I had been looking forward to fifth grade camp since kindergarten. Every May, for one week, the halls of Kellogg elementary school became significantly quieter in the absence of an entire grade on vacation. My brother, sister, and even my mom had gone before me. I knew exactly what to expect. As the day approached I had no nerves; I was excited, as if Christmas vacation had come twice.
Early Monday morning we boarded the school buses and traveled to Clear Lake Camp. Upon arrival, the boys and girls were separated and sent to our dorms to claim our bunks. Our dorm was a building with three sleeping wings, and a common area with bathrooms. I chose a top bunk in the north wing and discarded my duffel bag.
They separated our home room classes into teams. Our class was called the Kirtland’s Warblers. In the dining hall they divided us into even smaller groups at assigned tables. After each meal, a chosen member of our table would collect all of our food waste, where it would be weighed and compared with the waste of every other table. At the end of the week the table with the lightest amount of waste would be awarded a prize.
We spent most of our days doing nature-related and/or team-building activities. We were each asked to write about our favorite experience for a scrapbook we received later. I wrote about how much I enjoyed the trust fall and team obstacle course. (Clearly I had no idea how much I would hate this type of thing as an adult.)
After lights out, a recording of the book “A Wrinkle in Time” was piped over the speakers. A few months earlier I had been sentenced to a week of going to bed an hour early after stealing a dollar from my brother, and I was allowed to keep the light on for that hour if I read a book. This was the book I had chosen, and I loved it. I could hardly contain my excitement that first night when I learned I would get to listen to it in bed all week.
Looking back, I have good memories of that week. I came home with a million stories to tell, and even more pictures to develop. But I brought something else home, too.
You knew it was coming. You read the title of this post. It’s a joke among friends. I’m the one who won’t vomit. People are usually surprised when I tell them I have vomited exactly once in my adult life (Christmas Eve, 2003); and most people who know me have heard that I am more than a little anxious when it comes to suspected stomach viruses within a 50-mile radius of me. And truthfully, most of the time I can laugh at it. It isn’t normal or rational, but it has almost no impact on my life anymore.
The first time it happened was during fifth grade camp. I don’t know what triggered it. At this point in my young life I had become a mastermind at hiding whatever OCD behavior was taking over my life. It felt similar, so it could have been related. I was going to be away from home for a week, so it’s also possible I carried more anxiety about that than I cared to admit. And, my older sister had just ran away a few weeks earlier and I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again. The week she ran away had been, until Christmas Eve 2003, the last time I had vomited. It was 1987.
Maybe it was a combination of things.
The nausea was real and constant. At first I was devastated by the thought that the stomach virus I had recently conquered was coming back for round two. Not this week. Any week but this one.
It wasn’t long before I knew it was in my head, but I could not talk myself out of it. I couldn’t sleep. I spent most of my nights in the dorm bathroom stalls waiting for vomit that would never come. I obsessed about it during each daily activity, constantly holding my breath and counting to ten as a strategy against what I believed to be the inevitable. Nothing happened.
I couldn’t eat, and my table hated me for all the waste I was leaving behind. This was the only clue anyone had about the insanity playing out in my brain every moment, and my teacher did sit down with me and ask if everything was okay. This is the same teacher who, weeks earlier when I felt a real stomach bug coming on, had snapped at me in front of the whole class after I asked to go to the bathroom—because I had already asked once and she thought I was being impatient.
I told her everything was fine, and she made me lie down for an hour. I was relieved to have an hour by myself. No chance of vomiting in front of others.
This obsession continued beyond camp. My parents were not any more sympathetic about my food waste than my classmates were. I could usually eat breakfast, and I now believe it was because I ate alone in the morning. I was desperate to overcome this, and I did. Sort of. That summer was the last time it affected me so deeply and constantly, but even into my early twenties I felt nausea and panic every time I went out. And I went out a lot. Anxiety and nausea had become permanently linked.
If you are one of the many friends who ate out with me in the nineties, you may not have noticed how little I ate or how often I visited the bathroom. Just in case. And if you did notice, you couldn’t possibly have known how the thought “what will I do when it happens” ran through my mind every second.
That isn’t true anymore. Am I cured? Not entirely. The possibility of vomiting still terrifies me. I forget for a long time, and then I read a Facebook status that someone’s kid is puking and I get panicked all over again. On the rare occasions my husband and daughter have become sick, I have remained in quarantine for the duration. I obsess. I know it is not logical to carry so much anxiety over something so small, but I cannot simply overcome it.
It creates a feeling of dread that I know has no ties with reality, but the feeling remains. And the feeling is overwhelmingly terrible.
So you may be able to sympathize with how I feel every six months or so when our daughter becomes fascinated with the feeling of gagging herself. At first she attempted to stick Barbie legs down her throat. The last time she tried to drown herself at every opportunity. Now she is sticking her hand down her throat, and has finally figured out how to actually make herself vomit. She thinks it’s hilarious, and she won’t stop.
My husband has lived with me for over two decades, so no discussion is necessary. Puke is his job, and it doesn’t phase him. I don’t know what I would do if it happened while he was gone. It sounds silly, but I really don’t know what I would do. It’s like asking someone with arachnophobia to accept that a thousand spiders have now moved in, and occasionally they might have to eat one. There is no escape.
At this point I thought I was prepared for almost anything parenting life could throw at me.
I am not prepared for this.