So scared of vomit that I drugged and starved my own kids.
I bounced my granddaughter Chloe on my knee.
Suddenly, she gave a burp.
‘Oh dear,’ my daughter-in-law said. ‘I hope she’s not going to be sick.’
‘Sick’. Just the word made me nervous. My hands start to sweat.
‘Better go to Mummy,’ I said, handing her back and standing up.
‘I’m sure she’ll be fine, Caroline,’ my daughter-in-law, frowned, confused at my haste.
But I wasn’t taking any chances. Not when vomiting was involved.
It all started over 40 years ago when I was eight-years-old but I can remember it as if it were yesterday…
I was in the car driving home with my pregnant aunt, she got a wave of sickness. Suddenly, a pile of steaming vomit covered the back seat.
‘I’m so sorry, Caroline’ she said, frantically mopping my skirt with her tissue.
It was an accident, just one of those things. But I was horrified. And the awful, stomach turning smell in that hot car stayed with me long after I’d changed my clothes.
It became a preoccupation. I started to fear being near somebody who would be sick again.
Back at school, I started trying to miss assembly and lunch just in case someone vomited near me. And morning break was precarious too – someone nearly always threw up their milk.
As I grew older, my fear ballooned. I’d cross the street if I saw a pregnant woman coming towards me in the street, and cut off contact with good friends if they let slip they had morning sickness.
So when, age 20 I fell pregnant with my first child, I was petrified.
‘Any morning sickness/’ the midwife asked at my 12-week check-up? Don’t worry, we can give you something for that if it’s really bad…’
Truth was, I felt fine – at the moment. But I wasn’t willing to take the risk things might change.
‘Awful,’ I lied.
From then on, I downed a spoonful of the medicine she gave me as a preventative measure.
And when it worked, I followed suit for my following two pregnancies. I didn’t give a thought to my unborn babies – well, if it was being prescribed by the nurse it couldn’t be that bad for them, surely?
After my sons Anthony, now 33, Phillip, 30, and Tim, 21 were born problem-free, I should have been relieved. But as a mum, my phobia only worsened.
Public situations became more frightening and every time I left the house I’d scan the streets for vomit. Forget afternoons at the playground, or journeys to the seaside, trips out were limited to visits to the supermarket and even that left me terrified of picking up germs. I’d check each aisle before I walked down it to check no one looked poorly and there wasn’t any vomit on the floor.
I went to see my doctor but he shrugged off my fears. Back in 1986, there wasn’t much talk about phobias.
‘It’s the body’s natural defence,’ he said simply. ‘Nothing to be worried about, dear.’
But it was easier said than done.
A few months later, I made an appointment to see a counsellor.
‘Well, my darling, we have to confront our fears,’ she said. ‘We’ll start with looking at a photo of vomit, then move on to watch some films…’
I never went back. Feeling like a freak, I vowed never to confide in anyone ever again. And I didn’t. I just got on with dealing with my feelings any way I could.
Of course, it led me to some odd parenting choices…
When the boys started eating solids, my paranoia went up a notch. I looked at books to find out which foods digested quickly, thus lessening the chance they’d come back up again. And I stuck to tiny portions, figuring that the less they ate, the less chance there was of them being sick.
So despite the boys complaining that they were hungry and their tummies hurt, I’d feed them the tiniest amounts – just a single boiled egg or a piece of toast for tea.
‘Mum, we’re hungry,’ they’d moan.
But I’d block out their cries or tell them off for being greedy.
If there was a bug going round school, I’d be even stricter. Then, they wouldn’t get any tea at all, or just a glass of milk before bed.
Of course, despite my best efforts, sometimes the boys would pick up a bug.
Waiting for them to be sick was the worst part. Like a ticking time bomb, Once they’d vomited it was almost a relief. Donning the rubber gloves I’d hold my breath and get out the rubber gloves and the bleach, scrubbing away the germs.
Then, I’d switch into self-preservation mode. I’d call my mother-in-law to come over to help and then shut myself away in my room, avoiding them when I should have been looking after them. I’d go for days without kissing or cuddling them.
And to reduce my chances of picking up the same thing, I’d stop eating altogether and drink brandy laced with a mixture of kaolin and morphine instead.
In my head, I thought the alcohol might kill the germs.
When my marriage broke up in 1983 and I moved in with my parents, I was relieved to hand over care of the boys to them. As much as I loved the boys, it was a huge relief for someone else to do the day-to-day mothering. I even arranged for them to take the boys away on holiday as the threat of travel sickness filled me with dread.
So when a new boyfriend insisted he wanted to spend time with all of us and booked a family holiday, I panicked. I secretly dosed the boys up with sedative to try and make them sleep all the way in there in the car and wouldn’t get travel sick and vomit. It worked, too.
Boyfriends came and went but drugging the boys became as regular a part of the trip as packing our suitcases.
‘Take your strong pill, it’ll give you muscles,’ I’d tell them as I popped a sedative in their mouths.
As the boys got older and I could no longer trick them, I’d bribe them into taking it, proffering sweets or extra pocket money. It sounds truly shocking now but at the time it seemed to make sense.
Still, we only holidayed in this country. I refused plane and boat travel due to the fear of other passengers being sick.
When I got remarried I did manage a holiday to Italy but insisted my husband drive the entire way so I wasn’t near other passengers who could vomit.
Eating out was also impossible because I feared sickness from food poisoning. I did a catering course to try and ‘cure’ myself, but it only made me worse.
‘I really don’t understand you,’ my husband said one day after I turned down another invitation to go out.
I could hardly blame him. I didn’t understand myself. I’d buy armfuls of women’s magazines and pore over the problem pages to see if anyone else felt like me. But although there were people with phobias connected to spiders, snakes and heights…there was nothing about people being scared of sick.
When my third marriage broke down in 2003, friends urged me to come and visit. I was desperate to see them, the only problem was they lived in Spain… however thanks to a cocktail of travel sickness pills, brandy and Rescue Remedy, I managed to force myself onto a plane for the first time in 30 years.
I loved Spain and decided to make it my home, especially when I met my now-husband, John in 2004. But my new start didn’t include my phobia. It still hung over me like a threat. I could go weeks, even months without thinking about it, but then someone would mention feeling ill and I’d become a nervous wreck.
I eventually opened up to John about a year ago.
‘I wish I could have the grandkids over to visit us,’ I sighed one evening as I looked through their photos. Harry, four, and Billy and Chloe, both two, all lived in the UK and I missed them like crazy. I went over to visit them as often as I could but they’d never been to stay with me.
‘Invite them then!’ he laughed.
‘But what if they’re ill?’ I fretted.
‘Then we’d cope,’ he said, mystified.
‘I wouldn’t,’ I said quietly, my eyes filling with tears. And suddenly, it all came tumbling out.
‘I was a terrible mother,’ I sobbed. ‘I pushed my boys away.’
‘I’m sure you weren’t,’ John said.
But it was true. I’m not sure how much the boys remember – I’ve never talked to them about it – but thankfully they don’t seem to hold it against me. We get on well and I know I’m so lucky to have wonderful well balanced children considering what I put them through.
Still, now that they’re parents I can’t help but worry that they wouldn’t trust me alone with their children…and to be honest, I wouldn’t blame them if they did, really.
John’s been wonderfully supportive but admits he doesn’t really understand, or know how to help me. No one really does.
However, I’m determined that somehow I will beat this. This awful phobia has controlled every aspect of my life for the last 46 years. It robbed me of my chance to be a good mum, so now I’m determined to beat it so I can enjoy my grandchildren and they can have a granny to be proud of.
Wish me luck!