I have come to get a fairly good grasp over many of my anxieties in recent months, but there is one that still has a firm grip on me and only increases as the days wane and Winter encroaches into this part of the world. This anxiety defies rational thinking and laughs in the face of logic.
For me, my obsessive, totally irrational and overtly disproportionate fear is of contagious germs – the type that cause everyday ailments like colds and flus, viral and bacterial illnesses, and run of the mill infections. Many people consider this ridiculous, and have no qualms about telling me so, giving me parenting advice, and telling me that I am a fussy mum, helicopter parent, and my kids need to be exposed to germs to build their immune systems. In other words, they are really suggesting that my parenting is faulty because of my anxious fears.
I am filled with terror at the latest school bulletin that advises parents of a small number of students coming down with a reportable disease, struck with fear when I a news report on a epidemic outbreak of something half a world away, knowing that the flu is circling my husbands work makes my brow sweat and hands shake – I’m quite sure that my resting heart rate hasn’t dropped below 95 since I became a mother.
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. It is a constant source of amusement and satire to many who know me. I remember the day I realized what some friends really thought – their taunting sniggers and comments seared into my brain and heart. I felt so ashamed and humiliated, and misjudged – my fear is so much deeper than I could explain.
This isn’t about preventing a simple cold because I am adverse to a sniffle – it is much more frightening than that. I am afraid I can’t protect my family!
From personal experience I know how a simple cold can end up with hospital admissions. My children and I all get asthma, the cold or flu can (and has) trigger a medical emergency.
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 or even years longer.
I had to frantically rush my otherwise strong, fit, and very healthy husband to the emergency department after he started vomiting blood because of pneumonia and a collapsed lung.
My fears are based on what has been reality. The above scenarios are only ones of a multitude of times I’ve been terrified I’m going to lose someone I love because of illness.
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.
Another compulsive fear I have, a fear which means that I am unable to go out anywhere (except to the doctors, but only then if it is really necessary) when I or one of my family may be contagious, is an intense fear of making someone else sick – of causing their death, or the death of one of their loved ones because one of us selfishly 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 as well as my own family. 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.
I am exhausted. I am so exhausted from trying to protect my family from harm, from trying to keep them safe and well – I am exhausted from the impossibility of it, the fear it creates within me.
Please don’t tell me “not to worry”, or to “toughen up” – I’d give anything to be carefree. But having a family changed that, I no longer can just consider myself – I feel a pressing duty to protect them, to take care of my children and my husband.