The first time I threw up on a date, I had just eaten a big bowl of chili. It was a mistake I will never make again, though I’m not sure that matters now.
I was in college at the time, 22 years old, and new to romance. I remember feeling fine as I strolled down my favorite Montreal backstreet en route to the nearby microbrewery on a warm summer afternoon. It was my first date with the curly-haired brunette — a traveling saleswoman for a cigarette company — I’d met a few nights before at a house party, and I had standard pre-date jitters, nothing more.
Suddenly, I sensed a tightness in my stomach wending its way up my esophagus toward my throat. There was nothing, I realized, I could do to stop it. I hurried into the nearest alley, leaned over and returned the chili to the Earth. Then I looked at my feet — I was wearing flip-flops — and felt queasier. There wasn’t enough time to go back to my apartment and clean up, so I wiped the chunks away with some stray weeds and walked on to the bar. I don’t think she noticed that my khaki pant legs were flecked red.
My first instinct was to assume I’d gotten food poisoning. I now know that wasn’t the case. It was my sordid introduction to my ongoing psychological pas de deux between women and vomit. Anxiety, it turns out, is a natural emetic, and girls make me anxious. Since that unfortunate incident in the alley, some sort of bilious spigot has opened in my body, and I haven’t been able to locate the handle to shut it off. Yes, I throw up on dates — not all of them, but a lot. In the past five or so years, I have vomited from too many to count, mostly in bathrooms, but sometimes in my mouth and sometimes in the grass.
This past April, for instance, I met a preschool art teacher for fried chicken and waffles at a popular restaurant in Harlem. We’d been set up by a mutual friend. I wasn’t really into the idea of eating on the date — I try to avoid those situations — but she seemed so into waffles when we were deciding where to go, in a Facebook chat, that I didn’t want to seem troublesome.
Things started out well enough. She had on a stylish denim jumpsuit that made her seem badass. She showed me her sketchbook, which contained drawings of human organs. I found them kind of awesome. She mentioned casually that she liked Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
The end of the date, the climax of romantic uncertainty, neared. I walked her an avenue over from the restaurant so she could hail a cab uptown. Then I’m pretty sure I killed the vibe by regurgitating in my mouth a few times.
I’m confused about my vomiting problem, which I have come to think of as a sort of romantic bulimia. There’s a similarly intense relief followed by a similarly deep shame. Sometimes I can will the vomit out of me, and I will sneak off to relieve myself. I’ve never come across anybody who will admit to doing it, too — though Nicolas Cage reportedly ralphed on his prom date — so I recently googled. The web is littered with message boards full of the frantic confessions of date pukers.
One “generally anxious” user wrote in to Yahoo Answers — the poor man’s WebMD — in search of help. “Once I have been on several dates with the person I am usually okay and will not vomit or feel sick to my stomach,” they say, “but up until then I can't eat on a date without having to get up and vomit, or barely eating anything and trying to hide the fact that I am gagging from them. I hate it and I want to make it stop. I am going on a second date with somebody tonight and I have already thrown up once. Am I alone in this? Is there any way to stop it?”
Sorry, dude. If there is a cure, I haven’t found it. (Valium is an option, although nausea is a side effect.) For those who throw up from anxiety — romantic or otherwise — I don’t know how much can be done. Anxiety arises in response to a threat. The chemical messenger of anxiety is adrenaline, which slows down digestion. If the adrenaline rush is strong enough to stop the food flow, then you might just end up emptying your bowel.
As for why dating in particular triggers my anxiety and, as a result, my gag reflex, my therapist says it’s the the tension between my old-fashioned expectations of a partner (someone I don’t need to pay attention to that much but also only wants to have sex with me) and the stuff I can’t control (basically everything).
But I don’t think you need to be a Mad Men–level chauvinist to be stressed out over modern dating. Courtship these days is disorienting, as anyone who’s logged onto to Tinder for 30 seconds knows intimately. There’s the total lack of urgency, the seemingly unlimited options, the disparity between your online presence and the reality of you in person, the changing roles of men and women. Add your run-of-the-mill sex nerves and a few tablespoons of self-hatred and you’ve got a pretty explosive combination.
The good news is I have never puked on anyone, like poor Stan from South Park, who vomits whenever his crush Wendy is nearby. But I can’t predict exactly when I’ll retch, either, unlike the great Celtics center Bill Russell, who puked like clockwork before every big game. The most unforeseeable provocation can set me off. Most recently it was at work. I received a less-than-promising text from a girl I liked, and rushed for the bathroom.
There’s an especially unfortunate connection between kissing and puking that plagues the anxious, the awkward, and the merely teenage. The writer and comedian Gaby Dunn, for example, threw up on her first date at the age of 15. All was going well until she and the dude locked lips and she spewed everywhere, though she’s not entirely sure whether it had more to do with feelings or pizza. Perhaps both.
“I could not have held it in,” she told me in an email. “I had to lean out of a car door to vomit in front of my house. I was trying to hold it in the whole drive. I was very embarrassed after. I wanted him to kiss me more, but I knew he wouldn't so I felt very shitty and unsexy. When you're a teen, you want everything to be like the movies and this was for sure, not cool.”
Not cool, indeed. And the upchuck-inducing anxiety of kissing doesn’t go away, at least not quickly. I should know.
The summer after I graduated from college, I brought the girl I was seeing at the time back to my hometown in New Jersey. We took an evening walk on the Princeton University campus, and sat down on the patinaed Henry Moore sculpture, "Oval With Points," to take in the night. It was romantic, if I recall, which naturally made me uncomfortable.
Then we kissed and I felt my stomach churning. I got up, walked behind a tree and unloaded the contents of my dinner — it was fish, I think — onto the pristine Princeton grass, like a drunk frat boy. When I returned to the sculpture, I apologized.
“Oh, it’s OK,” she said, “that you just kissed me and then threw up everywhere.”
I laughed, but the truth is I felt pretty sheepish. It wasn’t the first time I’d puked around her, and we’d been going out for about six months. She was incredibly patient with me, now that I think about it. The second time we met, at a campus bar, I vomited twice, more intensely than I ever have before. Each time returning from the bathroom, I checked my eyeballs in the mirror to make sure I hadn’t popped any blood vessels, which happens sometimes.
I used to believe there was an inverse relationship between how much I liked a girl and how much I puked around her. I harbored the romantic notion that the woman who didn’t make me throw up would be the one. It turns out my vomit is indiscriminate.
So as time has gone by, I’ve consigned myself to the reality that I might throw up and it will suck, but I may as well just get it over with and get on with the night. I’ve even gotten used to the taste of bile, which doesn’t bother me that much anymore. (Does that sound like teenage fatalism? I recently started skateboarding again, and joined a punk band, as the drummer.)
Plus, there’s a distinct evolutionary advantage to vomiting. It all comes down to the fight or flight impulse, Northwestern University panic and anxiety specialist Richard Zinbarg told me in a recent telephone conversation. Back in caveman times, when you came across a lion or whatever, you wanted as much energy as possible to do battle or run away — that’s where the adrenaline kicks in. The reaction would relieve you of the work of digestion in order to have more stamina.
Of course, I thought to myself. As a bird lover, I knew that turkey vultures vomit in self-defense (perhaps to gross out predators). Regurgitation, I deduced, is a vestigial expression of my survival instinct — and dating does feel like a battle to me.
But apparently it’s not common among human beings, or any animal for that matter. “Vomiting is kind of unusual,” Zinbarg told me. “Much more common would be defecating.”
That's not a cure for my problem, but it soothes me to know that it could be worse. Dating makes me feel shitty, but at least I don't shit myself.