Doctors, counsellors and psychotherapists believed Lois illness was all in her mind, until a feature in Woman proved them wrong…..

Everywhere she goes, Lois Beeley makes sure she’s got a constant supply of plastic bags and hankies. Anyone with a travel–sick child will know exactly why, but for Lois it goes beyond simple motion sickness. Every couple of weeks, she’s hit with a bout of vomiting so severe she can be sick up to 30 times a day. And that can last for anything up to four days. “It affects my whole life,” says Lois, 32, from Hereford. “ I suffer from constant nausea, I rarely go out and I’ve struggled to hold down a full-time job.” Lois had her first bout when she was 17. “ I vomited almost constantly for two weeks and was so exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed,” she says. Her GP put it down to a virus, and for several years she was fine. But at university she became ill with increasing regularity. “Every few days I would be sick for several days,” she recalls. “Everyone assumed it as too much alcohol or food poisoning – even the doctors. But although I drank and had the odd takeaway, I knew it was something else. “Several times, I was so ill I couldn’t hold anything down and was admitted to hospital with dehydration. But tests could find nothing wrong. “ And even when I wasn’t ill, I was constantly nauseous and had an acid taste in my mouth. It was horrible.” Lois became so unwell that she was forced to drop out of university and move back in with her parents. Every couple of weeks she’d have an episode of sickness where she’d be vomiting every five minutes. Afterwards she’d be exhausted for weeks. “It always took a long time to regain my appetite and strength because my stomach had shrunk so much,” she says “I was so weak.”

Not surprisingly, she lost a frightening amount of weight. “I’m normally around 8 stone (54kg) but dropped to just over 5 stone (32kg),” says Lois, who’s 5ft 5in. “I was painfully thin.” But despite numerous referrals to specialists and countless tests, nobody could discover what was wrong. “I was given every explanation – from eating bad curries to being asked if I was pregnant,” says Lois. “ It was so frustrating. Then doctors said it was all in my head and started telling me to snap out of it. The worst part was realising my parents were beginning to doubt whether my vomiting was due to an illness. They’d say things like, “Come on now, you’ve got to get it together,” which was very hard to hear. But part of me wondered if it was an illness in my mind rather than a physical illness, as there was no explanation for it. “ Finally I was sent to several psychiatrists, who believed I was anorexic or bulimic because I was so thin. I had months of counselling and began to believe they might be right – I couldn’t think of another reason for my sickness and simply thought that they knew best.” Lois also suffered social withdrawal. She refused to go out because of the fear of being sick in public. “I found that excitement could bring on an attack”, she explains. “That meant looking forward to weddings, parties, holidays or just nights out with friends would make me sick, so I avoided them altogether. “Because the episodes were so horrible and frightening, I couldn’t bear to be in the house on my own. Sometimes I’d ring my mum saying, “You’ve got to come home!” I was very scared.

Then in 2001, after 12 years of illness, Lois finally discovered she wasn’t alone. “My sister brought home a copy of Woman and told me to read an article about a little girl who was sick all the time, explains Lois. “ I was sceptical at first because I’d had my hopes of a diagnosis dashed so many times. But as I read her symptoms, I began to cry. They almost exactly matched mine. The article included a website address for the organisation called the Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome Association (CVSA). I contacted them straight away. It was incredible – at last I knew it wasn’t all in my head. Just talking to other people who knew what I was going through was wonderful.” However, there was a downside – doctors don’t know why it happens. There’s no cure and no treatment other than strong anti-sickness drugs that Lois found didn’t work. “But now he knew what was wrong, my GP was great – he gave me everything he thought might help,” she says. Although Lois is still regularly suffering bouts of sickness, with the support of the CVSA she’s found the strength to stop hiding away. She now works for the children’s day nursery that her parents run, and finds time for a social life. After 10 years of living with her parents, she’s also looking for a place of her own.

But the illness has taken its toll on relationships. “I’ve had boyfriends but most can’t cope with the sickness or the fact that I don’t want to go out for fear of being ill. “At the moment it’s as if I’m going back to my 20’s and trying to pick up my social life where it left off. But it’s not easy. There’s always a worry at the back of my mind that I’m going to be sick.” However, Lois admits that she’s in a better place than she was three years ago. “At least people believe me now,” she says. “With the support of my friends, family, doctors and other sufferers, I feel I can cope at last.”

This article by Hannah Davies featured in Woman magazine, March 22 2004. We reprint it here by kind permission of the editor, Carole Russell, and IPC Media.