For a very long time I have been preoccupied with germs and illness. I can’t remember when this fear began, but I can remember having this fear as a young child. I was at a birthday party, aged around 5 or 6, and a little child had a bad cold. This child put his snot infested hand into a pile of biscuits that my brother proceeded to eat from. Afterwards, my mum said she was worried my brother would get ill. Sure enough, my brother came down with a bad cold that lasted a long time, and my mum left me in no doubt that he caught it from the boy at the party.
Other illness fear related memories include being on holiday, age 7 or so, in Stratford Upon Avon one summer, and having lunch at a pub in nearby Wellford. My cousin was ill with a tummy bug, and I was very worried that I had accidentally sipped some squash from her glass (I had not, but my mind made me think I had). All day I was silently obsessing about this, but I told no one. As a child, I did not know about OCD, and neither did I question my fears.
On another occasion, we were visiting my second cousins, also in Wellford, and they had bad coughs. My Great Aunty Susan said she hoped my brother and I would not catch the illness, and I spent all evening worrying about it.
I was a very literal child and so I readily took to heart any safety instruction or remarks about illness. However, strangely for someone so obsessed with disease, I rarely got ill as a child. I have always had a really good immune system, and I quickly recovered from any colds or sickness bugs I caught. I’ve never taken antibiotics in my life, never had flu, and childhood illnesses like chickenpox were benign affairs that were over very quickly. Indeed, chickenpox, which I caught age 6, only covered one hand and arm and the back of my neck, whereas my brother, who came down with it 2 weeks later, got it so bad that my parents initially thought he had measles!. As a teenager I could go a long time without catching any illness. My dad got the flu, twice, but I managed to avoid catching the disease, despite being in very close proximity to him (my OCD was not quite as bad at that age).
However, a few times I caught illnesses that were more severe, and I think the infrequency of them, combined with the utter lack of control, have contributed to my fear of illness. The most memorable illness I got was supposedly salmonella when I was 9 years old. I say supposedly because it might not have been salmonella, but this was what my mum assumed it to be. I contracted the illness after eating an egg that my mum thought was ”gone off”, while on holiday in the Isle of Wight, one February. I was ill for 5 days, and was sick and bed bound. I can remember moaning, and feeling really poorly. The vomiting took me completely by surprise, and I think it’s the sudden, uncontrollable nature of being sick that scares me the most, as when I’m actually being sick or immediately after the event, I feel a lot better. Unfortunately, this experience, combined with a school food tech lecture about hygiene, stopped me eating eggs for years.
I also recall catching a stomach bug from a girl at a dance class, age 18. What was bad about this experience was that I knew how I had caught it, and this meant that I became more aware of the norovirus and protecting myself from catching it again. Even though I was only sick three times, and recovered over one night (others had the illness far worse than me, thanks to my good immune system), this did not stop my OCD.
On another occasion, I suddenly vomited at school, and this took me by complete surprise. I had felt unwell, but did not think I would be sick. Indeed, I’m not good at deciphering my inner feelings, and so it’s hard for me to know if what I’m feeling is hunger, tiredness or true illness. I suspect that this problem, combined with my fear of change and fear of the unknown, has contributed to my fear of illness. Also, hearing adults express fear over illness, made me think illness was a very bad thing, and that they would not want me to be ill, that I was doing something almost punishable by being ill. This feeling was not helped when, on a few times, I was sick on the carpet, because I did not know I was going to be sick. The feeling of having done wrong then sinks in, which makes being ill even worse than it might otherwise be. Also, when I’m ill, I get attention from others, which I don’t like. They worry and express concern, which makes me worry even more. My mum was a very nervous person, and I think I picked up this fear because my mind is so permeable.
With regard to coughs, I am scared of catching them because they make me feel out of control. This fear has got worse as I’ve grown older. Again, people express concern when you cough, like the time I was sent home from primary school because I was coughing too much. These days, I also worry about waking people up, and this makes me feel bad because I now have enough empathy to worry about some of the impact I might have on other people.
I also have health anxiety, and this is exacerbated when I’m unwell. One of my fears centers around breathing. My dad is an asthmatic, and since late childhood I’ve worried that I might develop asthma too. I’m now 31 and asthma free, but I still worry, because I know it’s possible to develop it at any age. Whenever I feel out of breath, I worry, which makes it worse and I begin to panic. When I’m ill with a cough, I feel even more out of control, and worry that I will stop breathing.
I’m also not good at dealing with the pain of illness, and this has got worse with age. Even a slight sore throat can stop me being able to get out or complete my usual routines. A lack of sleep can make me feel very unwell.
I live by my routines and interests. Illness can interfere with important plans. As I’ve grown older and become more aware of illness and germs, this is probably the main reason why I fear getting coughs and colds. My fear gets worse when I’m looking forward to something happening, for example an event. I need to protect myself from disease so that I don’t get ill and thereby miss the occasion. This means I go out less, only eat ”safe” foods, and generally worry more about getting enough sleep and not ”contaminating” myself. When I was at secondary school and I had less control around avoidance, I would hold my breathe if someone was ill in class. This really affected my concentration, gave me headaches, and later contributed to my health anxiety; I feared that I had damaged my lungs or heart. In my early 20s I had repeated tests at the doctors because of aches in my chest area, which made me really worried that I had heart disease, but I was told that this was anxiety. When the tests came back clear, and after some help in understanding the nature of anxiety, I began to get the aches far less often. These days I’m better at not catastrophising when I get an ache, and consequently they don’t bother me as much as they used to.
I do think my OCD and health anxiety is connected to my autism. I take information literally, do not like change and surprises, can’t deal with confusion and other people’s concerns, and want to do the right thing. All this makes me vulnerable to OCD, which gets worse under stress and general change. I have not always had OCD, as it developed in my early childhood and originally was only transient. It did not begin to take over my life or stop me doing activities until I was a teenager, when I became even more aware of the world and what can go wrong. OCD now seems such a part of my life that I expect it will always be there to some extent, but I am getting a bit better at managing it and reasoning with it. I am so used to being anxious that it has become ”my normal”.