Mara Santilli
Updated Apr 08, 2020 @ 1:03 pm
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The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has produced some newly minted germaphobes, but I can say without a doubt that I was one of the originals. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember: Being sick with anything contagious has traumatized me and led me to believe that illness was the worst-case scenario of all worst-case scenarios. In first grade, I had a meltdown. I was seated in front of a kid who was always sick (wherever he ended up, I hope his immune system improved), and I couldn’t focus in class because I was paranoid that he would throw up on me during the lesson. We had a parent-teacher conference to get my seat moved, which pacified me temporarily.

Life went on from that first-grade classroom, but the threat of sickness was always sitting in the back of my mind. I was mostly able to function if I was armed with a bottle of Purell and antibacterial wipes in my bag. However, things started to get worse after I graduated from college, where I had experienced outbreaks of both mumps and Ebola during my four years of school. You’d think that phobias and anxieties would dissipate as you become an adult and realize that the world isn’t as terrifying as you thought it was as a 6-year-old. But that’s simply not true, I’m sad to say.

My germ-related anxiety became even more pronounced once I reached my mid-20s. I used to be able to give high-fives without a care in the world, but now, every time someone puts out their hand to introduce themselves, I recoil and am distracted by thoughts of “I need to wash my hands ASAP.” This was the case for me long before COVID-19 happened. I experience the same fear when I travel on airplanes. I already have anxiety about it because I can’t control what’s happening, but it’s the germs that are in the TSA line, the gate seats, the restroom, and everywhere else in the airport that make me feel riddled with pathogens before I’ve even stepped on the plane.

As my symptoms have heightened as I’ve gotten older, so has the teasing. My family members roll their eyes every time I lecture them at dinner about not sharing hand towels or not using your phone before they’re about to eat. They love to make fun of me when, from time to time during cold and flu season, I slap on a pair of latex gloves to handle common surfaces. “There she goes again with the Lysol spray,” they’ll jab.

Often I would hide the Lysol can in my closet and bring it out only when no one was around so that I wouldn’t get called a germ freak for my compulsion to clean. It’s always easier to keep it to myself than to have my behavior scrutinized. I feel exposed when I have to explain, “I’m sanitizing this area because someone who has a cold came in and touched the faucet in my bathroom.”

It’s challenging not to internalize my family’s judgment as they laugh at my quirks and call me a “germaphobe.” I already don’t feel normal because of these compulsions, so I don’t need anyone else’s assistance. Sure, they may not understand what’s going on in my mind when it’s churning a mile a minute to avoid germs. But I often can’t figure out why I ended up like this, either.

Whenever my anxiety flares up, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m mentally sick just for not wanting to get sick. It’s unsettling to feel like there’s something inherently wrong with me just for wanting to stay healthy.

I know one of the main reasons my family members feel frustrated with my exhaustive sanitizing is that they don’t want me to worry as much as I do. I often have felt frustrated with myself for being so rigid in my rituals, and I’m working on showing myself more empathy.

People who don’t live with me generally have more patience with me, mostly because they don’t have to deal with my habits on a daily basis. Being with friends has always been a healthy outlet for me because my friends don’t pick apart my habits too much; they’re used to me getting up a couple of times to wash my hands at a restaurant. Strangers are not so understanding. I’ve gotten more than a few strange looks for vigorously wiping down my tray table, armrests, TV screen, and seat belts on a plane. Typically, this is awkward enough for me that I almost feel compelled to explain my anxiety to them. But now that we’re in the time of coronavirus, it’s a different story. I’ve stopped caring about what random fellow travelers—or anyone, for that matter—think of me because these rituals are actually improving my mental health, helping me to feel safer and more composed.

With all of these compulsions, you’d think that a global pandemic would send my germ phobia into pandemonium.

I’ve already had a rough winter. Multiple family members that I live with caught some variation of the flu, which sent me into a downward spiral. (I contemplated getting a hotel room for a couple of weeks on a freelance writer’s salary, if that paints the picture.) So if you’d told me that there was about to be a pandemic after all that, I would’ve said, “Yup, you’re probably right. I will go postal.” And there are certain aspects of the pandemic that are unsettling for me: You can’t find disinfectant products in pretty much any store right now, so running out of my supply is a real fear of mine. Also, I have to turn off the TV to limit myself from the news of rising numbers of coronavirus cases in my state and across the country. I’ve freaked out more than once at the slightest twinge in my chest, thinking it’s a COVID-19 symptom emerging. But as everyone started to ramp up their purchasing of Purell and wear masks everywhere they go (PSA: Do not hoard masks from medical professionals), I started to feel more comfortable, oddly enough.

All in all, this whole experience has made me feel more validated than ever. I suddenly don’t feel like a freak for being so cautious about catching any illness.

Right now we’re supposed to wash our hands any time we touch a foreign object and sanitize every home surface. Great: I already do this religiously. It makes me feel more in control of what’s happening because I’ve done everything I can to protect myself, whether that’s healthy or not.

Currently, people are coming to me for the best practices for cleaning doorknobs and fridge handles, or for taking antiviral supplements. The tables have turned, and I’m now treated as if I’m an authority on the matter. My panic has become my superpower. And it’s not just that: So many friends and family members have reached out to me just to see how I was doing throughout all of this, which has helped me feel more seen. Not only is everyone sympathizing with me—they’re joining in on the disinfecting spree. Being a germaphobe is arguably more socially acceptable than it’s ever been. I am keeping the disinfectant can right in the main entrance to my house and I spritz it proudly whenever I feel it’s necessary. During the pandemic, my behavior is what people are emulating, instead of making fun of. I think it took this coronavirus outbreak for me to finally start to let go of judgment from others and my own self-criticism—and fully let my germ freak flag fly.

My dream is that the world will become more hygiene-conscious after this whole crisis. But I know that’s a bit too idealistic. I’d be surprised if people don’t go back to their old ways of touching the subway poles and then eating a sandwich five minutes later, forgetting all about how a virus can sneak into the body. But what I do hope is that, in the midst of checking in on each other’s health and well-being regularly, we seek to be more understanding of the hidden struggles that plague people day in and day out, even if they don’t make much sense to us. Now, more than ever, it’s time to practice empathy for those who struggle with mental health, and that’s the one thing I hope does widely spread during this crisis.