Personal Health

The Secret Life of a Germaphobe

Life can be tough when you're constantly scrutinized for your love of all things anti-bacterial.

As a germaphobe, I often cop a lot of flack from friends and family about my extensive efforts to remain germ-free. Sure, it isn’t always fun living life in a bubble, especially when the fear of contamination reaches epic proportions with the new discovery of a more virulent life-threatening super bug—speaking of, have you heard of MERS Virus.Then, there’s always that dreaded moment when I realize an hour after the shops have closed that I have run out of Lysol and I’m yet to wipe down my benches for the third time that day before my guests arrive.

Yet, for us germaphobes, not only are such episodes commonplace but the thought of directly ingesting some airborne, microbial particles filled with an array of vile contaminants—think MRSA—is alarming enough to keep any germ-conscious lassie firmly set in her ways for the rest of her dying, sheltered days.

Consequently, germaphobes have become quite crafty at concealing their paranoid, germaphobe habits to detract attention from their odd behavior, which can sometimes be misconstrued as offensive. Not accepting food from others’ plates under the guise of being “too full” or refusing to sip from another’s drink under the pretense of  “coming down with the flu” barely raises an eyelid, according to business consultant and self-confessed germaphobe Karen Exhorn writing in the Huffington Post. On the other hand, opening public restrooms with tissue paper or making sure both hands are always full so as to avoid the token introductory handshake can be trickier to maneuver. 

However, our hidden talents don't end there. Not only have we mastered the art of balancing on public transport without ever having to exchange bodily contact with a single being or post, we also have faster reflexes than a ninja warrior when it comes to flushing the toilet with our foot, perfecting our basketball shot when shooting paper into the trash can, dodging influenza from a sneezing stranger faster than Neo can dodge bullets and have an uncanny sixth sense for identifying improper food handling practices in restaurants to avoid salmonella contamination. Sometimes, it’s best just not to eat out.

In fact, if you even attempt to enter a germaphobe’s apartment with your fecal-infested, subway-ridden shoes, our Swifter mop pads will appear quicker than you can say, “Abracadabra” as we are always on standby to avoid the latest bacteria apocalypse. Perhaps the only obvious giveaway is the bottle of Purell sanitizer always at our disposal or the hint of peeling hands from overusing our bleach products.

But, before you think germaphobes are a rarity or just outright crazy, don’t be fooled. Not only are we featured as the main protagonists in pop culture—think detective Monk or Ben Stiller’s character in Along Came Polly—we also tend to be smart, academic achievers and professionally successful. Cameron Diaz, inventor Nikola Tesla, Howie Mandel, and Jerry Seinfeld were/are all proud, self-confessed germaphobes.

What’s more, germaphobes make ideal dating companions by virtue of the high likelihood that we will be STD-free because our fear of contracting disease far outweighs our desire to have sex. In addition, your house will always be spotless. Germaphobes also tend to be self-proclaimed medical experts without ever having spent a day in medical school. Sounds like a perfect catch to me!

Science has even coined a medical term for us “special group” of people: Mysophobia—the pathological fear of contamination and germs. This phobia has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and illness anxiety disorder, previously known as hypochondria, but with some subtle differences.

“People with OCD are compelled to relieve the distress they experience as a result of the non-completion of the act itself, while people with mysophobia are compelled to complete the act specifically to remove germs,” explains. Likewise, hypochondriacs think they have an illness, whereas mysophobics are fearful of contacting illness.

Scientists say the disorders can obviously overlap and that factors that contribute to such phobias include a history of ill health, anxiety or a person’s genetic makeup, which usually starts around childhood. However, like most other phobias, there are different degrees of germaphobic behavior. 

Not all germaphobes fear the same types of germs or fear them to the same degree. Some germaphobes are just petrified of “people germs” but have no problem smooching their dog or cat; others like myself are afraid of bacteria illnesses but are happy to frolic in dirt, sand or grass —most likely a result of growing up in the Outback, aka Australia. 

My own path to germaphobic-land started as a teen when my immune system took a major beating after I was struck down by the Epstein-Barr virus. While most people recover after a couple of months, my condition materialized into a more debilitating phantom illness: chronic fatigue syndrome.  Medicine had no answers and failed to remedy me.

After six years of trying both traditional medicine and alternative remedies to boost my immune system like aloe vera juice and vitamin IV drips to no avail, I developed a profound mistrust of the medical profession and became obsessed with finding the answer to good health. This led me on an information-seeking quest where germs and contamination became my nemesis. The more knowledge I acquired about germs, the more intent I became on avoiding them.

Fast-forward to today where I am a proud and self-professed germaphobe with relatively good health who tries not to let my obsession with germs impact my everyday life. Try, being the operative word. While I will never be the girl who doesn’t cringe when a person coughs next to me or feel comfortable touching public handrails, I am better at not letting every germ encounter freak me out. In addition, it helps having supportive people around who are less germ-conscious and bring us germaphobes back down to earth; for example, my dad thinks it’s hilarious to rub his germ-ridden hands over public escalator hand rails and then onto my back and arms because it sends me into an enraged, epileptic-like fit.

While most germaphobes, including myself, would admit that maintaining this germ-free lifestyle is not always conducive to good mental health, or necessarily equates with a better immune system overall—I still occasionally get sick–the fact is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why? Because knowledge means power and as a germaphobe I relish in the fact that I am as much as I can be 'in the know' of the latest public health trends and able to educate myself and others about the ever-changing health risks in society, particularly in an era where drug-resistant "superbug" outbreaks are only on the rise.  

Besides, it’s better to be safe and overly cautious than find yourself falling ill to some deadly bacterial strain that could easily have been avoided had you only listened to your germaphobe friend and invested in some good, old-fashioned Lysol.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.