(Note: most of this was written in 2020.)
When I’m at college most of the year, I am sometimes…picky…about germs. I open doors with my elbows, sanitize anything that falls on the floor, and rewash my arm if it touches the wall of the shower.
I’m also very sensitive to sensations on my skin or slight movements in the distance. When a piece of hair falls on my skin, I immediately brush it off. When the wind blows the leaves and the shadow shifts slightly, I notice it out of the corner of my eye and quickly turn to look.
At college, these behaviors aren’t really useful. They don’t serve any functions, and they end up making me stressed out about things that aren’t worth stressing over. I don’t enjoy jumping and screaming when I see someone’s shoes turn the corner ahead of me (yes, this happened). At times I am overwhelmed by all the potential germs and feel paralyzed because everything I touch is unclean and there’s no way to get away from it all. In those circumstances, my reactions are not adaptive. They are harming me.
This is how I saw it for a long time. My friends know that I’m “weird about germs.” At school, I used my DBT skills, checked the facts, saw that there was no real danger, and tried opposite action or distress tolerance skills to reduce my anxiety.
But when I came home this summer, I saw for the first time how my reactions were justified in the environment I grew up in. Like I said, I’m super sensitive to things on my skin. I was outside chasing one of our chickens back into the coop — which was a stressful experience, because hawks can easily grab and kill them when they’re out of the coop, and I also felt like I was scaring this poor chicken and traumatizing her, but there was nothing I could do about that because I couldn’t, like, talk to her, and I had to get her back to the coop so a hawk wouldn’t get her.
Anyway, I was in long grass, and I felt a very slight sensation on my leg, like something crawling up it. I’ve been trying to ignore things like that because it makes me so anxious and makes me feel like I need to check everything a million times to make sure nothing’s there, even in the middle of the night, when it’s really okay. So I kinda tried to ignore it, but failed, and looked down at my leg.
Lo and behold, it was a tiny deer tick crawling up my leg! It was so small and light that I doubt I would have noticed it if I hadn’t been so sensitive. And ticks are dangerous: many carry Lyme disease, which I have been treated for three times, and which everyone in my family has had at some point. So, I was responding to a real and significant threat. My sensitivity to things on my skin was out of place at college, but it was so justified at home.
This is a clear example to me, but it can apply to a lot of things, especially trauma. Different behaviors are helpful in different environments. This makes me have more understanding and compassion for my habits.
Another example [written 2022] is poison ivy vs. germs. As described above, I tend to be picky about germs and very conscious of which things have been contaminated. I’m aware that x is dirty, and x touched y last week, and y touched z, so now I want to wash my hands after touching z…
This fear and behavior isn’t justified much with most bacteria and viruses. Many bacteria and viruses die when they are on a surface for just a few hours. And pretty much all of them are dead after a couple months.
However, I realized recently that my anti-contamination habits don’t come from experience with germs: they come from my experience with poison ivy! Unlike germs, the harmful part of poison ivy isn’t living. It is the oil, which is made up of proteins. These proteins take two years or more to degrade!
So, a jacket that fell into poison ivy three months ago likely still has the poison ivy oils on it and will give me a bad rash. This happened to me in 6th grade. I got a bad rash on my face after touching my jacket that fell in poison ivy months earlier.
I’ve also gotten poison ivy from touching random sticks and leaves on the forest floor that touched poison ivy at some point, even though I didn’t see poison ivy leaves nearby. That’s because those innocent sticks and leaves did touch poison ivy and get the oils on them, which did not degrade, and gave me poison ivy.
I’ve also gotten poison ivy from my sneakers several times. I often walk though poison ivy in my sneakers, and the oil sticks around for a while. A habit I’ve developed to deal with this is that I Purell or wash my hands every time I put on my shoes. Last week, I got tired of doing this, and now I have poison ivy on my leg where I touched it with my poison-ivy-y hands. There’s the consequence and the real danger that makes my habits useful in this environment.
Though these habits aren’t as necessary for germs (a notebook I dropped on a dirty floor doesn’t have to go untouched for months), they are incredibly useful in preventing me from getting poison ivy. Again, my behavior is right for a specific environment. As I remember someone on 7 Cups of Tea saying once, “I make sense in the context of my story.”