Mysophobia: Living With The Fear Of Germs
Mysophobia is not a laughing matter
When I tell people I'm scared of germs, most of them laugh like it's a big joke. They think of Monk and how funny he made it seem. But it's not a laughing matter. It's an actual medical condition called mysophobia and it affects every single moment of my life.
Being scared of germs means I can't have a normal relationship with my husband. It means I can't have many friends. It means I have to be on high alert at all times. It means I have to do a lot of extra work. And it means I have to miss out on a lot of things most people take for granted.
The difference between mysophobia and having a healthy fear of germs
I'm going to assume that you have a healthy fear of germs. By that, I mean you don't want to get sneezed on, but if someone does happen to sneeze on you, you can just wash it off and go on with your day. You don't want someone to cough in your face, but if someone does cough in your face, you can just turn your head away and go on with your day. You normally wash your hands before you cook, but if you get halfway through cooking a meal and you realize you forgot to wash your hands, you can just wash them and keep cooking.
For a mysophobe, none of that is possible. If someone sneezes around me (it doesn't even have to be on me), I stop breathing. But I don't do it consciously. It feels like my throat closes and I just can't breathe until I run outside where there is fresh air. The same thing happens if someone coughs. And if someone were to sneeze or cough on me, I would have to scrub my skin with soap and then wipe the area down with alcohol. Once, someone sneezed on my face. I threw up. If I were to forget to wash my hands before cooking, the entire meal would be thrown away. In fact, I once threw away an entire meal because someone came into the kitchen and coughed while I was cooking. And when I cook, even if it's something that has to simmer for 4 hours, I have to stay in the kitchen the whole time to make sure nobody contaminates the food.
That's the difference between mysophobia and having a healthy fear of germs. For a mysophobe, avoiding germs is the most important thing in their life.
Just a quick question
What do you have?
The cause of my fear
I haven't always been scared of germs. I actually grew up quite normal. But then when I was 18, I moved in with my first husband and his mom. It was disgusting. His mom had this nasty, rapidly spreading rash and she wouldn't go to the doctor. The dog had a cut on his tail that wouldn't heal and every time he wagged it, blood would fly everywhere. The house itself was dirty and no matter how much I cleaned, it wasn't good enough.
This is when I started becoming aware of how germy people are.
What it means for me
I'm not scared of every type of germ. I'll pick up bugs, play with the dog and dig in the dirt with no problems at all. My fears are focused on what I call people germs. I believe everybody, including me, is just riddled with germs. Most people take that to mean that I think they're dirty, so they take offense. But that's not what I think. I just think they have germs.
Let me put it like this. When you think of the word germ, what do you think about? Does it affect you at all?
It makes me feel sick to my stomach. When I think of germs, my mind conjures up images of disgusting little creatures crawling all over people just waiting for the chance to get on me. When someone coughs, sneezes, talks or breathes with their mouth open, in my mind I can see millions of germs flying through the air and attaching themselves to me. There are times when I think I can actually feel them on me.
It gets even worse when it comes to milk products. For some reason, I see milk products as being a germ paradise. I imagine them swimming around having a little hayday until they can get in my body and infect me. I'm okay as long as I'm eating by myself and as long as I eat the milk product within 3 minutes of getting it out of the fridge. But if someone comes in the room and I'm eating a milk product, I know my food is instantly contaminated, so it gets thrown away.
In case you're wondering, I don't obsessively wash my hands. I do wash them more often than other people, but if I feel dirty, washing them once is good enough for me (as long as I can dry them on my own personal towel).
Mysophobia and OCD
It can be easy to confuse Mysophobia with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because both involve the same activities, like hand washing. But it's important to remember that the root causes of hand washing in mysophobes and obsessive compulsives are different. A mysophobe washes his or her hands repeatedly out of fear of contamination, while obsessive compulsive patients wash their hands because they feel like they have to in order to maintain the order of their lives.
Dinner with me
I normally don't eat around anyone. It's too hard and I can never finish a meal. If someone coughs or sneezes, even if they are across the room, I have to throw my food away. If someone breathes too close to my food, I have to throw my food away. If someone nearby talks to me, I have to throw my food away.
Plus, I have a hard time eating food that someone else cooked. What if they didn't wash their hands? What if they double-dipped when doing a taste test? What if they coughed while the food was cooking? There are just too many questions. So if someone else cooks, I'll usually just make something else for me. The only time this doesn't apply is when I'm eating out. Most of the time I have no problem with eating out. Unless I know the place isn't clean, I generally trust professional cooks. My biggest problem when eating out is with the other customers. I can't believe how many people sneeze and cough without covering their mouths, especially around food.
I'm extremely sensitive about milk products. If I'm eating a milk product and my husband comes in the room, I'll yell "milk product!" and he knows to just turn around and leave.
My food is kept separate from everyone else's food. I have my own fridge and my own food cupboard. I have to have my own jug of milk, my own jar of jelly, my own jar of peanut butter, my own loaf of bread, etc. If I even suspect someone got into my food, I'll throw it out. I even have my own salt and pepper shakers, which I keep on the highest shelf in a closed cupboard so they have a better chance of not getting hit if someone sneezes. When I cook too much and I know there will be leftovers, I put some in my fridge before anyone else even knows supper is ready. That way no one has the chance to breathe in my food.
I can't drink out of glasses or cups. I can't even drink out of a soda can. I only drink out of plastic water bottles that I can close or cups that have lids (although I recently discovered these cool soda can covers so now I can drink canned soda!). And if I accidentally leave my water bottle in a room when I walk out, it gets thrown away because I'm too scared someone might have drank out of it.
It's not you. It's me.
This bad break-up line actually holds a grain of truth when it comes to my mysophobia. It doesn't matter if you shower 10 times a day, brush your teeth every 2 hours and wash your hands every 5 minutes. In my eyes, you'll still have germs.
Living with me
I'm very lucky because my husband, John, is completely understanding about my mysophobia. The best thing is his attitude towards it. After 5 years, he knows it's real and he knows it's serious. He also knows how bad I feel for making him put up with it. So he does his best to make me feel better while still giving me my space. And I know it's hard for him because he never knows if I'm having a good day or a bad day.
You see, I also suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder. And when I'm having a hard time handling my BPD, the mysophobia gets worse. There's been days when he can't even touch me; days when he can't even kiss me on the cheek; days when he can't even be near me because I'm so scared of getting his germs. His response to my bad days is what makes him the best husband in the world. If I don't let him kiss me or touch me, he'll say "That's fine right now, but I get extra later." and then he'll laugh and leave me be.
I know he puts up with a lot and it makes me love him even more.
I don't even want my own germs!
It's been 3 years since I originally wrote this article and in that time, some things have changed (mostly due to our living arrangements). When I wrote this article, I was living with 4 other people who couldn't care less about germs. This made me hyper sensitive and was reflected in my extreme behavior.
Today my husband and I live alone and since I know he understands about my germphobia, I'm able to let my guard down a little. Although I no longer require my own food cupboard and my own refrigerator, I still need to have my own food. So we separate our food with tape. Anything with blue tape on it is mine and off limits. Some foods we share. And by "share" I mean if my husbands wants some, he asks me and I get it for him. My husband still isn't allowed to cook because I just don't trust it. And he's not allowed to clean because I want to make sure everything is cleaned thoroughly.
Today, I'm (sometimes) able to eat around (some) people. My husband and I eat together most nights and sometimes I can sit down for a meal with my Dad and Grandma. They're very understanding about my Mysophobia. They let me get my food first, before it's even on the table and they don't get offended that I keep my food and drinks covered. I even went to Thanksgiving dinner with the entire family and although I got some weird looks for loading my plate up before setting the food on the table, I survived. I'm finally able to drink out of glasses. Once I found that Betty Crocker frosting lids make a perfect lid for our glasses, I stopped buying plastic bottles. I'm still very picky about milk products. My husband can be in the room, but (and we laugh at this) that means I've never been able to finish a meal with milk product because it's inevitable that he'll sneeze or cough.
The one thing that's gotten way worse is that I'm no longer able to kiss my husband. Little pecks are okay but my stomach turns if he tries to open his mouth. He gets upset about it and I feel horrible about it. But so far, he's still understanding. Every day I thank my lucky stars that I have him.
Want to read more?
Although this book contains information about many lesser known mental illnesses, starting on page 133, it also tells more of my story.
Learn how my behavior slowly changed and about how I slowly came to the realization that something was wrong with me.
Get an in depth view on my extreme behaviors and the thoughts that encourage them.
Read about my fears concerning the effect my mysophobia has on others.
And most importantly, learn how to help a friend or family member who's mysophobic.
© 2010 Othercatt