Two weeks ago, when restaurants were still open, I watched a friend at lunch repeatedly spritz his hands with hand sanitizer. It seemed more compulsion than prudent protective measure. If he keeps this up for the duration of this pandemic, I thought, there’s a good chance the skin on his hands might not hold up.
In a market, I saw a man load 50 rolls of toilet paper into two carts, elbowing others away, as if his life depended on this act of hoarding.
In the nearly empty streets, I see newly experienced alarm on the faces of people who probably never washed their hands for more than 10 seconds in the past, who blithely lined up at hotel buffets or paid good money to subject themselves to the petri dish that is a cruise ship.
The rest of the world is deep into what I grew up with, the kind of fear I have been fighting to rid myself of for most of my life.
I am the daughter of a serious hypochondriac. Learning to dread illness was one of my earliest lessons, and strangely, I feel calmer now than the spritzers and hoarders. I have had a lifetime of practice at feeling terror and talking myself down, of sorting out the irrational from the reasonable.
My father’s relentless obsession with germs and contamination led him to create rituals to ward off danger. One that he imparted to my two older brothers and me pertained to the opening of cans.
In my father’s universe, botulism was not a rarity; it was a ubiquitous assassin inside every can of soup or tuna. We would gather round him in the kitchen as he prepared, washing his hands for far longer than the CDC-recommended 20 seconds. Taking a can of food in hand, he would vigorously wash it too, dry it with a paper towel that, now contaminated, he let drop to the floor. Slowly turning the can around, he would inspect it up close for dents. As he hooked the can opener, also washed, to the lid, we would lean in close, listening for the pfft that would prove it had been truly vacuum sealed, the magical sound that signified, to my father, that the contents were safe.
There was no logic in the can-opening ritual — botulism is an anaerobe that only survives in an airtight environment. Substantiating that the tomato soup was vacuum sealed provided no real safety from the bacterium, and my father knew this, intellectually, if not emotionally. After the pfft, he’d sigh in relief, but the relief was short-lived. There were so many dangers around us: contaminants in the air, germs in other people’s coughs or sneezes, our bodies’ cells that could be plotting sabotage at any moment.
As children, my brothers and I never had a headache that we didn’t imagine a brain tumor, a rapid pulse that didn’t augur a heart attack, a stomachache that did not suggest appendicitis.
This level of learned hypochondria does not just go away when you grow up. It is its own form of sickness. A slight sore throat or a touchy stomach will still require me to talk myself down from the worst-case scenario. Always suspecting some dire diagnosis, I am way too familiar with the inside of MRI machines. I actually find being swallowed up by them comforting.
If he were alive for COVID-19, my father would be saying, “See, I told you so.” Part of the legacy of hypochondria is an impaired ability to accurately assess risk. With that has come an intimate understanding of how hysteria impedes rational thought and systematic action. And yet in times like these, rationality and systematic action are imperative. We are all struggling with this now, as the president veers between sense and nonsense, and public health authorities sweep up after him.
Of course, there is much about the dangers to come that we can’t know, that even the experts, with their nicely graphed projections, can’t know. But we need to keep our wits and distinguish between the truly protective measures we must take, for ourselves and others, and the empty but calming rituals like my father’s, that do not serve us or our neighbors.
Will 50 rolls of toilet paper really make us safer than 12 today? Will having 30 pounds of ground beef in the freezer ensure survival? Is it worth contributing to the panic that the empty meat cases in supermarkets create for everyone else?
Normal life has been temporarily suspended. So be it. But we’re going to have to find a way to survive without relentless panic, without irrationality, because fear is a contagion that can make us sick, too.
Deborah A. Lott is the author of the forthcoming memoir, “Don’t Go Crazy Without Me.” She teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles.