Weird Health Ish: I Have an Extreme Phobia of Puking

I won't eat pizza slices with toppings other than plain cheese because I think that the vegetables could harbor more pathogens than plain cheese pizza. I know. It's kind of bonkers.
Publish date:
August 17, 2012
food, parties, subway, puke, bleach, neurosis

I don’t think that normal people spend as much time as I do trying to avoid puking.

First of all know this: I am not a puker. In the past 16 years, I have puked exactly twice, and both times can be chocked up to some kind of food-borne illness.

I used to brew kombucha until I heard about someone who got vomitously ill from drinking home-brewed booch (not mine though). Fear of puking made me give away my cute and charming kombucha culture, even though I never got sick from drinking it.

Predictably, I am obsessive about food safety. I pretty much will only eat in restaurants where I can see the kitchen and how the kitchen workers handle food. That means that basically I only eat out at one restaurant, and it is a pizza place in Flatbush. Here is a Venn diagram explaining why, in the entire city of New York, I will only eat at one restaurant:

I used to eat at two restaurants, until one time I watched a grill cook handle raw chicken with his bare hands and HE DID NOT WASH HIS HANDS AFTERWARD. He went on to contaminate the cooked food he subsequently plated with his disgusting Salmonella hands.

So now I'm down to one restaurant, where I ask the pizza guys to heat my slices in the oven for an extra-long time in order to kill off any pathogens that might have feasted on the pizza while it languished under the glass shelving.

Also, I won't eat pizza slices with toppings other than plain cheese because I think that the vegetables could harbor more pathogens than plain cheese pizza. More surface area plus the fact that in and of themselves the vegetables could be tainted equals more potential for food poisoning. I know. It's kind of bonkers.

Also, forget raw salad out of the house, even at friends' houses. Unless someone's kitchen looks spotless, I won't eat anything that isn't fully cooked. I will literally sit down at someone's table and feel the hummus container to make sure that it is still cold from the fridge before eating any.

I have gone to dinner parties where I literally only ate dry bread and pickles because I was too afraid to eat the food. I'm always like, "Thanks so much. The food looks so good. I am just not hungry/on a cleanse/have indigestion."

If I am really afraid of offending the cook, I will put the most innocuous-looking food on my plate and sort of push it around while I chew the bread really slowly.

Even though I make a living publishing "green" home & garden content, when it comes to my own house, I do not hesitate to douse the place in bleach. Water has a tendency to pool up around my bathroom sink, but anyone afraid of barf-inducing germs knows that bacteria and viruses looooove to fester in room-temperature standing water, so I'm always wiping down the mini-counter top around my bathroom sink, and I clean it with bleach twice a week.

Ditto for my kitchen counter top. I wash my dish towels in the hot water cycle with extra detergent and bleach. I also own about 20 dish towels so that I never have to use a damp or dirty one.

In addition to the aforementioned, in order to avoid puking I won’t eat old food. Some people will just look a "use by" date in the eye and laugh, but not I! No, no, no, no, no, no. is my favorite website. I will not eat leftovers that are more than 2 days old without boiling them to smithereens. Also, I check the Food Poison Journal and the FSIS recalls on a regular basis.

There are certain foods that I categorically stay away from since they are known to be frequently contaminated. In no specific order: cantaloupe, bagged salad mixes, undercooked or raw eggs, undercooked or raw meat, unwashed fruit (I wash my fruit in a salt and vinegar solution, then I rinse it thoroughly, dry it with clean paper towels and place it in a clean glass fruit bowl), mayonnaise and fish.

When I am out around town I carry food that I can eat without actually touching it, like bananas and granola bars, so that I can avoid, for instance, touching an apple with fingers that touched grimy NYC subway poles.

Oh wait. The subway. For someone who is afraid of vomiting, the NYC subway system is challenging. I basically won't eat a large meal before getting on the subway, and I avoid the B train because for some weird reason the trains always sway on the tracks, which one time nauseated me, so I've avoided it since then.

I am afraid of eating on airplanes lest I get air sick, so I have done quite a few trans-Atlantic flights where I literally did not eat or drink anything but water and ginger ale for stretches of up to 12 hours. I wear those Sea Bands on airplanes, and I always bring a large Zip Lock baggie in the event that I actually do need to puke up the contents of empty stomach in my airplane seat.

I don't have children yet, but when I get pregnant I am going to try to prevent morning sickness with an iron hand. I have quizzed all of my friends who have children about how they handled morning sickness. I have also read every single online forum about morning sickness that I could find, as well as two books on healthy pregnancy.

I will be eating crackers and slamming Vitamin B-6 and avoiding nasty smells and keeping my stomach just-full-enough and sniffing lemons and drinking ginger tea. Hopefully I won't barf on the subway, but if I do I will be prepared because I always carry a plastic bag in my purse just in case I randomly have to puke somewhere. I do this despite the fact that in the past 16 years, I have puked exactly twice.

I discussed my phobia with a wise person, who suggested that I say to myself "That would be unpleasant" whenever I get scared that I might yak. It works in the moment because saying it makes me realize that puking is basically a minute of unpleasantness, and then it is over.

I say to myself, "If I puke, it will be over fast."

That practice of inner dialogue to calm down my puke anxiety does not stop me from trying to prevent the conditions that could lead to vomiting. I have walked 50 blocks (literally) because I had indigestion and didn't want to get on the train until my stomach settled. I've been trying to occasionally eat salad out in other people's houses. So far, so good, but I doubt that I will ever eat salad at a restaurant.

The root of my phobia has yet to be determined. Even as a kid, I just wasn't a big puker. I think I am afraid of it because it happens so infrequently. When it happens, it's a memorable trauma.

Some people just puke without fear or loathing. How is that even possible? Please tell me.

Chaya can be found yakking it up on Twitter: @chayakurtz.