Picture yourself walking into an elevator. As you enter, you notice that it already contains 10 other people, yet somehow there is still room for you. As you squeeze past people, you politely whisper “sorry, so sorry”. While no one seems eager to move to let you ride comfortably, eventually everyone shuffles around a bit to make room for you. Once everyone is snugly in the elevator, the doors slowly close and you whisper “5th floor please”. After requesting your floor, you begin to look around at the faces in the elevator giving each a grin and head nod. Suddenly, and without warning, you hear a very loud “aaaaaaaah chooooooooooooo”. From the very wetness of the sneeze, you immediately know two things: (1) The culprit made no attempt to hold it in. In fact, it was likely so wet because they helped push it out; and (2) The culprit made no attempt to cover it with a hand or sleeve because you are almost positive you heard the wetness hit the elevator door or wall. What is your first emotion?
Friends, mine was complete and utter terror. While typing out the scenario just now, I relived it…and had the exact same reaction as I did that faithful day almost 12 years ago. As I typed out the scenario, I closed my eyes (yes I can do that), to put myself back into the situation. The moment I heard “aaaaaah choooooooo” in that tight space, I immediately felt pieces of my immune system crumble with every mucus particle thrust into the air by that single lousy sneeze. I remember holding my breath refusing to breath in that contaminated air, while looking around for the culprit to give him or her my death stare…and possibly a few words. While scanning the elevator looking for the guilty party, I heard a tiny voice to my immediate right say “bless you…better out than in.” Ohhhh those words made my blood boil. As I replayed those words back in my mind, I heard a voice directly in front of me say “oh thanks, holding it in would’ve given me a headache.” Without hesitation I said, “a headache…I wish you would’ve held it in and your head popped up from your neck like a pez dispenser you germy dirty scum bag”.
Am I the only one still discovering things about herself? Just when I think I am painfully aware of my issues…I discover something else. That situation on the elevator showed me what my close friends and family had been saying for years. That one situation confirmed that I AM A GERMAPHOBE! Yes, a GERM-A-PHOBE. I am the person on the plane with the mask everyone wore during the SARS scare (or maybe I was the only person who wore it…but no SARS here so HA!!). Yes, I am totally that person at the grocery store or mall giving death stares to the rude people that sneeze into the atmosphere without covering their nose and mouth. Even today, if you sneeze in my immediate vicinity, you will get a verbal response…but I assure you it won’t be “bless you.” Yep, I am the woman walking around with hand sanitizer and refusing to touch door nobs or handrails. Sadly, the woman refusing to finish her food or drink after the waiter reaches over it because she is convinced that those things now have the waiter’s skin cells in them. I am totally the woman refusing to give a handshake when meeting people…but will give an awesome air-five! I AM THAT GERMAPHOBE!
One time in college a suite mate of mine had to do a science experiment. Her professor challenged her to find 5 friends and test the bacteria on their body. To conduct the experiment, she had to take a q-tip and scrap it across their skin before they took a shower. Then, immediately after a shower, a new q-tip was scraped across the same area. The professor hypothesized that while showers help to reduce bacteria, the human body still carries significant bacteria.
My suite mate explained her proposal to me one Friday evening, and I immediately became intrigued. After confirming that she was in fact using brand new q-tips and I could watch her remove them from the unopened box, I agreed to participate in her experiment. As I prepared for my nightly shower that evening, she took two new q-tips and used one to scrape each of my forearms. She then placed the two q-tips in separate containers that looked like plastic q-tip holders. Excited to see what the experiment would determine, I eagerly entered the shower. I thoroughly cleaned by body using my normal routine, and after 10 minutes or so I was done. As I exited the shower, I wrapped a towel around my body. Before I could begin to dry my skin off, my suite mate appeared with two more q-tips. Like before, she used one q-tip to wipe each forearm. She then placed each one in a separate container and said “I will tell you the results after class on Monday.”
I don’t know which one of us was more excited for Monday to arrive. But, like it always does, Monday arrived. I completed my classes and arrived back at my dorm to wait on my suite mate. Around 4:30pm, she walked slowly into our suite. Walking slow was very unlike her, so I immediately asked her what was wrong. She replied “my professor accused me of cheating, and said there was no way I used these to wipe a real person”. Confused I replied “huh, what do you mean”? She replied “when I looked at these under a microscope with my professor your pre shower ones had hardly any bacteria and the after shower ones seriously had almost nothing…like for real.” Proud of myself, I flopped down onto the futon and said “umm, because I’m serious about a clean body…BOOM!” Noticeably bothered by her professor’s feedback, my friend began asking me questions. She asked them so fast in rapid succession, that I didn’t have time to answer. She asked “How many times a day do you wash your hands? What do you use to wash them? Do you stop washing your hands at the wrist or do you go to the elbow? When you shower do you only use one wash cloth? How many times do you wash your body in the shower?”
In an attempt to break up the interrogation, I said “ok, each question Yoda will answer.” Not impressed by my joke, my suite mate groaned “well, tell me how you jacked up my test.” I then began to tell her of my cleaning ritual. I said “when I wash my hands, I do it long enough to sing the entire alphabet. Every few letters I make sure the soap and water goes up past my elbows. When I am done washing my hands, I grab a paper towel to dry them. I use one side of the paper towel to dry each hand. When my hands are dry, I use the same paper towel to turn off the water and then I toss the paper towel in the trash.”
A light bulb must’ve went off in my suite mate’s head, because her eyes lit up and she leaned forward and asked “so what about your body.” I replied, “so the body is much more complicated and takes additional care. I get into the shower and lather up my towel and clean my body. While the water from the shower head washes away the soap from my body, I use my hands to re-lather my towel to clean it before my next wash up. Once the towel is lathered up, I rinse the soap away with water and ring out the excess water. Once that is done, I lather it up again to wash my body. But, this is key, after each wash I clean the wash cloth, then start everything all over again. I also never mix the top half of the body with the lower half. Once you clean the bottom, NEVER go back to the top”. My suite mate sat back on the futon, grinned and said “with all that work, you are still the most unhealthy person I know.”
You are likely reading this thinking “oh dear God how sad, how did she become a germaphobe?” Well, its not sad at all. I am totally fine this way. And, I am so glad you asked so I can tell you how I became this way. See, years of living with a suppressed immune system taught me that people are disgusting…and I have to be extremely careful. You would likely use the word “neurotic…but tomato/to-ma-to! Seriously, are you aware of the bacteria one carries around daily? One person’s common cold, for some reason easily becomes my pneumonia. So, while my actions may seem dramatic (which I will concede that sometimes they are), they are in fact in response to a real danger due to a suppressed immune system. Most people are unaware that Crohn’s is treated with chemo meds. Enough said now, right? But, friends, a suppressed immune systems is not a license to be rude.
As I stood in the crowded elevator today, my suite mate’s words played in my mind like a loud drum. Only today the sneeze was replaced with a cough…and I did not react the same way. Now please understand, I have no intention on high fiving people, shaking random hands, offering tissues to sneezing strangers, or freely touching door nobs. But, fast forward 12 years from the initial incident…I have grown. I now only sparingly give the death stare…and see such situations as “teachable moments”. So, today I turned to the cougher and said “when you spew your phlegm into tight spaces without covering your mouth, it is irresponsible and potentially dangers for the other people in that space. My suppressed immune system and I would greatly appreciate you immediately correcting that behavior by covering your mouth for the remainder of this elevator ride.” See friends, progress!