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The Tie Dye Shirt

William, October 14 2023

The shirt I couldn't wear for 13 years

When I learned about emetophobia I was brought to tears. For the first time in my life I had an explanation for the suffering I felt every day. I felt understood. I read down a list of common issues faced by people who suffer from emetophobia and couldn't believe that there were millions of people out there going through the exact same thing. One of the bullet points said "sufferers may avoid wearing certain colors or clothing that remind them of illness" and I was so massively relieved that I was not the only one. I was 17 and I had suffered from emetophobia for as long as I could remember. Now I finally had a name for it. This blog post is about my tie dye shirt and the 13 years of my life where I could not bring myself to put it on.

The Shirt

Highschool junior year homecoming dance had a simple theme - match your partner. My date (now my wife) and I chose to wear tie dye. We made tie dye pants, shirts, and socks, and we rubber banded our outfits together so our tie dye pattern would match up when we stood next to each other. Homecoming was a great time. However, that evening, I went lazily to sleep in my tie dye outfit and had recurring dreams of swirling tie dye color. I woke in the middle of the night covered in sweat and extremely nauseous. I didn't vomit, but I paced in my room for what felt like hours in the middle of the night until this wave of panic passed. I didn't know it at the time, but I was suffering from OCD and emetophobia.

Intrusive thoughts and images flooded my mind so strongly that I forgot where I was. I couldn't take my mind off of tie dye or vomiting and the two ideas became violently intertwined in my mind. Eventually this wave of panic died off. I took off my tie dye outfit and went back to bed. In the morning, I could not stand to even look at my tie dye outfit. I stuffed the shirt deep in a corner of my closet. I could not bring myself to look at it, or even think of it. Tie dye was now a direct link to nausea and fear. Just like that phobia had another hook.

The Hurdle

Two and a half years later I cleaned out my closet while packing for college and rediscovered my tie-dye shirt. I felt uneasy just holding the shirt, but it also represented a fun memory of that homecoming dance. I put it on, and shortly after I was sweating and nauseas. Now I was convinced the shirt would make me sick. I didn't think the shirt was magic or cursed. I knew full well this was a mental hurdle, an association I had invented and continued to maintain, but knowing the thought was irrational did not help me conquer it. I also knew by taking it off I was giving more power to this idea that the shirt would make me sick, I was raising the hurdle each time I gave up. I stuffed the shirt into a keepsake box. I couldn't wear it but I also couldn't bring myself to throw it away.


9 years later I was making a list with my therapist of things I avoided and rituals I performed as a part of my emetophobia. I carried a plastic bag with me almost everywhere I went, I had mints stashed in my jackets, backpack, and bedside table, I repeated 'safe' phrases in my head hundreds of times a day. Each of these things were meant to protect me from my fear but they actually propped it up. I slowly tore down these habits and replaced them with positive ones. It was time. I knew it was time to wear the shirt. This time, I was ready for the mental hurdle. I told myself, I will throw up when I wear this shirt. I left no room for what if, no room for that little anxiety voice to creep in. I was dancing like everyone was watching. I wore the shirt to bed ready to vomit. I woke up with a good night's sleep.

A Symbol of Growth

The shirt is now in my regular sleeping shirt rotation. It brings me joy to grab it and wear it. Phobia has such a powerful and cruel way of taking hold of small things in our lives. This shirt represents one of the cases where phobia had won the battle, but I ultimately won the war.