Panic-buying cases of Clorox wipes and washing your hands until they crack is something most people have only recently become acquainted with, thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak. Welcome to my world.
I live with something called mysophobia. It’s essentially a fear of germs—an extreme fear. I see germs everywhere. When I take the bus, for instance (before the coronavirus prevented us from actually going anywhere), I’d come home hyper-aware that the clothes I sat in on the bus seat with could not be the clothes I’d sit on my bed with. They were contaminated, crawling with who only knows what. When friends are kind enough to do a few dishes after coming over for dinner, I pull them straight out of the cabinet and plunge them back into the sink for a proper disinfecting that’s up to my extreme standards as soon as they leave. I can’t go to bed without showering most nights, because if I do, I’m acutely aware of the fact my head touched the backrest of a taxi, and that same hair would be touching my pillow.
I’ve always pretended my germaphobia was within socially acceptable bounds. It was “funny,” a type-A personality quirk, never an over-the-top, wow-that-girl-has-issues problem. Only three people in my life knew the truthful extent of my condition and how it derailed my daily routines and spiked my anxiety—my therapist was one of them.
Before the world began falling apart, things were on the mend a little. I knew my phobia was linked to anxiety that resulted from childhood trauma. But adopting a cat named Holly, of all things, helped me start to cope. I can’t pinpoint whether it was having the unconditional love of a fur ball or just realizing that expecting a cat to uphold my clean-freak standards was ridiculous, but either way, I came to accept that she would shed and get dirty and bring germs into my perfectly sanitized bubble. I made peace with wiping her paws every time she returned from being outside and washing my hands after touching her. It wasn’t that my mysophobia had suddenly been cured, rather that I wasn’t so constantly anxious about germs.
Then COVID-19 hit. I saw it creeping up on the world when news about a potential pandemic first made headlines in late December. When the first case was reported in Singapore—where my younger sister lives—in January, I remember obsessively quarantining gifts she’d sent me in a cupboard after I’d sanitized them, feeling guilty that I was relapsing into my old ways and terrified about what an outbreak in my own city would do to my phobia. “I always sanitize things that come into the house from outside,” I told myself. “I always cough into my elbow. I always sanitize my devices, remote controls, switches, and door handles. I microwave my dish sponges between dishwashing sessions, for gosh sakes! I’m safe, and overreacting, and this’ll all probably blow over.”
Fast-forward to three months into a full-fledged pandemic. Being a germaphobe in the midst of a viral outbreak is a visceral experience—as if my phobia were jumping out of my brain and into daily headlines on CNN. My germ anxiety suddenly feels validated—now everyone sees the germs I see everywhere. I don’t need to hide the fact that I sleep with a bottle of sanitizer by my bedside or that I spray down the soles of my shoes before entering the house. Suddenly the fact that I shower and change after grocery runs doesn’t seem strange. Nor does my habit of washing my hands like a surgeon on a medical drama.
You’d think I’d be holed up in a bunker built with cases of disinfectant and toilet paper, but to my total surprise, the pandemic has actually helped ease my phobia. For the first time, I take comfort in the unknown. We know very little about this coronavirus as things stand, beyond the need for hygiene and social distancing. That’s terrifying, but it’s also something I’ve come to accept—I’ll never be able to control everyone’s hygiene. I’ll never be able to remove every germ from my home no matter how many times I sanitize my surfaces. I’ll never be able to be certain my pillow is free of microscopic traces of taxi grime. And I really shouldn’t try, either—it’s exhausting.
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has afforded me the space to realize that I have so much to be thankful for right now. I got quarantined at my parents’ in Delhi, India, when the shelter-in-place instructions went into effect, and even though they often get on my nerves, I have the comfort of knowing that I’m not fully alone right now. Of owning and wearing a mask and gloves. Of knowing that when I come back from a grocery run, I have running water and soap to shower with. I get to bake through my anxiety using a stand mixer (which my own 298-square-foot studio apartment doesn’t have the space for), and load its little bits and bobs into a dishwasher rather than wash them by hand in my tiny kitchen sink. My privilege affords me a lot of mental comfort, there’s no denying that. But I also seek comfort in knowing that a vast number of people globally are going through the same anxiety and uncertainty I’m going through.
Perhaps it’s too early to say this, but I’m feeling optimistic: I think (or hope) I’ll come out of this pandemic with a huge sense of self-acceptance. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a fully recovered germaphobe, but for now, I’m happy knowing that my state of mind is nothing to be ashamed of. Ironic that I needed what basically seems to be Apocalypse Part One to get me here—but it’s something.