Charles Darwin, the Emetophobe’s Hero
When I was young, my sister got ill while we were at my grandmother’s house. I ran and hid in a back bedroom. After my grandmother finished tending to her legitimately sick grandchild, she came and checked on her wussy, scared one. Meek and in a corner, I explained, “We second graders have a thing with throw up.”
Two decades passed, and I still found myself running away from sick loved ones. This time, I was fleeing my hospitalized grandmother. I left her behind and refused to go back in the room even when a nurse assured me it was “safe”. I was twenty-five years old. It wasn’t “We second graders”. It was me. *I* had a thing with throw up. There was a word for it – emetophobia and abandoning sick loved ones was just the surface. What was once a quirky part of my personality was starting to effect all aspects of my life.
I didn’t want to travel because people could get air sick. I didn’t particularly like infants as they tended to spit up. Eating out was stressful, especially if chicken or mayonnaise were involved as I knew of people who got food poisoning. I worried I would never want to have children because the prospect of morning sickness absolutely terrified me. I didn’t even know if I would have the courage to get married. After all, I heard more than one tale of a bride succumbing to her nerves and getting sick the night before. Stomach flu season paralyzed me. I wouldn’t want to touch anything. I wouldn’t be able to sleep and then I would worry about not sleeping because that would weaken my immune system right when I needed it the most. And worrying was the worst. History taught me that when I worried too much, I would get nauseous…which would give me even more to worry about.
It is my phobic history that gives me a great, unwavering appreciation of Charles Darwin.
In 1831 when Darwin was 22 years of age, he left behind his friends and family and the comfort of home to board a boat… on the ocean. When I was 27 and living in the age of modern wonders like Dramamine and prescription ear patches, I turned down a FREE trip to the Bahamas because I was scared of an hour long ferry ride between islands.
What deterred me from the Bahamas is exactly what happened to Charles Darwin. He got seasick. He got horribly, horribly seasick. He found that “nothing but lying in my hammock did [...] any good” and raisins to be “the only food that the stomach will bear.” His letters and diaries used words like “dismay”, “misery” and “wretchedness”. He felt indignation at “finding all ones efforts to do anything paralysed” by seasickness. And he, of course, had second thoughts about the trip.
At noon Lat. 43. South of Cape Finisterre and across the famous Bay of Biscay: wretchedly out of spirits and very sick. I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking, little did I think with what fervour I should do so. I can scarcely conceive any more miserable state, than when such dark and gloomy thoughts are haunting the mind as have to day pursued me.
- Beagle Diary, December 30, 1831
I may have run away from my sister and my grandmother, but Charles Darwin did not run away from the boat that made him so ill. He stayed with the HMS Beagle for nearly five years.
When Charles Darwin returned home from his voyage in 1836, his digestive woes were far from over. For the remainder of his life he would suffer from a mystery illness. He was plagued with heart palpitations, vertigo, trembling, stomach pains and… vomiting. Horrible, horrible vomiting bouts. In the eight years Darwin worked on “Cirripedia”, he estimated he lost two years to illness.
Darwin, always the observer, noted his condition was aggravated by anxiety and stress. He wrote how his “health almost always suffered from the excitement” of receiving friends and he would endure “violent shivering and vomiting attacks”. In 1837, he turned down a job offer because “anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a b[ad] palpitation of the heart”. If routine every-day stuff like visiting friends and taking jobs agitated his attacks, can you imagine what a controversy like On the Origin of Species would do to his constitution?!? He had so much guilt he described his work as “like confessing murder.” Needless to say, the writing of On the Origin of Species was accompanied by repeated attacks.
As sick as he was, Charles Darwin didn’t scrap the manuscript. He finished it!
With emetophobia I was lucky. I visited one cognitive behavioralist for about 18 months, suddenly I could go days without worrying about vomiting. Then weeks, then months, then years. I was no longer scared to eat. I was no longer scared to travel. I could live a normal life.
Charles Darwin was not as lucky. He visited over twenty doctors over the course of 500 months. He tried treatments. He tried spas. Of all the puzzles he was able to piece together, the cause of his illness alluded him. Speculation continues today– did he have Chagas disease? Did he have an anxiety disorder like me? Maybe he was lactose intolerant.
Charles Darwin died in 1882. After so many miserable moments, his final hours were filled with nausea and intense vomiting.
From the moment the Beagle set sail to his death, he faced nausea, regurgitation and worst of all– helplessness. Charles Darwin’s life was an emetophobe’s worst nightmare. And yet, he persevered. He accomplished great things.
Vomit, be damned!