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How My Son Cured My Fear of Vomiting

At some point during my adolescence, I became entirely freaked out by the idea of throwing up. I haven’t had enough therapy to unearth the reasons why. I remember getting sick at the age of 9 at Hersheypark — a relatively uneventful puke session brought on not by a ride, but some bad creamed onions at dinner — and then I just decided I wasn’t going to throw up anymore. And I didn’t. And didn’t, and didn’t. The years went by, and the idea of throwing up became increasingly terrifying. The slightest queasiness brought on heart-stopping panic and tears. If I actually felt honest-to-God nauseated, I ran around the house weeping, alarming the hell out of whomever was around. But I didn’t throw up!

Somehow, I managed to avoid throwing up throughout my high school and college years, even when I was an enthusiastic drinker, and throughout pregnancy and even through labor. And then I had a baby, and my fear took a turn. Not only did I now worry about myself throwing up, but I had a small, dependent being who needed me. And would need me even when he was sick.

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As afraid as I was of throwing up, I was even more terrified of someone else throwing up near or on me. Once I fled a restaurant when the person I was with began retching and gagging. I got up and ran out. It turned out he was choking on steak. And I left. (Well, I went outside, anyway. I came back! He was OK. I still feel a little bad about it.) I couldn’t handle the sight or sound — or God help me, the smell — of someone being sick. How was I going to take care of a baby? Babies are puke machines. It’s one of the four things they do. In addition to vomiting for sport, they also catch every virus that’s going around and quickly transmit them to their parent. I was doomed.

The idea of my son getting sick kept me up nights — well after he was waking me up for 3 a.m. feedings. I couldn’t let go of the fear. At some point my beloved child would become the thing I dreaded most: a vomiting person who depended on me. Would I abandon him? Run outside to catch a cab?

As it turned out, my son was not one of those kids who catches stomach viruses every time they come around. I don’t know how I got to be so lucky. On the other hand, he was one of those kids who pukes every time he gets into a car.

During a vacation roaming the hill towns of Italy, he had his very first dramatic, explosive puke right in the backseat of our rental car. And yes, it was epically horrible. He was weeping. I was gagging. What was once his lunch pooled in his lap and dripped down the back of our seats. We pulled over, miraculously right in front of a laundromat. And then — and this is important — it was fine. I managed to comfort him without my heart stopping. We cleaned up the backseat to the best of our abilities. And within minutes, he was playing with a Transformer on the floor of the laundromat wearing nothing but a diaper while we tried to figure out how to interpret washing machine instructions in Italian.

It was practically a nonevent. Vomiting was simply a way to get rid of something unpleasant, and once the thing was gone, he was perfectly cheerful and a little snacky.

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This one incident gave way to a few more, each equally gross, but he was always unfazed afterward. Once he was demanding a milkshake while we were still spritzing the back seat with Febreze. Another time he wiped his chin with one hand and declared, “Throwing up is like magic!” I could see his point. With one dramatic heave, your discomfort is all gone! Ta-da!

And then, eventually, he got his first stomach virus. And it was fine. I was fine! Shaky, but fine. It was like a miracle. I mean, sure, I washed my hands a little too much for the duration of his sickness, but at least I didn’t run outside to hail a cab.

Then came the day when, finally, I got sick. It was 33 years since the Hersheypark incident. Thirty. Three. Years. That’s a long time not to ever throw up, kids. But one night, I had some questionable takeout — and an hour later, I knew it was about to happen. I wasn’t thrilled about it. But I also knew that I wasn’t going to fight it like I usually did. I wasn’t going to stay up all night, clenching my stomach, digging my nails into my fists. I had things to do the next day. Besides, as my kid had told me, throwing up is magic.

And you know what? It was unpleasant. But more important, it was fine. It was over, and — once again — I was still alive.

The phobia that’s been dogging me for most of my life just doesn’t have the power it used to. I’m not looking forward to the next time one of us gets sick, but I’m also not thinking about it in my spare time. And that’s the real magic here.

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