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Essay: 'Nausea'

Written by Alice Wickenden

content warning: sexual assault

I have been reading books about chronic illness, the instability of it, the fear and uncertainty as your body slowly revolts and test after test comes back with no answers and the GP refers you to yet another specialist who ticks their boxes dutifully and says things like no it’s not POTS but you do have low blood pressure, try taking a shot of salt in the morning, no it’s not a brain tumour but there was something on your scan, on a second look it seems to be nothing, minor, think of it as a birthmark on your brain, no it’s not GERD, your digestion looks fine to me, drink more of the barium mixture for me, let’s book you in for some blood tests, isn’t that a good vein (they always compliment my right arm vein; my left, it seems, is nothing to write home about), and I recognise these experiences in the books I have read recently, which include Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick and The Invisible Room by Meghan Rourke and my body keeps your secrets by Lucia Osborne-Crowley, the latter of which made me think seriously about the way that this nausea, which has seeped into my life in drips, which occasionally wakes me in the night shaking and gasping and covered in sweat, which meant I had to leave my best friend’s birthday trip to Thorpe Park after only half an hour and which means I haven’t had any alcohol for over three years – a fact that is fine really because it isn’t exactly good for you, drinking, certainly not the way I used to drink, and it was probably healthy not to be able to drink in lockdown and I can’t afford it anyway and there are plenty of good non-alcoholic options out there, so most of the time it is fine, but sometimes it feels so alienating and boring to be sitting there sober that it is decidedly unfun, and being sober makes it harder to make friends and makes you realise just how much people drink all the time – but that nausea, which alcohol is a huge trigger for, started around the same time I went to counselling to talk about my rape, and whilst some people made the connection, like my roommate, and gently asked if maybe that was making me feel sick, if it was a counselling come-down, it felt so physical, like my body was revolting against a poison that I couldn’t identify, that I rejected the suggestion violently and pointed to other past examples of this creeping violent nausea for proof that it was in me, the point of that exercise in denial being a desire not to acknowledge that the rape could still be in me too, that in fact everything we go through is in us and in our cells, that when I wake up shaking and cannot open my eyes and take the anti-emetics that live on my bedside table and in all my bags, maybe yes it is something akin to a stomach migraine or maybe I have  simply not abstained from deep chocolate desserts and shitty pizza the way I know I should (but a girl’s got to have vices) or maybe I was right and it is a poison after all, maybe trauma is a poison sunk deep into my bones like plastic packaging in the ocean choking all my cells, setting off some otherwise dormant auto-immune disorder or biological antipathy, like did you know you can just become allergic to things suddenly, that we might all have a propensity to be made allergic to stuff and sometimes something happens and – bam! – those switches are flicked on, how crazy is that, and so maybe in a way all those men were right when they called me damaged goods which they didn’t always mean as an insult, at least two of them thought it was a statement of fact, that I was just too hurt to love them properly, which certainly had shades of the truth, I’m not too proud to admit that now, from my sofa, although we both would have been surprised at the complete irony of this manifestation of it, because the thing is I am severely emetophobic, which means that I suffer – and have for as long as I can remember – from a deeply rooted fear of vomiting, myself or others, and it manifests in nightmares where my friends vomit and sometimes also my rapist, who appears in all sorts of dreams he doesn’t belong to, usually ones in which we are friends again and I ask him about his PhD, and also it means I wash my hands obsessively before eating and I never touch my face and I waste food because I am paranoid of poisoning myself and I look up movies and tv shows on a special website where other people like me write in warnings like how at 15 minutes into episode three just after a certain character announces her new job another character is sick without warning, and I am so grateful to all those anonymous sufferers who write in and allow me to consume tv without fear so that I can spend more time thinking about the irony that I appear to have been cursed, for whatever reason – because it is still medically undiagnosed, in fact I have given up trying for the moment because as a junior academic I have moved three times in the last two years and changed GP practices accordingly – with a chronic illness that resembles the thing I am most scared of in the world, and as anyone with a phobia knows it is a fear that seems primal, like it must be part of your DNA, in the same way that my nausea feels like part of me, and maybe my rapist, so I am reading books about chronic illness and I have been trying to write something meaningful about my nausea for a while but… it slips away from me.

About the Author

Alice Wickenden is a writer and teacher of Renaissance literature. Her most recent publications are THRIFTWOOD, a memoir on Scouting and the body with Broken Sleep Books, and a chapbook called how to decode your orange-peel fortunes with Nine Pens Press. She is on twitter at @alicewickenden.

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