F (Is for) Phobias

They say glossophobia is the most common type of phobia there is. You’ve probably also heard that some people are even more scared of public speaking than of death.

Mercifully, glossophobia is not much of an issue for me. Frankly (again, mercifully), I’m not even much of a shy person. That doesn’t mean I don’t have crippling fears, though …

In the summer of 1999, I was 23 years old and was on a trip to Egypt (a Master’s graduation gift from my parents) with a group of fellow twenty- and thirty-somethings. I have a distinct memory of, on numerous occasions, entering a public restroom stall with my bottle of water in my hand. Did I put it on the floor of the stall?, under my armpit?, or did I leave it out on the sinks? Not sure, but I do know that as soon as I was done in the bathroom, I’d grab my bottle and keep drinking out of it without batting an eye.

God I would never do that now, haven’t since long before Covid, and I often reference that memory, and other similar ones like it, as a reminder of a time when I was … freer. Not to linger on how I got here, but I think my severe germophobia started with pregnancy and post-partum depression and anxiety. A lot of things people barely notice or may describe as merely stressful send me into debilitating panic.

Just a few examples.

One time years ago, a fellow parent at preschool told me their kid had been throwing up. My kid hung out with their kid all the time: I waited until they couldn’t see me, and cried the entire drive home. When I’m at a place with a water dispenser for refillable bottles, I always, always wipe the rim of my bottle–which never touches the water spout directly–before and after refilling it, and I recoil in horror and judgment when I see how carelessly other people put their bottle rims right up to the thing. For years I’ve wiped down airplane and train seats, tray tables, windows, and seatbelt buckles as a matter of routine, plus all surfaces in hotel rooms or vacation rentals. I am hyper aware of the sounds of coughing on a plane or train; when a person sneezes, I look to see if they used their hands to cover their mouth, and then track those hands like I’m Sherlock freaking Holmes (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch). At birthday parties, when the person slicing and dishing out the cake would lick their fingers in between slices, I would force myself to look away, and it would take a lot to still let my kid eat a slice of that damn cake.

Because you see, parenting with this sort of paranoia is its own incessant, multi-layered angst. It sucks. Part of me has defended the compulsion as being precisely born out of a desire to keep my kid safe and well, but I know, I know it isn’t normal, and the last thing I want to do is pass down to him the same limitations this has brought me. To use a visual that’s familiar these days, it’s a lot like living life from behind plexiglass, where it’s impossible to really hear and be heard, to touch things and experience them fully. You feel constantly separate, constantly self-conscious, and constantly exhausted from the effort of trying to hide it.

The whole time, I can hear the well-meaning teasing of friends and relatives, the smug micro aggressions of those who pride themselves on living life fearlessly (and some are so confident in their fearlessness that they’ve also been railing against masks and the Covid vaccine this entire year), the taunts coming from inside my own head, calling me weak and all kinds of other bad stuff.

Before the start of 2020, I’d spent years in therapy working on reality-checking my anxiety, exploring the reasons for it, forgiving myself, and overcoming it all just enough to function. And believe me, many times it has been just enough. Being functional has been a series of small achievements and victories. Baby steps. Family trips over the years have been bigger achievements, but they haven’t been without countless nights lying awake in the grips of fear, and lots of small negotiations with myself and with my beloved, loving family.

Enter Covid. How does a person with pre-existing germophobia react to all that’s happened this year? I’ll tell you in another post. For now though, just please be gentle, with yourself and with others. Also, maybe think twice before you lick your fingers while serving people food? Oh, and you know what else? Nobody, not one person, is completely free of fear. So F that.

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  1. My, oh, my – I can relate to this. And last year, the smug feeling I had about all my little secret stashes of hand wipes and sanitizer wiped out a decade of shame about my germaphobia. Having my entire family stay in the house was something of a relief for me, I can’t lie. But my feeling that there is not enough care – in all its forms – was also affirmed and underscored in the last year. People ignore the boy who cries wolf, but they shame the girl.

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