Confessions of a Chronically ill Germaphobe
I am a germaphobe. I admit it. Have I always been deathly afraid of germs? No. I actually used to eat food off the ground and never used to wash my hands after using the bathroom. Okay, maybe those things aren’t entirely true, but I used to generally not care about everyday common germs that most people, my younger self included, don’t care about.
I remember eating fruits and vegetables without washing them first; I remember biting my dirty fingernails, and playing beer pong when everyone shared drinking cups and the ping-pong ball repeatedly rolled on the ground before being tossed in beer soon to be guzzled.
These instances offer quite the juxtaposition to my hyper germ avoidance today. But to be fair, and in my defense, there is good reason for these germaphobic tendencies.
I know, I know, that is what every obsessive-compulsive germaphobe says, right? But hey, it’s not like I’m one of those people who washes their hands dozens of times an hour until they’re raw or who wipes down every door knob in their house exactly seven times everyday. Or am I?
Before I go any further, let me just say that all of my caregivers, and some civilians who visit me, have to wear masks and nitrile gloves when they come in my room.
Ahem. But I’m not kidding….
Admittedly, it’s a bizarre scene and often very impersonal. Between the caregivers wearing masks and the darkness in my room, I couldn’t pick many of my former caregivers out of a police line-up if I had to. I often imagine myself one day becoming well enough to walk the streets where I will be repeatedly stopped by someone saying “Hey Jamison, it’s me, your caregiver,” and I’ll have no idea who they are because I never actually saw their face while they were caring for me.
So it basically looks like a SARS out break in my house. But for good reason: I was only moderately sick with MECFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome) when I got the flu in 2015, which compounded with my already impaired body, left me too weak to speak or eat or get out of bed. Before that I had been diligent about taking vitamins and supporting my immune system. I hadn’t had a cold or the flu in a couple years. But the flu that year took me down hard.
I remember lots of people complaining about that flu and I was so confident that I wouldn’t get it, but it hit me hard and in many ways, I’ve yet to recover two years later.
And that’s a big reason I am so hyper-aware of germs these days — I can’t afford to get a cold or the flu again.
Another reason is I take Valcyte, an antiviral medication, which I’ve been told suppresses the immune system. Because I take it I am more susceptible to the germs that I work so hard to avoid.
Also, I get regular IV treatments, of which sterilization is critical. This is why I have a box of isopropyl alcohol pads by me at all times. I constantly need them to clean my hands and IV components throughout each day.
Okay, now that I have (hopefully) convinced you that my germaphobia is justified, this is the part where I tell you that, even without all my justifications, I am a legitimate obsessive compulsive. But only to a certain extent. I hope.
I have always had obsessive compulsive tendencies. In my pre-teen years I was afraid of being kidnapped by someone breaking into my room. I would obsessively — sometimes dozens of times a day — check to make sure the door was locked. And I don’t just mean visually. Even if I saw it was locked I had to actually walk over to the door and really push the lock closed, even if it wouldn’t budge anymore.
I may not have been deathly afraid of germs back then but I definitely think my germaphobic tendencies are rooted in these obsessive compulsions I had as a teenager, along with the trauma of becoming so sick from who knows what pathogens as an adult.
So I guess the point of telling you this, besides trying to justify this mental illness or whatever you want to call it (mental imperfection? Yes, that sounds better), is to say that while my actions to avoid germs (and kidnappers in my youth) may be obsessive and compulsive, they are supported by logic, at least in my mind.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there is something very wrong when I won’t drink from a straw that has been touched on either end by someone’s hands, but I also think there is something very wrong when I end up bedbound and too weak to chew or lift a fork after getting the flu.
But the way I make peace with my life is by acknowledging the absurdity of it. I certainly don’t enjoy being this way, but just like Howie Mandel and all the other germaphobes in the world, there is a reason we are like this. And for me, I honestly believe that if my health wasn’t so crappy, and I wasn’t taking an immunosuppressant, I would probably still be eating food off the ground.
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