Before I had a baby everything was perfect. Or at least, I tried to make it that way by controlling and monitoring every potential germ, disease, bacteria and virus that could enter my world. I kept a bottle of liquid sanitiser close by at all times; in my handbag, in the car, on my desk, in my coat pocket. I bought in bulk. I mastered the art of sneakily lathering up my hands and letting them dry while still in my pockets. I did this germ killing ritual at least 30 times a day. I had to disinfect myself after touching any surface that I hadn’t already cleaned myself.
All this started off pretty normally, I worked in a job which required me to occasionally have meetings in a hospital, and while there I was encouraged to regularly use hand sanitiser. I loved the feeling of being completely clean and associated it with feeling strong and healthy. It quickly became a touchstone for whenever I was anxious – disinfecting my hands instantly calmed me. It was like pressing a re-set button, and in that moment I could start again.
The constant focus on “germs” started to impact on my work. If someone at work was sick, the anxiety of catching something would often make me so stressed I would go home with a migraine. If there was a work morning tea, and I saw someone so much as breathe heavily on the food, I would make some kind of gluten free excuse and politely decline all cakes. If someone near me coughed or sneezed I would hold my breath to the point of passing out until I could make it to fresh air, a door, an open window.
I thought I was pretty good at hiding my germ phobia in my personal life, but when I started getting joke presents of bottles of Dettol for my birthday and for Christmas, I realised that I probably wasn’t fooling anyone. And I still got sick just as much as anyone else, if not more. It was starting to make me pretty miserable.
Fast forward to having a baby. At first the thought of letting her play with communal café toy collections, of taking her on public transport, of even letting people hold her and play with her filled me with such heart choking, numbing anxiety that I could barely manage a “No that’s fine, of course you can hold her” through gritted teeth. The germs. Just. Think. Of. The. Germs.
But there was a defining moment, when she was nearly two. We were on the train and she threw a tantrum. The kind of screaming tantrum that all mums dread in public. She didn’t want to sit on her seat, so she lay on the floor of the train, literally kicking and screaming. No bribes or whispered promises of watching Wiggles videos on my phone were working, so when I finally snapped and said “That’s it we’re getting off at the next stop” she looked me straight in the eye and LICKED THE FLOOR OF THE TRAIN as a protest.