Buck Up

One girl traces it back to when she was four and a man who had slit his wrists knocked on the door of their apartment. Her mother sent her to the neighbors, of course, but she saw him get into the ambulance, covered with blood and vomit.

Her handle on the website is Miss Shamrocks. She's 23, pretty and fashionable, with dyed black hair; big, heavily mascaraed green eyes; and bad skin. She's very thin, and she hasn't been to work at the nail salon since mid-October, and there's a cocktail of anti-depressants percolating in her. She's in the midst of your basic extended panic attack, one that's been going on for seven years, but all those anxieties cohere into one all-encompassing phobia. Miss Shamrocks is so afraid she will vomit—or someone else will in her presence—that she can neither work nor, often, leave the house.

Oh, it was going to be so funny! An Emetophobics Convention right here in Costa Mesa! At the South Coast Racquet Club apartments! People so afraid of puke most of them won't even type the word. Instead, they write it like this: v*****.

There are only five of us here Saturday because very few people deathly afraid they'll vomit are willing to travel. We are sitting around California Girl's living room—that's her handle, even though she's actually from Yorkshire, England. She's a tall, cheery redhead—also with bad skin; emetophobics eat very badly, if at all, and are often taken for anorexics—who helps run the International Emetophobia Society's website (www.emetophobia.org). About 300 people chat on the site; California Girl says that in the U.K., at least, emetophobia is the sixth most-common phobia. Someone says that Denise Richards is emetophobic. We are sitting on California Girl's floor (there is only enough sofa for two), drinking Bud Light out of cans, even though most emetophobics don't drink. Miss Shamrocks, for instance, wrinkles her nose in shock when offered a beer or some pink Andre champagne. Everyone is solicitous. "You don't mind if we drink, do you?" Chan asks, assuring her, "Believe me, we know our limits!" Miss Shamrocks says of course she doesn't mind. She probably actually does.

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We are telling funny stories. Mine is the funniest, the very best of a whole trove of vomit stories I've accumulated over the years. It's a really horrendous tale of throwing up whole linguines with clam sauce that apparently hadn't been chewed once onto the balcony of the old lady who lived below me. I ask before I tell it: Is it okay? Will it bother them? Afterward, Chan looks ashen. "I didn't like that," she says quietly. The rest of them work up with great drama to their most recent vomit experiences, which aren't actually terribly dramatic—most of them haven't vomited for years, with the exception of Bunk. "I was doing great until this summer," he says laconically. What happened then? "I threw up."

But in this room, every story is funny, except when California Girl mentions offhand her gang rape at 18 and the horrible abuse she suffered at the hands of her alcoholic stepfather. "I think it's a control issue!" she says of her need to control her body. "If I don't throw up, I don't have to think about the rest of it." There is a moment of silence, and then they laugh and laugh and congratulate one another on having made it to the party. "I'm so proud of you!" they exclaim with frequency. And they are. They are proud of Miss Shamrocks for having made it down from Tarzana despite the monsoon that is thundering around us. They are proud of Bunk—the only man—for having flown in from Huntsville, Alabama. Bunk is 21. Even his mother doesn't know about his phobia.

At 27, California Girl is the oldest of the puke-haters in the room. That's what they call themselves, laughing some more. In fact, the sign they held when they picked Bunk up from John Wayne Airport that afternoon (15 minutes before the airport was evacuated for a security breach) read, "West Coast Puke-Haters Convention." Bunk is not looking well. His nose is red, and he sits silently beneath the large TV. He's still out of it from the Pheregan with a chaser of Xanax that he took so he would be able to fly. Pheregan is an anti-emetic. Most of them take it or similar drugs pretty regularly—at the first hint that they might not be feeling well. California Girl relates how much better she's doing; she's only taking it every few days, down from a high of 10 per day. There's nothing actually wrong with their stomachs; it's all psychological. But they worry that they might feel nauseated, and then they do feel nauseated, and then they have to take something. Chan says how proud she is of California Girl. California Girl jokes about how much she eats these days. Chan says how proud she is of her again.

Chan, 26, is the best-off of the people in the room; you can tell she eats properly by looking at her clear, smooth skin. She doesn't cut herself, like California Girl, in order to draw her attention away from the nausea. She's quite able to leave the house; she and California Girl often go to the Goat Hill Tavern and the Yardhouse. In fact, Chan's phobia has been much, much better since she had her baby. There was one time, when he had the stomach flu, that she didn't want to pick him up. She kept him in his swing instead, and she still feels guilty about it. But now, she swears that if he threw up on her, it would be okay. She swears.

We are there for several hours, the rain pounding. Sometimes we run out of things to talk about, and then we talk about how comfortable our pants are. Then someone remembers something else phobia-related, like the woman on Jenny Jones who said she was terrified of buttons. They laugh. They are not as crazy as that. They are happy. They can laugh. What they can't do is eat anything besides rice or meat that has been charred to something resembling a tree stump. What they can't do is touch their food with their hands, even though they've just washed them. What they can't do is get pregnant—except Chan—because then they might throw up or their child might.

The statistics are whatever you want to make them. Some sites tell you 30 million people have been on Prozac and millions more on other anti-depressants. Others tell you one out of 75 people worldwide has a panic disorder. Does that include everyone who has ever felt short of breath when she found out her boyfriend was running around? And what about social-anxiety disorder? And what's the difference between social-anxiety disorder and being "shy"? That the former is a billable condition? And what about the newly minted PMDD? How, exactly, is it different from PMS? What's wrong with just saying you have PMS? The National Institutes of Mental Health says one in five American adults has a mental disorder.

My mother says my generation isn't any different from any preceding us: we just think we're too good for unhappiness. We should just buck up. I ask my therapist why so many young women are in so much distress. Why are so many of my friends unable to leave their homes? She says it's because so much is expected of women these days: home and family and work. But her answer doesn't really apply to my childless, mid-20s friends—smart, college-educated women who are afraid all the time. My therapist's answers are always pat. And a pat answer is worse than none at all. Buck up.

Share your phobic tales: CommieGirl99@hotmail.com.

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