It’s Nothing Personal: How Essays Make Secrets Seem Silly
December 15, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Nikki Campo
When I published an essay recently about my lifelong struggle with emetophobia, the clinical fear of vomit, my dad sent me a text message: “Wow! I’m surprised you’re willing to publish something so personal.”
I scratched my head. Really? I had previously published stories about grief after losing my mom, about my exploration of psychedelics for anxiety (though I never partook), even about my pesky mustache. None of those topics had garnered that kind of surprise from my dad. When I pressed him to elaborate, he explained that my emetophobia story didn’t seem like one ripe for public consumption. I mean, wasn’t I embarrassed?
Part of the joy of writing essays comes from feeling less lonely on the other side of writing. But I don’t always start out feeling full of self-love or confidence. Indeed, I hadn’t spoken to anyone other than my husband and therapist about emetophobia until I decided to write about it. But once the research and writing began, my brain switched into puzzle solving mode. No longer was I worried about how my story would sound to a reader. Instead, I wondered if I could demystify for myself and other emetophobes what was happening in our brains causing the hypervigilance, fear, and related mental (and sometimes physical) exhaustion.
By the time I had written the piece, I had spoken to more than 20 people about my disorder, complete with all the skeletons previously tucked into the closet. Since publication, I’ve heard from many readers — well-known authors, researchers, friends, family members of other emetophobes — all wanting to share their story. Each of them said, in some way, “Thank you.”
I sought therapy for emetophobia while I was writing. Though I still experience anxiety when a vomit situation feels imminent, I am no longer on high alert 24/7 (exhausting!)
Recently, I brought my 7-year-old to her gymnastics class. Scanning the gym as I always do for signs of serial killers, faulty HVAC fixtures, or someone on the verge of vomiting (see exhausting), I saw a little girl in my daughter’s class crying. Immediately, I assumed she felt sick to her stomach — still my gut reaction despite therapy. When she came over to her mom who was next to me, her mom said, “You feel fine, go back to class.” I had to know if the child was sick, so I asked. The mom explained that her daughter felt fine, she just “had a thing about throwing up.” Apparently, one of the other girls in the class had been sick the week before; now the crying child was afraid to be near her classmate, even though she was fully recovered. I have so been there, I thought.
Prior to writing about emetophobia, I may not have confessed to my disorder. But that day, fueled by the confidence I got from readers of my story the month prior, I took a breath and said, “Actually, I have emetophobia.” The girl’s mom hadn’t heard the word. “Wow,” she said, “I’m kind of relieved this is a known thing.” I told her I had written about it, and she asked me to send her my story. She read it and now she’s seeking help for her daughter.
So, no. I don’t feel ashamed about my disorder, and I don’t regret publishing the story. I know at least one family who will benefit. One little girl who won’t go through her childhood feeling misunderstood, whether she has clinically-diagnosable emetophobia or not. One mom who knows her daughter needs extra support.
The thing is, personal stories are never completely unique. It’s the reason writing teachers tell us to use specific details: the more specific, counterintuitively, the more universal. I could have simply said in my essay that emetophobia prevents me from behaving normally in everyday situations. Instead, I confessed to turning the car around and taking my children home rather than to school one day when morning traffic seemed light. My head had gotten the best of me, and I had extrapolated fewer cars on the street than normal to mean a stomach bug had ravaged the city. The cars were parked at home, I was convinced at that moment, because their owners were home sick.
Even if only 1-2% of the population can relate specifically to fearing vomit and maybe even my outlandish catastrophizing, probably many more understand the dark and sometimes shameful place of keeping a weird secret.
I couldn’t have known before publishing how my story would land — whether it would fall on empathetic ears or nosedive into ridicule. But by the time I’d finished writing, that didn’t matter. In a way, I felt cured of the secret, if not fully of the disorder. That felt like reason enough to share.
Nikki Campo is a writer whose essays and short humor have been published in Hobart, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency among other digital and print publications and anthologies. Her personal essay “Queen of Birthdays” won 1st prize in the 2019-2020 Charlotte Writers’ Club Nonfiction contest. Find more of her work at nikkicampo.com. Twitter @nikkicampo