[Photo by James Emery]
I was in India, travelling, when I dropped my purse onto the floor of the car – something anybody else would struggle to recall amongst all the memories of an incredible two-month stay in Asia.
The purse lay next to my walking boots that had traipsed across the dusty ground – roamed by potentially rabid dogs and laden with the evidence of the locals’ tobacco-spitting habits – and I couldn’t pick it up. I can recall sitting there, staring down at it and being completely paralysed as my eyes welled up.
It seems ridiculous looking back at it now, but how can I convince you that at the time it all made perfect sense? Well, remember those antibacterial spray adverts which showed germs on ‘clean’ surfaces in fluorescent patches? That was the way my mind worked all the time.
Take, for example, how vividly I recall the simple task of using nightclub toilets and the potential it had to ruin my night. My friends might go to wash their hands after – although, trust me, I’m observant about this, most people don’t – but the likelihood is that there’d be no soap and only cold water. As a girl who’ll never buy a cleaning product which does not profess to kill 99.9% of bacteria, I know that won’t be enough to rid them of the germs they’ve picked up on the way in.
Beyond the basic bathroom nasties, those doors would’ve been embossed with the handprints of clubbers who have fallen on the dirt-covered dancefloor as well as with the unseen stains of desperate paralytics.
From that point onwards, until I knew my friends’ hands were clean, I’d be uncomfortable with their slightest touch. I wouldn’t even pick up a bottle they’d held and if I had, I’d become aware of everything my ‘dirty’ hand would go on to touch – whether that be my face, my hair or my clothes – so that I could make a mental note to wash it later.
It sounds unkind, almost comical, I know. But it was never personal or funny. On top of the massive burden of fear I bore, there was also the shame in knowing that all these thoughts, judgemental and unfounded as they often were, dictated who I could feel comfortable with while ‘normal’ people were none the wiser.
As a medical condition, the fear of germs and contamination – Mysophobia, as it is properly known – exists in its own right. I never sought consultation and no longer need it, but I see in my former self the tell-tale traits.
With many similarities to OCD, a sufferer can feel the need to sanitise their hands repeatedly; they may avoid shaking hands with people, touching door knobs or using public transports and restrooms. They can experience sweating, palpitations or emotional breakdowns when they believe contamination may have occurred.
As if those limitations on their day to day life weren’t bad enough, the condition can have serious side-effects on your social life. It turns out that people don’t always take so kindly to you hand-gelling immediately after greeting them.
There is a stigma attached to this condition which makes me think that society needs to learn to understand its sufferers better. For too long now, Germaphobia has been treated like some kind of dirty word and if nothing else, I just can’t stand that level of irony – so it was time to lift the lid on the social taboo.