Last January, I was working away in a London library. Typing on my laptop, I became acutely aware of the keys – I had cleaned them only a few hours ago, but I felt they were covered in germs and finger oils. My hands were starting to sweat, and I could feel the surface of the trackpad getting moist.
I felt uncomfortable in the seat – mentally, not physically. Countless others had sat there and I did not know when it was last cleaned, who had smudged their fingers on the arms, who had spilled drinks or left bits of food on the seat. I’m sitting on a bed of germs, I thought. It’s contaminating my clothes, which are fresh out of the washing… will I have to wash them again when I get home? Maybe I should have worn ‘travel’ clothes that I don’t mind getting dirty, and avoid drinking anything so I won’t need to use the public toilets, which will be gross, of course…
People around me were oblivious to the internal dramatic discourse that was sending my anxiety levels spiking, but for me this was just one example of my daily thought pattern. I am extremely anxious about germs. I often mask it (excuse the pun) from others so I don’t seem too weird or difficult, but the truth is I’m a germaphobe. Dictionaries and psychologists define this as an ‘irrational fear of germs’, and that’s true, but it goes deeper than that: germaphobia does more psychological harm than the germs themselves are perceived to do.
I’m an Arab Muslim, raised with good hygiene as a big part of my identity. In my culture and faith, cleanliness is a virtue, and washing yourself is an important religious ritual before prayer. As well as being neat and methodical, I’ve long been ‘extreme’ about hygiene and do things others might find unusual: I bring my own bed sheets when staying in hotels and seat covers on the train so I don’t directly touch the seat. I use a napkin or my sleeve to touch doors and buttons, and I disinfect my possessions every time I get home.
“While I can wipe the dust and dirt from physical surfaces, a thick layer of fear about germs still coats my mind. No amount of cleaning seems to wash it away.”
I didn’t perceive this to be a behavioural condition until it got out of control last year, when the world was plunged into a pandemic. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the dark cloud of germ-related anxiety that has hovered over my life turned black. Covid exacerbated my fears and made me too afraid to leave the house. If I dared to go out, even just for a walk, I had to shower the minute I got home.
At home, I haven’t felt ‘safe’ either. My mind convinces me that bacteria lingers on every surface, and I scrub at them (not to mention my hands and body) repeatedly. While I can wipe the dust and dirt from physical surfaces, a thick layer of fear about germs still coats my mind. No amount of cleaning seems to wash it away.
When the first lockdown lifted, a small sense of relief came. I started to go out a little more and discovered that it has become more socially acceptable to be neurotic about germs. Shops and supermarkets offer sanitiser, restaurants and cafes wipe their surfaces with more frequency. I felt liberated and able to be ‘myself’ when out – sanitising my hands every few minutes, disinfecting cutlery or coffee cups before using them. These coping mechanisms seemed abnormal to others but now it’s the new normal. My germaphobia felt more rational because we’re all more hygiene conscious now – our lives literally depend on it.
“Returning to ‘normal’ life, for most people, means living without fear of a virus. For me, it means remaining in a state of constant anxiousness.”
However, while these are positives, as I write I live in an area where the virus is spreading aggressively. Stepping out of the door triggers a flurry of trepidation about the germy demon lurking outside. My phobia might be more accepted now, but I worry that I will feel these anxieties more acutely in future, even when life eventually starts to go ‘back to normal’.
Knowing what we have all been through this past year and how harmful this virus – and the countless other germs out there – can be, the future, for a germaphobe, looks bleak. Environments that used to trigger mild apprehension before, such as a packed train, an airplane or a café, now seem terrifying. Returning to ‘normal’ life, for most people, means living without fear of a virus. For me, it means remaining in a state of constant anxiousness, except it’ll likely become more intense. In a way, Covid has validated my fears about germs and the damage they can do.
Nevertheless, I have hope. As I’ve done over the years, I’ll find new ways to cope so that life is bearable – I have plenty of sanitiser and enough reusable masks for more than a year’s worth of washes and wears. My hope is that, post-Covid, even if my fear is still there, the stigma around germaphobia may not be.
Dalia Dawood is a freelance journalist and lecturer. Follow her on Twitter at @dda_wood
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