I am a bona fide germaphobe. I wash my hands 90 times a day, I avoid public transportation like the plague, I religiously read the CDC website, and when I was in college, I refused to come to class for a few weeks after receiving a campus memo about a school-wide Norovirus bug.
I’ve never been diagnosed with an actual anxiety disorder, and without any proper medical knowledge (i.e. medical knowledge that didn’t come from Google), I’m not sure how extreme my condition actually is. But with the exception of my reaction to that campus email, my germophobia doesn’t interfere with my life in significant ways. I don’t lock myself away in shuttered rooms. I can conduct myself inconspicuously in public. Once, I even managed to eat half a raw shrimp at an important dinner without betraying any signs of emotional distress. On the spectrum of germaphobes, I'd categorize myself as a daywalker: my affliction is not immediately apparent to the outside world, but the fear still haunts me nonetheless.
Before I got pregnant, my loved ones accepted my germophobia, even though they made no secret of the fact that they thought I was crazy. Now that I’m pregnant, however, something interesting has happened: while everyone else around me has become more germaphobic, my fears have been reduced — or at least, they feel more useful to me now. In a way, my pregnancy has led me to embrace my anxiety about germs.
My fear of germs is actually an offshoot of my emetophobia, or my fear of vomiting. As a child, there was nothing I hated more than throwing up. After an unauthorized, through-the-railings viewing of The Exorcist, I was left with the understanding that vomiting was caused by demonic possession. But as I grew older and stopped believing in things like poltergeists, I began to look for answers in the natural world. Enter: germs and bacteria.
My elementary school teachers insisted that these destructive microorganisms couldn’t be evil, because they weren’t sentient. But it was clear to me that germs knew exactly what they were doing. Like the Trojans, germs concealed themselves within larger entities—usually food, water, or the very air you breathe—to infiltrate your body. But unlike the Trojans, who simply sat tight for a while and waited for the perfect moment to strike, germs used that waiting period to multiply. See? Evil.
My fear of germs certainly isn’t gone; in fact, in some ways it’s stronger than ever. But somehow, it’s also more manageable.
My loved ones have always believed that germs were relatively harmless. In fact, prior to my pregnancy, they never seemed to think about germs or bacteria at all. They floated through life blithely unaware of how many disgusting, malevolent, and easily transferrable microscopic life forms there are in this world.
I was often frustrated by their ignorance, but at the same time, I needed them to balance out my sometimes-hysterical tendencies. I could go to them and say: “I just passed a guy throwing up on the sidewalk, and now I probably have ebola.” And then they’d say: “Oh my God, you don’t have ebola,” and so on and so forth. Even though I’d never quite believe them, I’d still feel better, because they kept my more obsessive impulses in check.
But now, thanks to my pregnancy, everyone is just as germophobic as I am. That small blue cross on my ClearBlue test marked the beginning of a new era. The formerly calm (if not patronizing) voices that once alleviated my anxieties, can be heard seconding my concerns—or, worse, raising the alarm.”Toxoplasmosis! Listeriosis! Zika!,” everyone seems to be shouting. “You can get Zika from mosquitoes while you’re sleeping! You can get Toxoplasmosis from cats! And not-totally-overcooked steak! You can get Listeriosis from deli meat! And cheese! And a million other things! And anything that’s touched any of those things!”My husband has even stopped making fun of me for scrubbing my oranges with dishwashing detergent before peeling them.
At first, hearing everyone else in my life indulge in my paranoia was unnerving. I felt abandoned. Couldn’t they see that they were enabling me? But if anyone understood the power of fear, it was me—and I was touched by their concern for the baby. All I could do was hope that I’d be able to handle it, and surprisingly, I’m finding that I can. Because my family members aren’t the only ones who have been changed by this pregnancy.
My anxiety about germs spun around in a hysterical, superficial frenzy, feeding off of its own momentum, spiraling into fantasies of far-fetched worst-case-scenarios.
My fear of germs certainly isn’t gone; in fact, in some ways it’s stronger than ever. But somehow, it’s also more manageable. In the past, I was in a blind panic. My anxiety about germs spun around in a hysterical, superficial frenzy, feeding off of its own momentum, spiraling into fantasies of far-fetched worst-case-scenarios. It had infinite triggers, and because I was never going to eradicate every potential contagion in existence, or rid the world of salmonella poisoning, it had no directive. It was aimless and self-indulgent — a symptom of my self-absorption.
Before I started thinking about having a baby, I was completely focused on myself. In fact, when we started talking about getting pregnant, I’d told my husband that I wanted to wait before trying to conceive. I’d felt how self-absorbed I was — and I’d feared that it meant I wasn’t ready to care for a child. But despite our plans, this small life was developing under my protection, and it was fragile and helpless and vulnerable to so many legitimate threats. Suddenly, I had something real to be afraid of.
If I can spare my son from harm by avoiding deli meats and soft cheeses and unwashed vegetables, then something good and beautiful will have come from my fear.
Now, my fears don't indiscriminately buzz around my consciousness. Instead, they sink deep into my gut, where they stay and take root. They’re still profound and terrible, but they’re also purposeful. Because for the first time since my hatred of germs began — since I pitted myself against them in this ridiculous, one-sided battle — there’s something I can actually hope to win. I can bring my son safely into this world. And if I do — if I can spare him from harm by avoiding deli meats and soft cheeses and unwashed vegetables — then something good and beautiful will have come from my fear.
If you struggle with anxiety, please seek professional help or call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).