How a newspaper column changed the life of Norwich student Laura Haistead
PUBLISHED: 12:46 28 November 2017
Her nan’s chance reading of a health and wellbeing column earlier this year changed Laura Haistead’s life for the better. Sheena Grant reports...
Student Laura Haistead has just spent a few days treading the boards in a university drama production.
The role has been a gift for Laura - and not just because she plans to become a drama teacher.
Just a few months ago, the University of East Anglia student says she would never had been able to take to the stage, despite her life-long love of theatre and performing.
Before her role in The Crackle, the Needle, the Grove and the Music, written by George Rennison and performed at the UEA Drama Studio, Laura, 19, had not appeared in a show since she was at school.
That’s because Laura has emetophobia, an extreme fear of vomiting or nausea, particularly in public places. And until a chance reading of a column in the EDP’s health and wellbeing pages earlier this year the condition was having an almost unbearble effect on how she lived her life.
Everyone dislikes being sick but since the age of four, when she suffered a vomiting bug, Laura has disliked it more than most. When she was 10, however, that dislike morphed into a phobia that would come to dominate her life.
“It was just after my 10th birthday,” she says. “My family and I were round my grandparents’ in the evening, watching the news, when a report about the norovirus - or winter vomiting bug - came on.”
The bug strikes almost every winter and is largely unavoidable - and that’s exactly what worried Laura.
“The thought of getting ill terrified me so much it changed my life forever,” she says. “I got up and went to wash my hands viciously, repeating the process compulsively throughout the evening and into the night. Fast forward a week or so and my hands were red raw and didn’t know how to tell anyone.
“My anxiety was so severe that over the next year I developed OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), conducting ‘safety behaviours’ to alleviate some of my anxiety. I truly believed that if I, for example, said a certain word 23 times before bed and jumped up and down until I was exhausted that this would stop me getting ill.
“I did around 400 ‘things’ throughout the day, the majority of which were concentrated on evening/bedtime. If any ritual were to go wrong, I would have to start again. Any attempt by my parents to try and tell me all this stuff wasn’t actually controlling me would initiate a screaming match between us.”
At the age of 11 Laura was referred to a family clinic in Norwich and managed to gain some control over her OCD, allowing her to get her bedtime ‘routine’ down to a minute. But, she says, the therapy never got to the ‘root’ of the problem and by the time she got to sixth form her phobia was affecting her ability to lead a normal life, causing her to avoid food until around 4pm each day and making her feel unable to stay the night anywhere other than home.
After visiting her GP earlier this year Laura was given anti-depressants and referred herself to NHS wellbeing services. She attended group therapy sessions but her hopes of one-to-one counselling were dealt a blow when she was told the NHS would fund only two hours of sessions.
“I didn’t know what to do,” says Laura. “My mental health was getting worse and my eating behaviour worsening as a result. I needed something but decent help wasn’t accessible unless I spent a fortune.”
Around this time, luckily for Laura, her nan read a column by health and wellbeing’s resident agony aunt Sue Bayliss about her work with clients suffering phobias. Unbeknown to Laura, her mum and nan contacted Sue, who agreed to help.
“I began to see Sue and explained everything that I thought related to my issues,” says Laura. “I recalled my first family holiday when I had that aggressive virus that made me throw up so much. Sue explained I had suffered a form of trauma. Discussing it all so freely with her made me understand why I was ‘like this’.”
Laura learned that her phobia was down to the part of the brain dealing with emotion and memories.
“Every night, as we go to sleep, Rapid Eye Movements (REM) occur, which trigger this part of the brain into action,” she says. “It processes the events of the day so when we wake up the next day they have effectively been ‘rationalised’. When a traumatic experience occurs, this ‘filter’ short-circuits, leaving the brain to perceive the event as an immediate and extreme danger. Thus, a phobia is formed. That is what happened to me and the secondary trigger when I was 10 set the phobia in motion.
“Sue took me through REM recreation to correct the template, and relaxation exercises, teaching my mind and my body to ‘work as one’. Though my journey is far from over I have made so much progress.”
Laura now eats three meals a day and is able to go out far more than she was.
“My emetophobia is still very much present,” she says. “It’s something I’ve come to accept that I may always have, to some extent. But I am learning to manage my life much better.
“I would never have been able to do the play I’ve just been in before having the help from Sue. It feels like my own personal reward to get back into that. Things are much better than I could have ever dreamed of. For anyone struggling, that first terrifying step to getting help is almost the worst thing in the world. But, the actual worst thing is not getting help at all.”
■ Laura’s has written a blog to create awareness of emetophobia and help others. It can be found at https://laurahaistead.wordpress.com/. To contact Sue Bayliss email firstname.lastname@example.org.