When you have obsessive fears, little things can become really out of proportion. Those of us who have O.C.D. (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) know about how encompassing and embarrassing this can be, but we struggle to rationalize when our obsessions and compulsions take control.
For me, my fear is contagious germs – the type that cause everyday ailments like colds and flus, viral and bacterial illnesses, and infections. Many people consider this ridiculous, and have no qualms about telling me so, giving me parenting advice, and telling me that I and my kids need to be exposed to germs to build our immune systems – suggesting that my parenting is faulty because of my anxious fears.
I’m not adverse to getting my hands into dirt, or patting a dog, cat, or any other type of animal. I’m not hovering around worrying that my kids are going to cut themselves climbing a tree, or get muddy, like most people seem to think a “germaphobe” does. And unlike the media often portray, I am lucky that my anxiety does not lead me to compulsively wear gloves or a mask every time I go out in public, I can hug and shake hands, and I do not scrub my hands until they bleed, standing for hours at the sink – although people often make thoughtless jokes about this (I can only imagine how hurtful it must be for those whose OCD does make it impossible for them to function without these barrier methods).
But I carry hand sanitizer with me everywhere. It is in my bag, and in my car, I have one at home, and there are small ones in my children’s school bags so they can use it before eating their lunch, plus there are the ones I’ve sent to work with my husband. I researched and educated myself meticulously before settling on a brand with a good reputation and the ability to be stored at all temperatures without losing its potency, one that was safe for my kids to use, one that wouldn’t ruin our skin, or cause poisoning. I use it regularly throughout each day, and more when I am in an uncontrolled environment such as the city, or doing shopping where I must touch things that others have touched previously. When I am unable to use it, my stress levels rise and I will start to feel unwell because of the certainty of becoming ill.
I remember the day I realized what some friends really thought of me when we went into town for one day – they deliberately stood back and waited at a set of lights, then laughed when I stepped forward and pressed the crossing button. The taunting sniggers and comments of “Well, I didn’t expect to see you do that”, “Aren’t you going to wash your hands now?”, “Those things are covered in germs!” seared into my brain and heart. I’ve long since forgiven them, they had no idea it was so hurtful, for them it was funny – I’ve never forgotten how crushed and misunderstood I felt though and have admittedly not confided in them since.
The thing is, this isn’t about preventing a simple cold – it is much more than that. From personal experience I know how a simple cold can end up with hospital admissions. My children get asthma, so do I, the cold or flu could trigger a medical emergency. My husband is very sensitive to stomach bugs and while normally robust with an immune system as strong as can be, can be knocked around for weeks from a 24 hour virus that most people don’t think twice about.
After years of battling severe emphysema and a weakened immune system, my Dad eventually died from contracting pneumonia after a simple cold that he picked up – without that, he may have lived for months longer. I’ve had pneumonia twice myself, plus there was the time the flu caused my husband to start retching blood when one of his lungs collapsed and the subsequent rush to get him to the emergency room in the middle of the night.
My fears are based on what has been reality, so please don’t negate my right to my own feelings by belittling me.
My terror is that something that many consider an everyday consequences of life, short term illness, may end someones life. I lay awake all night when my kids are unwell, listening to them, checking on them while they sleep, terrified that they will stop breathing, die, and I won’t know about it, that I won’t be there to save them. When my husband is sick I obsessively check his temperature, and make him gag down chicken soup, despite the fact he hates soup. I am in fretful caretaker mode and there is nothing anyone can do or say that will help me calm down.
Many people also do not understand that when I am sick, my life stops. My body is already battling pain and fatigue on a daily basis, I am at the limit of functioning even when perfectly healthy. My ability to look after my family becomes obsolete if an infection takes hold, and my fragile mental health can fall to pieces when I am unwell because there is no energy left to put into it. The thought of becoming ill is frightening to me because of this, I am not trying to be selfish when I drop food off at my sick friends doorstep instead of going in, I am trying to practice self preservation.
Plus there is another compulsive fear I have, one that grips me with strong jaws and will not let go – this fear means that I am unable to go out anywhere (except to the doctors, but only then if it is really necessary) when I may be contagious. It is an intense fear of making someone else sick – of causing their death, or the death of one of their loved ones because I spread germs to someone with a compromised immune system. I wash my hands every time I cough or sneeze or touch my face, and practice hygiene that most surgeons going into theater would probably be impressed with. I want to protect the world, and keep everyone else safe. Rationally, it might be easy to say that it is highly unlikely someone will die from catching a virus from me, but it is a risk I do not feel able to take.
I didn’t always act like this. I was an easy going person who didn’t freak out at the thought of someone I knew getting sick, or of becoming sick myself. There used to be a “10 second rule”, and “it’s fine as long as there isn’t dog fur stuck to it” rule in our house. But my anxieties have grown over the past years, they became larger, more focused, more irrational. They have been fed by numerous hospital visits and watching those I love suffer, the monster that is anxiety has become larger than life.
Caring for an elderly father who could become deathly ill within hours of coming down with a virus, is painful. Seeing your innocent children struggling to breathe through coughing fits, is painful. Watching someone you love in pain, is painful. Leaving your family as you head to hospital so dehydrated from coughing until you vomit and barely able to breathe yourself, is painful.
Pain changes us. To some I might seem eccentric or ridiculous, but for me the fear is very real.