How my journey as a germaphobe prepared me for the 'new normal' of life during a pandemic

Stephan Petar
·6-min read

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Stephan Petar's germaphobia prepared him for the "new normal" of life during a pandemic.
Stephan Petar's germaphobia prepared him for the "new normal" of life during a pandemic.

In 2009, I avoided the Freshman 15, was able to legally drink, bought a lottery ticket and finally saw Britney Spears in concert. It seemed as though my last year as a teenager was going to be successful, even with the World Health Organization declaring H1N1 a pandemic.

Everything changed when I learned that my sister had contracted the H1N1 virus. I can still recall my parents telling me the news as soon as I got home, but the next thing I remember was being on a bus with a duffel bag and tears I couldn’t wipe from my face because I thought my hands were contaminated. That’s when my germaphobia began.

Life is like a roller-coaster

Germaphobia is a fear of germs that most people view as unreasonable or excessive. Like most fears, there are common emotional and psychological symptoms, but unique behavioural ones. Unlike most phobias, germaphobes face their fear every day because they don’t have a choice. The spectrum is difficult to define as the fear manifests differently for everyone. I’ve been fortunate that my germaphobia has been relatively stable and in the low to mid-spectrum.

Prior to COVID-19, Stephan Petar had been washing his hands until they bled due to germaphobia. Image via Getty Images.
Prior to COVID-19, Stephan Petar had been washing his hands until they bled due to germaphobia. Image via Getty Images.

Still, I wash my hands until they are so dry they bleed, carry sanitizer in every pocket and bag I own and avoid opening doors with my bare hands. I even avoid food I can’t eat with a utensil and if I have to use my hands I eat some of it and hide the part I touched in my pocket to avoid embarrassment. There are other habits I don’t even notice anymore because they’re so automatic.

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When asked to describe my germaphobia, I like to compare it to a wooden roller-coaster. Typically, I’m on a flat track where at points it becomes shaky, but I continue to remain calm. When the track ascends, it’s usually due to a specific moment and I begin to increase hand-washing among other habits. When we reach the top and are about to descend, there’s usually a small dip before things eventually level off.

There have been a few instances where I’ve felt like I was plummeting. For 11 years, I was mostly on a steady track, but when 2020 happened that wooden roller-coaster became unsound.

The not so roaring 20s

When we entered 2020, I expected a world filled with glamour and parties - like in “The Great Gatsby.” When the first presumptive case of COVID-19 was announced, I felt OK knowing it wasn’t community transmitted. But as more people starting referring to the virus as a pandemic, I could feel my fear level started to rise.

When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, it felt like the roller-coaster train I was riding in was teetering at the top of a hill. As number of cases grew and the world entered lockdown, I started to see every surface in my home as an enemy. That’s when I knew I had officially derailed.

Image via Getty Images.
Image via Getty Images.

This unknown virus meant my tricks to avoid germs were likely useless, so I spent most days in bed hoping this was just a nightmare I would eventually wake up from. My external behavioural symptoms began manifesting at home; at one point I picked out clothes I could dispose of in case I wore them out and they became “too contaminated.” My parents and friends feared isolation was heightening my issues and intervened by helping me re-establish a routine, giving me projects to help distract me like tuning up bikes, sending virtual yoga class suggestions and encouraging more bike excursions as it got warmer.

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While I was starting to ease personal restrictions, I still refused to go anywhere publicly indoors until Toronto entered stage two.

A whole new world?

On June 26, I posted an Instagram Story of me running my fingers through my overgrown hair, followed by another Story showing my newly cut hair with my barber tagged. On June 27, I posted a #foodporn image from a restaurant patio. These were the first few days of stage two and on both occasions my phone was flooded with messages from friends who were in shock, asking if I posted a #latergram. I received messages from complete strangers asking for guidance on how to navigate their re-entrance into society and in some cases, I consoled friends who had helped me navigate my lowest moments and who were now developing their own fear.

So, what’s different? Aspects of this “new normal,” have been my normal for 11 years. Sanitizer everywhere, hyper-cleaning of surfaces and social distancing have been part of my daily routine for more than a decade. But now I’ve been introduced to contact tracing and mask wearing.

Image via Getty Images.
Image via Getty Images.

This year I was able to open a door with my bare hands because I knew sanitizer would greet me on the other side. Stricter cleaning requirements of bars, restaurants and transit along with stores cleaning items previously touched is something I wish happened earlier. Don’t get me wrong, I still shower when I get home and avoid touching surfaces if possible, but those are automatic habits I’ve developed that I can’t break.

Still, people have called me selfish for supporting these new restrictions and remind me that this “ideal world” of mine, adds measures and costs that can cripple a small business and lead to increased prices. Some have even argued that these extra measures could lull people into a false sense of security - which in turn could cause the public to let their guard down and potentially contract the virus. I could be mistaken for one of those people, but I’ve never said I feel secure - I feel comfortable.

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The future is uncertain and as cases continue to grow, I can feel that roller-coaster track shift and shake again. Will I revert back to where I was before or will I continue to be comfortable externally as the case count grows?

Again, germaphobia manifests itself differently based on our experiences. Who knows what I will experience in the upcoming months and how my journey will play out. For now, when I walk out my door I know we’re all in a fight to keep our city germ free and that’s all I’ve ever wanted.

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