Health

Here’s What It’s Like To Suffer From Debilitating Germophobia During The COVID-19 Crisis

Daily life for a germaphobe can be a challenge during the best of times, but when a pandemic strikes, it’s downright terrifying. Navigating the world becomes a nightmare because danger lurks around every corner, and there is no escape route or safe place.  

The desire to hole up inside your home and never go out again is real, and it’s intense. Running out of food starts to seem like a better option than exposing yourself to people who might be infected with the coronavirus. 

How do I know? Because I’ve been a germaphobe for about 25 of my 61 years, and I’ve been a hot mess since this coronavirus began dominating the news. I am trying not to let my irrational fear of germs run – or ruin – my life, but it’s an incredibly stressful time.

Unfortunately, I live in a germ-riddled world. So do you. We might not be able to see germs, but we know they’re everywhere. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the realization that germs are prolific in public places caused little or no concern to most people. They routinely touched all sorts of things in public (and then their faces) with nary a thought about the thousands of others who did the same.

I am not one of those people. I’m not among those who don’t think twice about the germs lying in wait when shopping for groceries, grabbing a latte at Starbucks or picking up a prescription at the pharmacy. In fact, germs are on my mind whenever I go anywhere, at all times.

My germophobia has been creating obstacles to living a peaceful life for decades. Long before COVID-19 began invading every corner of the world and irreparably changing lives, I found it necessary to adopt certain behaviors in order to lessen my anxiety in regard to germs. At first, I had to consciously think about how I could change my behavior in order to minimize my exposure to this ubiquitous enemy.

I wouldn’t even think about reading the magazines in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and I use my own pen to fill out their forms. When going out to eat, I wash my hands in the restroom immediately after reading the menu and placing my order.

Eventually these behaviors became automatic. Things like using a paper towel or wipe to open any door, thoroughly cleaning the cardio machine at the gym before I use it (and after, of course), and having wipes ready before I touch the grocery cart. I always use hand sanitizer in my car after shopping and wash my hands before doing anything else when I return home. I avoid touching things on display in a store because I know that if I can touch something in public, other people can, too … and probably have. 

I wouldn’t even think about reading the magazines in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and I use my own pen to fill out their forms. When going out to eat, I wash my hands in the restroom immediately after reading the menu and placing my order. During the meal, if I need to touch things like the salt shaker or ketchup bottle, I use hand sanitizer afterward. I bring my own water bottle, but if I order a beverage, I use my own cleansing wipe on the glass.  

While there have been instances when I was under extreme duress prior to the coronavirus outbreak, practicing germ avoidance allowed me to live a relatively normal and panic-free life.

As with any phobia, being exposed to the thing you fear can be hugely traumatic. Illogical though it may be, the angst is real. A person with ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) or coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) may be able to live their entire life without ever being exposed to the thing that scares them. Unfortunately for germaphobes, it’s impossible to completely avoid confronting the thing we fear.

My fear of germs started out so gradually in my early 30s that at first, I saw it as more of a quirk and a minor annoyance than a problem that required the assistance of a mental health expert.

Although I’ve never “officially” been diagnosed with mysophobia (the technical term for germaphobia), I have mentioned it to medical doctors during annual checkups. Because their available time during those visits is limited — and focused more on physical issues — these discussions were brief. They recommended that I see a mental health professional and left it at that. 

I never did. I can’t tell you why, really, except that I think by the time I felt brave enough to bring it up to my doctor, I’d already been “handling it myself” for years. And while it caused inconveniences and stress, it never became debilitating. Plus, my fear of germs started out so gradually in my early 30s that at first, I saw it as more of a quirk and a minor annoyance than a problem that required the assistance of a mental health expert.

Perhaps it wasn’t my best life decision to go it alone, but I’ve gotten by OK for the most part. The recent coronavirus outbreak has greatly complicated things, though. It has created additional emotional and logistical challenges. Germ avoidance requires vigilance like never before.

The easiest way to avoid germs, of course, is to just stay home, and as a freelance writer, I’m fortunate to be able to do that more than some people. However, because I am single and live alone, there is still that pesky need to go out and get food. I can’t have groceries delivered or get takeout food because thinking about what hands might have touched my food causes anxiety. Yes, it’s irrational, because plenty of hands have touched everything whether it’s delivered or I buy it myself in the store. It doesn’t matter; germophobia is not a logical condition and I can’t reason with my thoughts or tell myself not to worry.

Going to the grocery store, which I only do every two weeks and no more, requires me to meticulously plan ahead so that I have everything ready for the ritual I need to follow when I return with my food. (I say “need” here rather than want, because right now it is very much a necessity to have procedures in place to prevent the emotional distress associated with my germophobia). I need to carefully sanitize everything I bring home before putting it away. And I do this in the garage, thereby minimizing the potential germs brought into the house. 

It’s difficult for me to admit this, but when I’m in public and others are nearby, I am deathly afraid of them. I don’t want anyone near me, six feet or otherwise.

The general consensus among health experts is that sanitizing the groceries is overkill, but it’s just something I need to do right now. I’m not the only one, either. COVID-19 has heightened nearly everyone’s awareness of germs, and people who might have previously thought my germ-avoidance tactics were extreme are doing similar things. A few have even produced YouTube videos with instructions on how to sanitize the groceries.

This amuses me. Yes, I still feel like an oddball for fearing germs to the extent that I do, but now I have a lot of company! 

Another unfortunate aspect of being a germaphobe during a pandemic is that I fear not only potentially contaminated surfaces like door handles and shopping carts, but people, too. Anyone could have the virus and might pass it on to me. It’s difficult for me to admit this, but when I’m in public and others are nearby, I am deathly afraid of them. I don’t want anyone near me, six feet or otherwise. Because of this, I’ve only gone out a handful of times in the last six weeks, when absolutely necessary. 

This intense fear of people concerns me. Whereas before COVID-19, I could go out with friends and keep my fear of germs under control, I honestly don’t know if I’ll still be able to once the social distancing guidelines have been relaxed. I don’t want to fear other humans, whether they’re strangers in the grocery store or people I know and love, but simply wishing the fear away isn’t possible. My heart hurts to see other people as “the enemy” right along with the virus, but I can’t seem to stop the thoughts from coming. 

The things I have to do right now to keep my invisible nemesis at bay can be overwhelming. I’m not one to surrender without a fight though, so I have begun to employ a variety of ways to calm my mind. I listen to music and guided meditations, read novels, color, do jigsaw puzzles and play Merge Dragons on my tablet. And my two cats, bless them, are willing to give me lots of Purr Therapy, which helps immensely with the anxiety and the isolation.

My coping techniques are working for now and I feel relatively stable emotionally, but if things get worse and I feel like I’m headed down the rabbit hole, I intend to arrange for some teletherapy visits. And when this coronavirus crisis is over, I may even physically go to a therapist’s office, particularly if I’m not able to conquer my fear of human contact. 

For a germaphobe like myself, things may never be normal again. Right now, I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be hypervigilant about germs in public and frightened to leave my home or have people touch me.

There’s been a lot of talk along the lines of “when this is all over” and “when things get back to normal.” I think, by and large, many people’s lives will return to normal eventually. They’ll go shopping without their masks and gloves, browse leisurely, and stop to chat in the aisles. They’ll return to pre-coronavirus behaviors such as not wiping down surfaces they touch, not using copious amounts of hand sanitizer, and for the most part not thinking much at all about germs. 

For a germaphobe like myself, things may never be normal again. Right now, I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be hypervigilant about germs in public and frightened to leave my home or be around other people. What is most likely to happen is that I will need to make some adjustments to essentially create a “new normal” that minimizes the stress I feel when I think about germs. 

In the end, no matter how much I wash, sanitize and self-isolate, there’s no guarantee that COVID-19 won’t eventually find me. If it does, I can only hope I am one of the 80% that the World Health Organization says will have mild symptoms. In the meantime, I am doing everything I can to prevent my phobia from getting the best of me. 

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