Washing My Hands of My Germophobia

Two was never the number that scared me.  Two babies, big deal.  I could handle the kids.  It was the number eight, on its side, that petrified me.  Infinity, the approximate number of pulsing, vacillating microorganisms that would come prepackaged with my bundles of joy.  From the moment my doctor said, “It’s twins,” I knew that a lifetime of running scared from the Monera and Protista kingdoms would have to end.

I hadn’t always been a germophobe — only since the day I learned germs existed.  I was 6 years old, and a girl from down the block was refusing to share her lollipop with me.

The way she explained it, germs were tiny creatures that lived on candy, and if you touched someone else’s, you would die.

It seemed a pretty elaborate story just to get out of sharing a Blow Pop.  Then again, there was an old bearded dude who could fly around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, so what did I know?  That night, no less an authority than my Dad corroborated the facts.  Germs were real, they were invisible and they weren’t just on lollipops.  They were everywhere.

“Just wash your hands,” he assured me.  “You’ll be fine.”

And so I did.  I washed my hands like a surgeon, over and over, whenever I could get to a sink.  On an average day, I was so antiseptic I could’ve tongue-kissed the boy in the bubble without putting him at risk.  I never would have, of course.  Other people were just freight cars full of my microscopic nemeses, to be avoided at all costs.  I dodged my Grandma’s kisses.  I stood outside doors waiting for someone else to open them rather than touch a naked knob myself.  I spent an entire school year avoiding the teacher who liked to reward his students with high fives.  There was no way he disinfected his palms to my satisfaction.

Inevitably, my compulsion took its toll.  In winter, the backs of my hands were worn so thin from constant scrubbing that they would crack and bleed.  Some nights, the pain would be so intense that I would have nightmares about picking shards of glass from my skin, and that’s when I was lucky enough to fall asleep at all.  As a 9-year-old boy, I had the hands of a 90-year-old great-grandma – brittle, weathered and meek.  I lived in fear that one day I’d look down at my fingers and see bone peeking through.

It took years to rein in my phobia to manageable levels.  By my 20s, I could get away with one thorough scouring per bathroom visit.  I could accept pecks on the cheek from close relatives, but afterward, a voice in the back of my head would quietly insist, “Get to a Purell bottle, ASAP.”

And then… fatherhood.  I could never have imagined all the innovative ways two zero-year-olds could concoct for spreading bacteria.  They ate food out of each other’s mouths, pressed their faces into dirty diapers that were left out a second too long, rolled around in puddles of commingled spit up if I wasn’t fast enough to dab at it with a burp cloth.  How were these little humans related to me?  They were filth-ophiles.  When my son would cry, his sister would offer him the pacifier right out of her mouth to calm him down.  I couldn’t imagine discouraging a gesture that was so pure and beautiful, albeit stomach-churning.

I realized quickly that my love for my kids was greater than my fear of germs, so much so that I left my job so I could stay home and raise them full-time.  But making peace with my phobia wasn’t enough.  I had to protect my offspring from it, to avoid passing my crippling anxiety on to these pure little mess-makers who were so naïve about the toxic empire only microscopes could see.  I had to break the curse.

My twins are two years old now, and the worst is behind us… or so I thought.  We have an indoor playroom that we frequent.  It always seemed relatively hygienic as those places go, with hand foam dispensers located throughout the building and toys that get scrubbed down at acceptable intervals.  One day a few weeks ago, a familiar smell invaded the room, and the other parents and I began our silent ritual, a game of “Whose Kid Pooped?”

“Bennett, do you need a diaper change?” I asked.

Bennett barked, “No!” and scurried away guiltily.

That sealed it.  I was today’s lucky winner.

The women’s room at this facility, as at most places that cater to new moms, is a spa-like wonderland.  Because the door is usually left ajar, I can see how clean and inviting it is, with posh seats for breastfeeding and plenty of space in the stalls.  I’d never seen their men’s room, so I had to ask for directions.  I was pointed down a back hallway, past the employee break room, to a corridor bracketed by chipped linoleum at the bottom and browned ceiling tiles on top.  With one kid holding each hand, I kicked a crooked door open with my foot.

This was a bathroom that would’ve frightened me even without the kids.  In the far corners of the room were a toilet, urinal and sink.  The fourth corner was a broken-down changing table that appeared to have been rescued from the curb outside Goodwill.  Something was dripping from the ceiling and puddling over a clogged drainage gate directly in the middle of it all.

This was clearly a converted mop closet, perhaps installed after some other dad complained or some local ordinance was enacted.  “You want a men’s room?  Here’s your men’s room!”  For the germ-fearing like me, it was something out of a Wes Craven movie, with only one dim flickering light bulb between me and total darkness.  But to my kids, it was just another playroom, filled with exciting new toys.  As I fumbled with my diaper bag, they explored.  Sutton dipped her hands in the urinal, while Bennett splashed in the murky reservoir of water on the floor, cackling with glee.

“No!” I shouted.  “Don’t touch anything!”  I grabbed them both and, as my fatherly duties often require, I became PlasticMan.  I lifted Bennett onto the changing table with one arm and pinned Sutton to the wall with my leg.  As I wiped Bennett’s grubby tush, I held him in place with my chin, like a contorted human restraining device.  Was this the right way to handle this?  What message was I sending?

“Wanna get out!” Sutton shouted as she squirmed against me.  I had just enough strength to hold her back.  “Wanna get OUT!!!”

Unable to move his arms around my head, Bennett began playing with his legs instead.  He lifted one up impossibly close to his face as only a kid his age can do.  That’s when I realized he wasn’t just touching his shoe.  He was licking it.  The soles were still wet from the drain water, and he was treating it like apple juice, savoring every drop.  Nauseous, I let my guard down, and Sutton broke free.  She raced for the toilet, as if she might dive in head first.

I didn’t know who to start with.  Sutton frolicked in the toilet like it was a backyard bird bath, and Bennett managed to pull his shoe off and shove it halfway down his throat.

“Stop it!” I shouted, finally.  “Stop!  Everybody stay still!  Right now!”  And as though they sensed there were deeper forces at work, my kids did something very unusual.  They listened to me.

Sutton stepped back from the toilet and returned to my side.  Bennett handed me back his shoe so I could refasten it.  I finished changing his diaper, and I took a deep breath.  I was back in control.  They both looked up at me, quietly awaiting instructions.

“Come on, guys,” I said, as calmly as possible.  “Let’s wash our hands.”