Bizarre phobia leaves 30-year-old 'skeletal'

Aletha Wilkinson

A skeletal 30kg woman aged just 30 had to convince doctors she was not anorexic after her extreme phobia of vomiting made her look like a 60 year old.

"It got to the point I could only face eating two mouthfuls of each meal," Cheryl Longman, a former support worker, said.

Fear of vomiting left Cheryl unable to eat more than a bite or two. Source: Caters News

"I was hungry but the sheer terror of being sick was so overwhelming. It's like being in a horror film running away from some crazed killer.

"I lost so much weight that I was just skin and bone and my skin went grey and so dry from being malnourished – I looked so much older.

"Seeing myself in the mirror was heartbreaking. It destroyed my self-confidence.

Cheryl's life-long fear of being sick became so severe three years ago that she fell into a "vicious cycle" of restricting her meals.

After being consumed by an irrational fear that if she became too full she would throw up, Cheryl restricted herself to just two mouthfuls each meal for 15 months, with her weight plummeting from 67kg to just 30kg.

"It was horrible watching the weight just drop off me," Cheryl, from Kent in the UK, said.

"I was so used to being healthy and being curvy and then all of a sudden I was wasting away.

"But I was trapped in this vicious cycle of restricting my food because I was absolutely terrified of being too full and being sick and then as I got smaller and smaller my stomach was shrinking.

Despite trying to get help, Cheryl feels she was "bounced back and forth" between mental health and eating disorder specialists who she claims struggled to accept that she was not anorexic – and in fact longed for her "curvy" figure back.

Cheryl badly wanted her 'curvy' former figure back but was too scared to eat. Source: Caters News

"I tried to get help but it just felt like I was being bounced back and forth between the mental health team and the eating disorder services," Cheryl said.

"I faced this constant battle of having to convince everyone that I wasn't anorexic. People would treat me like I had body-image issues but I didn't, I wanted to put the weight back on but I was just too scared."

At her lowest weight, Cheryl was at risk of her organs shutting down and was admitted to hospital where she had to be fed through a tube that went up her nose and into her stomach.

Former support worker Cheryl is now out of hospital and well on the way to recovery, weighing 54kg, but is keen to raise awareness of her condition.

"Looking back now, I know I am very lucky to have recovered like I have. It's such an amazing feeling to be gaining weight and I look my age again," she said.

Cheryl developed her fear of being sick, known as emetophobia, at the age of 12 but it had only affected what type of food she would eat until 2014 when she was so full after a takeaway that she felt nauseated. This triggered an added terror of over-eating.

Over three years, Cheryl lost more than half her body weight.

Once a size 14, Cheryl reached the point where even tiny size 6 clothes were hanging off her frail frame.

By the time her weight plummeted below 2kg, Cheryl had been housebound for two years as her body was so weak that just walking a few steps would leave her exhausted and breathless.

Cheryl was mistaken for a woman twice her age. Source: Caters News

Although she could feel her body "dying off", Cheryl said her fear of dying was nothing compared to her fear of vomiting, forcing her mum Bernadette Hanson, 58, to stage an intervention.

Cheryl claims she was told if she did not go to hospital she would be sectioned – so she went to Medway Maritime Hospital, where she stayed for three weeks.

"When I was taken to hospital I was told that my weight and blood sugar levels were so low that my body had started to die off and I was at risk of all my organs shutting down," she said.

"It was so scary but up until that point, my fear of being sick had been way stronger than my fear of dying. I felt completely helpless."

During her stay, Cheryl's body had to be retrained as it had started to reject solid food and she was fitted with a nasogastric feeding tube until her weight had increased to 47kg.

"In hospital I faced the same challenge with a lot of the consultants and they would treat me like I was anorexic and talk to me as if I didn't want to get better but eventually they got it," Cheryl said.

"I can't fault the care they gave me at all."

Since leaving hospital, Cheryl has continued to go to therapy in a bid to find the root cause of her fear and is now determined to raise awareness for other emetophobia sufferers.

Cheryl said she believes there needs to be a greater awareness of the condition so sufferers get the help they need as early as possible.

"It's such a relief each time I check my BMI to see myself getting into the safe category," she said.

"But even with that joy, eating is an everyday battle. The fear of being sick is still very much there but I've learnt to fight it. It's just sad that my weight had to get so low that I could have died to get the care I needed.

"I feel like there's a missing link when it comes to treating eating disorders. I want it to reach a point where everyone like me knows that there is somewhere they can go to get help."

Cheryl has set up an awareness group here.


• Emetophobia, a fear of vomiting, is a condition that is not widely diagnosed even though it is a fairly prevalent anxiety disorder.
• More women have a fear of vomiting than men, an estimated 1.7-3.1 per cent of males and 6-7 per cent of females experience emetophobia.
• Those with emetophobia have a fear of vomiting or seeing others being sick. They may also fear the feeling of being out of control while they are being sick or fear being sick in public which can trigger avoidance behaviours.
• Emetophobia varies enormously in how it effects suffers; most worry excessively about being sick even though they are less likely than the general population to be sick because of all the steps they take to avoid being ill.
• Sufferers may be unable to leave home if there are any tummy bugs going around and they will avoid family and friends who have an illness.
• Many sufferers will also have a strict diet which is free from anything that might cause a stomach upset and some will avoid medications which list nausea as a side-effect.
• Many women will also dread the thought of being pregnant because of concerns about coping with 'morning sickness'.

With additional reporting by Caters News

For confidential support about eating disorders and body image issues you can free call the Butterfly Foundation National Hotline on 1800 33 4673.

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