IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Threw Up Every Time a Boy Touched Me Until I Was 20

Holding hands with a boy at a movie theater or even a semi-romantic food court lunch seemed to trigger some deep need to evacuate my stomach contents.
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Maddie Howard
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Holding hands with a boy at a movie theater or even a semi-romantic food court lunch seemed to trigger some deep need to evacuate my stomach contents.

When I was 13, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to a folk camp in the mountains of North Carolina. This may sound like an innocent youthful adventure, but it was actually a trip to a banjo-themed den of iniquity in which I tried my first beer, went skinny-dipping for the first time, and let a boy set my hair on fire. It was my Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-style “Summer of Growth,” but with square dancing.

At my very first contra dance (look it up, there’s probably one near you and you should go to it), I met “K,” the first boy I would ever fall in love with. I fell for him like falling down a well. My brain broke in half, and I still don’t think it’s fully fused back together. He had long hair, an earring, and liked Radiohead. I didn’t have a chance.

My mom put together a photo album to preserve my Cargo Shorts Years (ages 14 to 17). That’s K in the top left corner!

My mom put together a photo album to preserve my Cargo Shorts Years (ages 14 to 17). That’s K in the top left corner!

We lived 3 hours apart, and the reluctance of our parents to drive us to see each other made it feel like forbidden love. Neither of us had cell phones (flashback to 2003, y’all), and since it was a long-distance call, our parents also balked at hour-long tearful landline conversations. 

So our main communication for the first 6 months of our relationship was the old-fashioned letter, like he was on a slow march to Antietam and I was trying to keep the homestead together.

I wrote him about once a week, sometimes just one looseleaf piece of paper’s worth. He wrote me about once every month, but the letters were so overstuffed that I often owed postage on them. 

Once, he painted me a tiny army of zombie figurines and sent them to me in a takeout container. Try to imagine my excitement when, after a month of silence, I found a hefty epistle covered in stickers and Sharpied curlicues squatting in the mailbox, accompanied by a testy note from the mailman. It was like getting a new kitten.

It was spring of the next year by the time we managed to organize a visit. The anticipation was better than Christmas Eve, better than my birthday, better and more intense than anything I’d ever felt.

The first night I stayed at his house, I threw up everywhere.

K was sleeping on the kitchen floor, and I was in a daybed not far away (the unspoken message from his parents being “you wouldn’t dare”). Instead of me sneaking out of the daybed to touch fingertips like in the movies, I stepped right over him into the bathroom and puked violently all over the door, walls, floor, and finally, toilet. Mortified, I cleaned it up, thinking I had a very unfortunately-timed bug.

I threw up everything I ate for the rest of the weekend, and everyone was extremely nice about it. To us, the barfing was just an amusing story to tell our kids someday. (And we still made out a bunch, I just had to brush my teeth more often.)

The reenactment you didn’t ask for and don’t need.

The reenactment you didn’t ask for and don’t need.

A few months passed before the next visit. Our parents met in the middle at a McDonald’s parking lot in Spindale, NC, to make the tradeoff. As soon as I got in their car, the nausea came back. I proceeded to blow chunks all week.

I’ll pause the story here to give a little family background.

The soundtrack to every morning of my school kid life was my dad’s retching. He had a notoriously delicate stomach, which may have been partly due to his smoking and significant Jack Daniels consumption. 

He was a devoted runner, getting up every day before dawn to jog for a few miles. Once, during a 10K with a friend, he took a break to throw up into the bushes, wiped his mouth, and, to his friend’s horror, kept on running. And afterwards I bet he housed a steak dinner. (My dad is pretty much Nick Offerman if Nick Offerman puked all the time).

I am lucky enough to be the sibling to inherit his tendency to spew. (Also, we both sweat way too much. Thanks, Dad.) My dad and I might throw up when we’re nervous, uncomfortable, too warm, in a high place, in a big crowd, etc. It’s not great for your esophageal lining or your teeth, but it will be great if I ever need to unload my stomach to scare off a predator.

Every time I visited K, I couldn’t keep anything down. He visited me instead, and to our consternation, the same thing happened. I vividly remember the morning of my 14th birthday, when his mom set a blueberry pancake stuck full of candles in front of me. I got about two bites down before I beelined it for the bathroom. With my head resting on the seat, I listened to the roosters crowing in the backyard and wished for death.

I’ve gotten pretty good at puking outside. Don’t let anyone tell you I don’t have any talents.

I’ve gotten pretty good at puking outside. Don’t let anyone tell you I don’t have any talents.

I also remember watching most of Return of the King with K in a trendy pizza parlor theater from a prone position underneath the table, halfheartedly sipping a Diet Coke. I wanted this to be a cool teenager date, but my stomach was too busy squealing DANGER, DANGER.

Theories abounded about what could be making me throw up every time I visited K. Motion sickness? Something in the water? Altitude? Stress? I felt personally responsible, and the worse I felt about the puking, the more I seemed to puke.

After I turned 16, we stopped seeing each other for a little while. (We’d be on and off until I was 18, after 3 proms and nearly getting a couple tattoo.) I started branching out and going on real teenager dates with other boys. Turns out, I also puked on those.

Holding hands with a boy at a movie theater or even a semi-romantic food court lunch seemed to trigger some deep need to evacuate my stomach contents. It got to the point where after I started seeing a boy, my mom would ask if he nauseated me as a “true test” of whether I really liked him. It evolved into a family joke; I didn’t throw up on every date, but if I didn’t, it meant I wasn’t really into it.

I remember having to explain the situation to a couple guys; they seemed flattered that their simple presence could evoke such a strong reaction. I don’t remember anyone being openly grossed out, even the guy who was on the very unfortunate wrong end of pretty much an entire pint of Chunky Monkey (sorrryyyyy). Bottom line: I avoided eating around boys for a few years.

After a year or so of college, the vomit river gradually petered out into a trickle. I started throwing up only for obvious reasons; humidity, drinking hot chocolate too fast, riding my bike home after giving blood (I KNOW).

This is my version of duckface.

This is my version of duckface.

My teenage vomarama is one of the big mysteries of my life. Now that I’m old enough to actually be worried about it, it’s over, so I’m just left with a gnawing feeling that something weird happened to my body in the mountains when I was 13 and I don’t know what it was.

Maybe his family made me nervous, and that nervousness created some kind of learned response. (This is my mom’s idea.) Or maybe it was hormonal, or just my body trying to warn me not to fall too head-over-heels for someone who couldn’t grow a beard yet.

I will go to my grave with these questions. But here is what I think: Just as we age out of our excitement about Christmas morning, and that excitement fades and gets replaced with more adult thrills (eating lobster! Game of Thrones!), we also age out of the urgency and fear that dating has when you’re a teen.

During the height of my throwing-up days, I was like an 8-year-old who sneaks downstairs and eats all of the candy canes off of the tree and nearly dies of a peppermint overdose. Now, even job interviews don’t get me to the level of stressful anticipation I used to feel right before K visited.

I’ve only thrown up in front of my new boyfriend twice, which is a record, but once was on a moving train so it should probably count as two.

I’ve only thrown up in front of my new boyfriend twice, which is a record, but once was on a moving train so it should probably count as two.

I’ve thought about whether I miss those intense feelings, and I just really don’t. K is getting married now, and I’ve tried to figure out whether I feel anything about it, but mostly I feel indifferently happy for him. It’s such a mild emotion that I don’t think my 16-year-old self would even sense it in the fetid jungle of her skull.

Feel free to wildly speculate about my frequent alfresco barfing. I can hardly dare to hope: Is there anyone out there who also threw up on or near boys a lot?