Germ warfare: My battle plans

Two Christmases ago, my sister Rhonda gave me a hanging ornament with a drawing on it of cute-looking, smiling germs. “Be nice to bacteria,” it read. “We outnumber you 100 trillion to 1.”

Last year on my birthday, a friend bought me a T-shirt that read “Germicidal maniac,” complete with an illustration of a disgruntled-looking stick figure spraying sanitizer with both hands and several extra cans of sanitizer strapped to his body.

That’s me. A disgruntled, over-sanitizing maniac. I am a germaphobe.

I wasn’t always this way. Clorox wipes weren’t at my every turn. Hand sanitizer was that colorful, good smelling stuff that I’d buy on sale at a favorite bath shop. I never thought twice about taking a sip of water after a friend.

Things changed when I started chemo. A major side effect during my treatments was a substantially weakened immune system, and therefore, I had to be extra cautious during the times when my body’s defense was at its lowest. I couldn’t eat fresh fruit or vegetables. I wasn’t allowed to eat lunch meat or drink anything from soda fountains or machines (which made ordering a beverage in a restaurant tricky). I had to avoid crowded areas with a lot of people. When I left my home, I had to wear a mask over my mouth and nose. I wasn’t even allowed to open my own mail. I practiced these and many other precautions religiously during my treatments, and because my treatments were seemingly ongoing for four years, these “good health practices” became habits that eventually morphed into slightly obsessive behavior.

While most people have quirks, I’m willing to guess this is more than a little quirk. I remember once, after having laid my hand upon a surface touched by many others, I became panicky when sanitizer, soap and a sink were not readily available. My friends laughed at my freakout but my heart was racing.

To be honest, it was difficult to return to the “real” world after my stem cell transplant. I breathed filtered air through a mask for months, so trying to acclimate myself back into a society of germy people proved challenging. I carried hand sanitizer with me wherever I went. I had one in my purse, one in my car, one on my desk … if I could, I would have made myself a holster and strapped a bottle of sanitizer on each side so I was fully prepared for any germ emergencies. I washed my hands so much that my hands dried out and I had to use moisturizer.

At work, every morning before I sat down at my desk, I pulled out the Clorox wipes and scrubbed down my telephone, my mouse, my keyboard, all the drawer handles and the desk surface. I did this daily. Sometimes more than once a day. I did not like when people came into my “germ comfort zone” area of my desk. People were not allowed to use my pens or pencils or my telephone, nor would I use any of their things (unless I personally wiped it down first). Anyone who violated this rule faced my wrath. Most people had been “trained” properly, but if anyone broke my germ rules, the Clorox wipes came out and the contaminated surface was scrubbed.

I also had masks tucked away in my desk drawer. I never actually wore one at work, but just knowing I had them available made me feel better. You know, just in case. I used to joke with my office mate that we were safe if biological warfare ever broke out.

For the longest time, I refused to shake hands. Hands scare me the most. Why? Because people touch things. LOTS of things-things that have been touched by many people prior to their touching it. When someone is coming at me with a germ-crusted hand, all I can ask myself is, “Where has that hand been?!” It’s hard to refuse handshakes, however. People find it rude-but they judge without knowing the whole story. So I do shake hands when I must, just because it’s deemed socially acceptable to do so, but rest assured I follow the hand shake with an immediate dousing of sanitizer, which, now that I think about it, might offend the other person just as much as refusing to shake his hand.

I prefer to open doors with my elbows or feet, whichever is easier. Doors at the mall? Shove ’em open with my foot. Bathroom doors? Paper towel, please! Cold weather makes it substantially easier to open doors because I’m wearing gloves or I can pull down my sleeve and use it to open a door. Again, it’s all about the hands. I don’t want to touch what others have already touched. Although I make a conscious effort to keep my hands away from my face (Newsflash-this is how you get sick, people! Touching something and then sticking your finger in your eye, your mouth, your…(ew) nose…germs love an easy path to your insides!), I still worry that a rogue germ will slip by.

While this seems like a lot of precautions, it honestly isn’t that bad. This does not affect my day-to-day activities, nor does it stop me from doing things I want to do. I just do them with more prudence than the non-germaphobic person. People who don’t know me would never know any of these things. And I’d be willing to bet that not even my parents were aware of my degree of caution around germs. It’s not really something I advertise (Hello. My name is Shaunna and I’m a germaphobe.). Nor is it something that is difficult to conceal.

My fiance Justin tells me that germs are good for me. He says I’m counterproductive in my germ-fighting efforts because by killing smaller bugs, I am setting myself up for exposure to some super bug that is impervious to Clorox wipes. Well, if he’s that insistent about germs being good for me, then he can have my share of them. I will do that for him. After all, giving is fundamental in a relationship.

Urban Dictionary defines a germaphobe as “any person obsessed with cleanliness and defeating bacteria.” Another definition calls it “an abnormal fear of dirt or contamination.” Other web sites, however, suggest that germaphobes are actually suffering from anxiety and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder. No matter how you define it, I’ve accepted my germ aversion as a part of me. As sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, I will see that multitudes of microbes meet their maker. Maybe I might be living in a bit of a fantasy world, but I feel like I’m doing my part to make this world (at least my tiny part of it anyway) a cleaner place, one dead germ at a time.