Don’t Bug Me

Why My Norovirus Panic Makes Me Sick

Both the flu season and severe stomach flu bring a queasy fear to our writer, who is terrified of vomiting, or being around others who are doing the same.

Image Source/Corbis

I have a recurring nightmare during the winter months: someone close to me has the stomach flu, and as they’re being violently ill in the bathroom, I’m cowering in some dark corner—eyes squeezed tight-shut, fingers in my ears—anxiously plotting to be as far away from them as possible.

I confess I am equally vomit-phobic in real life. The sound of someone retching, or the possibility that they might retch, based on their body language or peaked face, triggers my fight or flight instincts. Whenever I glimpse a homeless person bent over a trash can, for instance, I sprint in the opposite direction to avoid seeing or hearing them heave. (Living in New York City, I see homeless people bent over trash cans with some regularity—and often run several blocks before it occurs to me that they’re probably not puking their guts out.)

I’ve read the recent headlines about this winter’s flu epidemic: that an influenza-like virus is now “widespread in 36 states,” and that that it’s the “worst flu season” we’ve seen in years.

Influenza is no fun. But it’s the stray reports of norovirus, a particularly virulent strain of “stomach flu”, that haunt me in my sleep. Norovirus is more common in winter, and while it hasn’t fully reared its head yet this season, it’s already shutting down schools in the U.S. and hospital wards in the UK.

And I know it’s coming for me soon. I was spared last year, so I’m overdue for a round of barf-o-rama, or, more specifically, for two or three days of “‘explosive’ diarrhea and ‘projectile’ vomiting” (sometimes simultaneously).

I am fortunate that I have never been deathly ill, but whenever I have the stomach flu, I most certainly feel like I am dying. (Is there a more dreadful sensation than that of your stomach wringing itself out like a washcloth?)

Surely all this graphic talk of gastrointestinal distress is making you queasy. No one likes barfing. But my issue with it seems to be more acute, and at the risk of diagnosing myself, I believe the clinical term for it is Emetophobia: “an intense, irrational fear or anxiety pertaining to vomiting.”

When the barf bug sweeps a community, most people either don’t think twice about it (until they fall ill) or wash their hands more frequently. Not me.

If you tell me you were recently up all night hugging the toilet, I will be wary of touching anything you touch for the next two weeks. I will turn my nose up when you offer me the rest of some delicious pastry that you nibbled on. If I live with you, I will pack a suitcase and beg someone whose bathroom is not infected to take me in, returning days later in a hazmat suit to scrub every surface of our shared living space with bleach. And then, weeks later, I will likely get sick anyway.

Emetophobia tends to compromise my relationships, turning me into a selfish jerk. Because while you vomit with such vigor that you burst several blood vessels in your eyes, I will not rub your back and bring you ginger ale. Instead, I’ll be grimacing in another room and breathing underneath my shirt, knowing that each time you hurl into the toilet you are infecting the air with norovirus pathogens.

Emetophobia also makes me a bore, the type of person who will cite the CDC and every terrifying bit of information I’ve consumed about this superbug when you assure me you’re no longer contagious. (You probably didn’t know that the virus can live in your stool for two weeks after your symptoms stopped, which means you can still infect others if you are not a fastidious hand-washer after going to the bathroom. Eww.)

I know what all of the fearless parents reading this must think, the mothers who are puked on regularly and might have mopped up their norovirus-stricken child’s vomit today: I am simply not cut out for the job of parenthood.

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I’ll admit the same thought has crossed my mind. But I also know I’d be immensely lucky if I had an otherwise healthy child who got the stomach flu a couple of times a year.

Like most of my neuroses and paranoias, I inherited my Emetophobia from my mother, who wore yellow rubber gloves when I had stomach flu and quietly cursed the parents of any sick child I might have been in contact with.

If she could handle holding back her children’s hair while they threw up with the force of a fire hose—and subsequently survive the stomach flu herself—I suppose I should make do. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself the next time it comes for me, reciting it like a mantra when I’m curled up, waiting to hurl, on the bathroom floor.