Germophobia

More needs to be said about germophobia.

I spent my teenaged years terrified of germs. I washed my hands far more than the average person, constantly bothered by the germs that had been spread across my palms, fingers, and under my fingernails by the doorknobs, railings, desks, pencils, and other things I had been forced to touch. Typically I tried to avoid touching anything at all if I could help it – I let other people go ahead of me when entering or leaving rooms so I wouldn’t have to touch the door handle, I used my foot to flush the toilet, and my mind was constantly torn when I had to take a flight of stairs whether or not I would cling to the railing to counter my fear of falling down them, or avoid touching the railing altogether because it was surely crawling with germs.

I had a lot of anxiety when I was younger, and germophobia is usually borne of an anxiety disorder. The most obvious way my anxiety manifested itself was in constant, obsessive worrying about things in my life that could go wrong. I was terrified that the people around me were going to die, to the point where I could think of nothing else when I was alone. I would sit on the bus on the way to and from school and think of nothing but the terrible things that could happen to me or the people I loved. Not only this, but I worried about getting sick. I’ve always been a relatively healthy person, only contracting a serious illness once every couple of years, and perhaps it was the lack of illness that made me so afraid of it. I feared above all the unknown, so the unknown of illness was truly scary. I didn’t know how awful having the stomach flu would be, so I assumed the worst: before my mind’s eyes flashed images like the ones shown in the documentary I had to watch in ninth grade about the Plague. (Incidentally, I had to ask the teacher for special permission to sit outside in the hallway during the second half of that documentary, because it made me panic so badly I thought that I myself might throw up. On a fear scale from 1-10, if getting sick myself was a 9, being surrounded by a deadly illness no one knew how to stop was a 15.) Anxiety and germophobia plagued me much like the illnesses I was so afraid of.

Germophobia is not an uncommon problem. Many people take steps to protect themselves from the germ-infested world we live in; most people flush public toilets with their feet, for example, or open bathroom doors with paper towels rather than their hands. These are mild symptoms of the germ-conscious, but there can be more serious manifestations of germophobia. I, for example, would touch a doorknob with my left hand and hours would go by before I would be able to wash it. During that time, my mind would put a ‘mark’ on the area I touched the doorknob. It became a no-go zone, so if someone were to hand me a piece of food and I took it with that hand, I wouldn’t be able to eat that piece of food. And if I were to touch my mouth or face with that hand, I would go into an incredibly anxious state until I could go to the bathroom and wash my whole face. It was as if that one part of my body had become a leper, and I had to banish it by rendering it useless until I could ‘cure’ it.

The tipping point from normal germ-conscious behavior in order to protect oneself from illness to a genuine problem is when it interferes with a person’s everyday functioning. I was nervous about touching other people’s hands, or being too close to someone. If one of my friends was sick, I would be downright rude to them and refuse to sit near them or touch anything they had touched. It wasn’t that I was uncaring and wanted to make them feel even worse; it was just that spending a lunch period sitting next to a sneezing, coughing friend would cost me a few hours of worrying that night about whether I would wake up with a sore throat or cough.

I also never ate without washing my hands first. To do so would result in an incredible amount of anxiety during and after the meal. At lunchtime in school, my friends would make fun of my daily bathroom run to wash my hands before eating. No one else washed their hands first. My friends not only cared less about germs, but also got sick far more often than I did. One of the reasons I couldn’t just stop like everyone told me to was because it worked. Some of the arguments against being too germ-conscious are that you can get sicker than other people because you weaken your immune system by not introducing bacteria so your system can combat germs. This wasn’t the case for me; I was much healthier than my friends. I worried that if I started to introduce germs to my body, they would take over and attack me, and I would suffer a fate worse than death: the common cold.

I didn’t like excusing myself to go to the bathroom to wash my hands before eating or after touching anything, so I started carrying around hand sanitizer. It wasn’t an ideal solution because the stuff can be revolting. The smell is so pungent that you have to be careful where you use it: I once took out my bottle of hand sanitizer and liberally applied it in a movie theater before eating my popcorn (the only way I could relax during the movie), but it made the whole area I was sitting in smell for the duration of the film. And the day someone told me hand sanitizer doesn’t actually work as well as washing with soap just about ruined my life.

I’m convinced this issue started with Osmosis Jones. It’s a live-action/animated movie about germs that my seventh grade science teacher showed my class. In it, Bill Murray plays a zookeeper named Frank who eats unhealthy food and has no concern for germs or disease. In the beginning of the movie, he is eating a hard-boiled egg with mayo on it when it’s stolen by a chimpanzee. It falls into the chimp’s habitat but the guy eats it anyway. The movie then shifts to Osmosis Jones, a white blood cell in Frank’s body who tries to save him. Osmosis Jones is like a cop against germs, and the whole movie is terrifying. He goes through Frank’s body, trying to stop the germs from the dirty egg and attempting to convince others that it’s really a problem. Meanwhile Frank is vomiting all over the place. At one point his temperature spikes to 108 and he goes into cardiac arrest. This stuff is scarier than the Exorcist.

The point is to teach about the body’s processes and how it fights germs, but it really scarred me. As in, I went home and sat on my bed for a few hours, trying desperately to do things to distract me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. I didn’t want to have anything to do with germs. (Incidentally, I kind of missed the point, which was that we have systems in our body that fight germs even if we do ingest them.)

Most people don’t understand the whole germ thing. They go to the bathroom without washing their hands, they hold onto subway railings and then eat a burger, they share drinks without making the other party fill out a health form. I’ve always been ridiculed for my germ-consciousness, especially when I was younger and it ruled my life much more than it does now.

I’m not sure what changed. Somehow I slowly got over my problem with germs, so now I can accept that it’s healthy to have bacteria enter the body. I still wash my hands before eating and after getting off the subway; I carry around hand sanitizer, especially when I’m traveling; and I try to get at least my daily value of Vitamin C every day by popping Halls Defense like pills. I’ve learned that there’s a balance to strike here, and that some things are good only in moderation. Being aware of germs and taking certain measures to protect oneself against them is smart, but allowing the fear of germs and illness to rule over one’s life is unhealthy. Even though your body may not be filled with germs, it’s filled with anxiety, which I would argue can be even worse.

The people around me have stopped making fun of my behavior as it’s become less obsessive. In fact, they often ask me for some of my hand sanitizer when they see me using it. Maybe as everyone grows up, we’re realizing that it’s smart to take precautions when it comes to illness. Or maybe this tolerance can be attributed to an increasing understanding about obsessive behaviors and other ways mental illness manifests itself.

Too much of a good habit, such as cleanliness, can make life harder. If you, too, are afraid of germs, try increasing your Vitamin C input and adding in other healthy habits such as getting 8 hours of sleep each night and drinking enough water. This can help you feel better when you enter into an unavoidably germy situation, such as sitting next to a coughing, sneezing classmate. Even though it’s scary, getting rid of obsessive behaviors makes life much simpler and is generally a good thing.

If you have a friend who’s germ-obsessed, do not make fun of them! They know their behavior is irrational, so you telling them they’re being ridiculous isn’t going to help. Sometimes washing hands can be like scratching an itch, and it’s the only thing that can make them feel less anxious. Be understanding, offer to lend them your hand sanitizer, and if you suspect that their problems with germs are indications of mental illness such as OCD or an anxiety disorder, kindly suggest to them that they should get help. The most important thing is being there for someone and not making them feel like their behaviors are freakish.

Also, if you suspect yourself to be vulnerable to germophobia, do not watch Osmosis Jones.

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