-in-law, I have been working hard informing myself about the physical reasons and process of vomiting to help normalize it for myself, along with cognitive restructuring of what I think about when my anxiety sky-rockets.
First of all, reading about how vomiting is triggered by the part of the brain that deals with automatic, involuntarily bodily functions like breathing has been, weirdly enough, HUGE in helping me to not be afraid of Jonathan while being nervous that he might throw up. Of course, I have never consciously believed that the vomiting was in Jonathan's control. Even in my most irrational moments, that hasn't been the case. However, my phobia has been so tied to Jonathan that relearning that throwing up is just something his body is wired to do in certain situations has been very crucial in helping me to start distancing my phobia from him personally.
Along these same lines, confirming through reading that human beings throw up, usually, because there is a threat in the body that needs to be removed has made me realize that, when he throws up, Jonathan's body is aiming for the same thing that I want for him as a mother: to protect him from something that could hurt him. This has activated my "momma bear" instinct and helped me to temper my anxiety when I worry about him getting sick. If throwing up will protect him from something that I am not able to protect him from on my own, then his body is my ALLY in keeping my sweet boy safe. We are on the same side. Realizing this has helped me to bring reason and logic back into the experience of my fear, which will often keep it from getting out of control and causing a panic attack. It can be boiled down to a thought like this: If there is something threatening Jonathan that only vomiting can efficiently remove, then I WANT HIM TO VOMIT. Thinking this way allows me to desire vomiting for his sake if it is necessary. It is possible to fear and desire something at the same time, but doing so does mellow the fear enough to make it more bearable.
The last realization that has aided my thought restructuring work is that, while Jonathan's body may be my ally in protecting him by causing him to throw up, my phobia over waiting for him to throw up is a very real enemy to my protecting him. My impulse when my phobia is at its highest is to withdraw from Jonathan, particularly after the sun goes down. Therefore, Jonathan being upset, as most toddlers are, about going to bed becomes a terribly anxiety-provoking situation for me. If I realize that he is crabby around bedtime, my mind will begin to wait for him to get sick, and I will attempt to avoid Jonathan, usually handing him off to Jason for him to put to bed. This flight instinct to withdraw from Jonathan keeps me from doing one of the biggest things I need (and WANT when I am sane!) to do to protect him, which is draw near to him and foster a close relationship with him that gives him security and a sense of unconditional love. The phobia is a wedge between us, an intruder that poisons my thinking about Jonathan so that I perceive him as a threat. It, in effect, takes Jonathan away from me. And how would I respond if anything or anyone else tried to take my Jonathan from me? I would get angry, and I would FIGHT until he was back, safe, in my arms. Learning to see this Emetophobia as something to be fought for Jonathan's sake has been the most empowering tool I have gained as I have worked to bring my fear back down to size. Most parents would readily fight to take abuse aimed at their children upon themselves, and that's what this is for me. My maternal, constructive anger over how this phobia could hurt Jonathan by distancing me from him is enough to keep me from seeing myself as the victim of an indomitable oppressor. My baby, my own, is in trouble, and he needs me to step up and be momma. Not only that, but God has given me this role; and, if I take that seriously, then I need to do what is necessary to protect my sweet one.
Truth be told, there is a part of me that is relieved and grateful that God is leading me through this. I don't want Jonathan and Gabrien to grow up with a mother who is dominated by fears and anxiety. I want to be able to point to this time and show them how God was big for me in a glorious way when my resources were depleted. I want them to see from this that I have limits, that I am a flawed, fallen woman in need of redemption in Christ so that they won't ever come to the conclusion by looking at me that I am self-sufficient and only give lip service to my need for my God.
To my Jonathan:
I need you to know, Sweetheart, that NONE of this is your fault in any way. You do not scare, Momma. You do not cause me pain. You do not make me anxious. Mommy is dealing with a lot right now, but you have done nothing wrong. I am so sorry if any of this has confused you. Mommy is trying so hard to protect you from this, to keep you safe. You are such a light in my life, Jonathan. You bring me more joy and happiness than you will ever know. Even if you were to throw up every day for the rest of your life, I would still want you. I would still love being your mommy! NOTHING will ever change that. I promise you, Sweet Boy, I am going to keep fighting this, I am going to keep fighting for you. I promise.
I love you, Jonathan.