I waited until steam wafted up from the sink, then plunged my hands beneath the scalding water. I scrubbed furiously with soap, poking myself under the nails and sweeping the suds up and down my arms. My knuckles turned red first, then my palms, and then my fingers turned a fiery color. I washed and washed, half-convinced that I would never remove the contagion.
No, this wasn’t during the Covid-19 pandemic. This was more than 20 years ago, when I was a preteen in the throes of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was terrified of invisible microbes that I was convinced would kill me, and I regularly slaughtered my hands in an attempt to stay alive.
Since being treated for OCD, I’ve been fairly cavalier when it comes to germs. In fact, I swung to the other extreme, regularly allowing dirt and germs to cover my hands as I gardened or cooked. I submerged my hands in the earth surrounding my beloved plants. I abandoned my fear of salmonella and regularly handled raw meat without gloves. I had no issues with picking up strange objects, sans paper towel, and tossing them in the bin. That’s what soap is for, I figured.
My husband recoils when he sees me carry out the trash or scoop the litter box without gloves. He’s a germaphobe, but I am a recovering one. I believe in the power of soap and hand sanitizer. As though to make up for my years of abusive hand washing, I let my hands explore our dirty world.
That all changed with the dawn of coronavirus.
My germophobia came on quickly and left reluctantly. I was petrified of contracting some deadly disease, and I desperately avoided anything that I suspected would make me sick. That included most foods, my pets, and even my parents.
After I’d gone two days without eating or drinking because I was convinced that a strange plague would infect me, my father broke down in tears. That was the turning point for me.
My OCD was killing me.
My hands were cracked. My stomach was aching. My energy was dwindling.
I agreed to see a shrink.
Under the recommendation of a clinical psychologist who specialized in OCD, my parents guided me through exposure–prevention therapy. In this unique form of torture, I’d have to touch items that my brain deemed filthy. I’d have to drink from a dirty glass or eat with a dirty spoon. Of course, these things weren’t actually dirty — but I was convinced they were.
In time, my germophobia abated. I retrained my brain to stop thinking that everything was contaminated. I started to live a normal life again. And while the OCD still sulked in my mind, it no loner had immense power over me.
Then came Covid-19.
I used to think the flu wasn’t a big deal. In fact, I was opposed to flu shots. Because I never got sick except for a case of the sniffles, I figured there was no point in getting one.
I didn’t realize that I may have never had flu. My symptoms were likely due to a rhinovirus or allergies.
As part of my liberation from my germophobia, I had little concern for my own safety from contagion. Although I sneezed into my elbow and covered my cough, because I’m not gross, I figured the worst that could happen was that I’d feel a little sick.
I was being selfish.
I was spreading germs to other people because I didn’t think I was sick enough to stay home.
Now, in the face of Covid-19, everything seems contaminated. Since beginning self-quarantine a week ago, I’ve left the house only once, for an emergency grocery run. My husband and I wore gloves and wiped all the products down with bleach spray when we got home. I felt silly, but also couldn’t stop imagining someone sneezing all over the soup cans before happily going on their way.
My OCD, the little demon in my head, sleepily opened its eyes, then smirked as it rose from its slumber. It was time again, it said to itself. As I look around my small world, I wonder if the virus is coating my box of cereal or my bottle of beer. I read the studies about the virus’s lifespan on various materials, but nothing really settles the tiny nuisance of a voice, nagging me to wash my hands again.
I went to the sink and turned on the hot water. I pumped the soap into my hands.
So it begins. Again.