Parties, Panic and Phobias

Last night I was at a party. When I say “party”, I don´t necessarily mean a huge party with thousands of guests. What I mean is getting drunk in company. Yesterday the company consisted of my girlfriend and five people I barely knew. We were hanging out at a pub, talking, getting drunk, and, remarkably enough, having fun. I´m not very talkative among strangers or casual acquaintances most of the time. It is not exactly shyness – often I just start to feel very detached and spacey when people around me are chatting away. When they ask me why I “don´t say anything” I claim to be tired. For a long time I thought it was true. Focusing on them and on what they said seemed like an incredible effort (leave alone saying something myself), so apparently I had to be exhausted. And yet in my own way I am oddly focused. I am just self-absorbed.

Whatever it is that normally sets in when I am attending a social event, though, yesterday it didn´t. It was one of those wonderful days when I am not stuck somewhere in my head. It was easy to focus on the others, I remembered to always ask them questions and to be interested in what they said, and I even managed to be interested in amazingly many things.

It could all have been a wonderful evening, if occasions like this were not clouded by a nasty little phobia. Since I was a little child I am suffering from a fear of vomiting. I found out only recently that this is so not -uncommon that it even has a name of its own: Emetophobia. Of course such a phobia doesn´t mix well with excessive alcohol consumption. If you get drunk, you are likely to feel at least a little nauseous at some point. And if I start to feel nauseous, I get frightened – and this can easily turn into a panic attack. In case you wonder why I don´t avoid situations where I might start to feel nauseous – I do, at least most of the time. There are many nights when I have one drink and then cling to a glass of lemonade, watching the others downing one beer after another. But this is fairly depressing. And while a lot of people would argue that getting drunk is an unhealthy kind of behavior anyway, I argue that not getting drunk because of a stupid phobia is even more unhealthy.

An avoidant attitude sneaks up on you, and suddenly you realize that your options are incredibly restricted. There are moments when I remember how free I once was. While I have had that phobia since I was a little girl, there were times when it was dormant. I think I had managed to avoid vomiting for about ten years, and somehow I was confident that it was never going to happen again. I didn´t even think about it, and those were the days when I could booze and party without concern for my welfare because I simply knew I was going to be okay. Well, one day about two years ago it happened again. I had to vomit. And my phobia was back in full gear, and I started to avoid, avoid, avoid. Not just drinking. Also eating certain things if they made me feel sick just once. Or eating at all, until I was sick with hunger and still didn´t dare to eat – because it might make me vomit. Avoidance is not exactly compatible with enjoying life. At all.

And so there are days when I decide to fuck avoidance and just get drunk. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn´t. Last Saturday I was at a party in the normal sense, that is, at someone´s house, with lots of guests. I did get drunk, but I felt alright and in control, and guess what, I didn´t even have a hangover the day after. Yesterday was – not such a good day. I was determined to have fun, but I was already nervous and uneasy when I left the house. At that little “social gathering” everything went smoothly for a while, but after my second drink I knew that I should stop. And yet I refused and had a third one. It was a mistake, because when my girlfriend and I left and rode home (by train, of course), everything was spinning around as soon as I closed my eyes. In fact, it was like I was spinning around, or flying through the air upside down. I felt like I was on a very crazy roller coaster. The strange thing is that this is not even all that unpleasant. At some point, though, I will inevitably start to feel seasick. I will want it to stop, badly, but it doesn´t, and this is a breeding ground for panic attacks.  So the rest of the night, and much of my (shallow) sleep was dedicated to fighting back anxiety. And today it is all about battling the hangover.

So what do I make of all this? I guess feeling like I am flying through the air upside down is something I want to avoid, independently of any kind of phobia. And yet it pisses me off. I hate to be mature and reasonable. I hate to “know when to stop”. On the other hand, though, what is wrong with listening to your instincts? Knowing when to stop is not about always having only two drinks at most no matter what, it is about listening to and correctly interpreting your body´s signals. And when your instincts tell you that you can very well have a third, fourth, or fifth drink, there is no reason to not have them (other than monetary concerns).

But doesn´t a phobia warp your instincts? Each and every article I´ve ever read on phobias and panic attacks emphasized that fear is generally a good and useful instinct. It is a warning signal. But if you have a phobia, your fear warns you of dangers that are either not there, or not as dramatic as you feel they are.  So when I feel like I should better not have another drink because it will make me feel sick – is it a useful instinct, or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? And if I think it is the latter, should I just override that intuition, or should I go back to avoidant behavior? If I override the intuition and start to feel sick, I will 1) blame myself and make myself even more miserable and 2) my misgivings will be confirmed and my phobia is going to get worse. If I give in to avoidance, however, I will 1) feel like a loser and a killjoy and 2) remain a prisoner of my phobia. Sometimes I wonder where this is all going to lead to. Will my phobia become dormant again if I avoid vomiting for long enough? But it is bound to return one day. I absolutely want to have children one day, but being pregnant often goes with feeling nauseous. And even if I should be able to avoid vomiting then, how about the children? Kids have to vomit all the time, and besides, I don´t want to pass that phobia on to them by overreacting to them feeling sick. It´s not like I worry about this all the time, but thoughts like these make me want to get rid of that phobia once and for all instead of just hoping for it to become dormant again. I´m just not sure how to do that.


Related Posts: Emetophobia


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