My whole life, or at least as long as I can remember, I have always had a thing about dirt. Dirt, dirt, dirt – it was always on my mind. Dirt – and contamination in general – has been my constant pre-occupation for years. Everywhere I looked I saw dirt; I couldn’t get away from it so I just had to get better at managing it, coping with it, controlling it, keeping it contained.
Touching people I particularly disliked – even when people looked clean (which very often they didn’t) I knew that their skin was invisibly crawling with microbes. A million million microbes per person, give or take a few billion. According to the internet, the human body contains ten times as many bacterial cells as it does human cells. That means that everyone you see, they’re less than ten percent human, and more than ninety per cent bacteria. Fact. Bet that changes the way you look at the next person you see. You shouldn’t go by appearances…
Or maybe it won’t change anything for you. I don’t know. It sure as hell made me think twice before shaking hands with someone though. Or getting up close to them and letting them breathe on me.
I’m not trying to say that my attitude was rational though – I know that it wasn’t. I know that now. My particular horror wasn’t about shaking hands or sitting on public toilets but the seats on trains. I commute to work on a train and so I have to spend on average one and a half hours in a crowded compartment sitting on a seat that literally tens of thousands of people have sat on before me. No one likes commuting on the rotten over-crowded Southeastern Railways network but for me this was an ordeal very nearly beyond bearing.
Train seats might look clean enough but what worried me was the thought that absolutely anybody could have sat on the seat I was sitting on, only a few minutes before me. There are no exclusion criteria – anyone can board a train, if they have the money for a ticket.
I know it probably comes across that I don’t like people, that I look at them in a bad way. That I’ve got a bad attitude. I can see that this is true now, but at the time – when I was in the thick of my phobia – I was too preoccupied with my own safety to ever really think about it. I just felt incredibly insecure and this perception of vulnerability expressed itself in terms of a particularly vivid perception of risk wherever I went. The risk of contamination. The risk of being infected with the horror I knew to be out there…
The world – to me – was a seething mass of bacteria. The little bastards were everywhere – waiting for their chance to get through my defences. My life was one big long nightmare of postponing the inevitable, of putting off the doom that I could feel out there waiting for me. The only question for me was when it would happen. When I would succumb to the ever-present microbial menace and become infested.
I have the insight now to see that it wasn’t just the case that I was afraid of catching a cold or the flu or herpes or crabs or impetigo or head-lice or scabies or whatever it was but the concept of disease in general that freaked me out. Disease for me represented something that was absolutely unacceptable – the violation of my person.
Violation! Something alive inside me that wasn’t me. Something germy, something fundamentally unclean, something unspeakable foul and filthy that would get inside me and take me over in the most frightening possible way, turning me into an unholy breeding ground for untold billions of trillions of teeming little bugs. The sheer horror and repulsion of that thought went beyond anything I can rationally explain. Or at least it used to, before something happened that changed everything…
What happened was that I got sick. My defences finally failed me and I came down with a particularly nasty dose of the flu. This was no ordinary dose but something extraordinary that laid me up for weeks, bleary-eyed, pain-filled and suffused with mucus. I think it was the so-called ‘Turkey Flu’ that the media were going on about so much at the time, back in the winter of 2012. Only I got it worse than most. To start off with I had the usual high temperature and the aches and pains, my bones feeling as if a legion of plague-bearing sewer rats were gnawing away on them in shifts all day and night. I could visualize the demonic little bastards with their filthy scabby tails and long yellow teeth. And then after a few days the fever broke and I immediately succumbed to a major chest-infection, hawking and coughing and wheezing non-stop for weeks, bringing up bucket-loads of the vilest-looking greeny-brown phlegm I have ever seen.
And following that – to add insult to injury – I came down with a hideous mass of disfiguring cold sores, along with an appallingly severe outbreak of shingles, my immune system evidently shot to pieces by the onslaught it had suffered. As the shingles finally abated after a few weeks of torment I then developed what my GP told me was Post-herpetic neuralgia (or PHN), which was worse again. The suffering and general feeling of degradation I was undergoing was unbelievable. It pushed me beyond the limits of what I was able to endure – I become depressed, I became peculiar, I became morbidly afraid of leaving the house. I developed intricately meaningless obsessive rituals.
And then came the catharsis, the final break-down. Something inside me snapped and one day I just started screaming. I screamed and I screamed and I screamed. It was anger more than anything else – pure anger. Rage that I had had to be humiliated and degraded in this way. After I had exhausted myself (and pretty well smashed my flat up into the bargain) I fell into a deep, dark place inside myself. A very dark place – darker than anywhere I have ever been in my whole life.
I couldn’t bear myself, I couldn’t bear what I had become – a repository for every type of filth and pestilence there was. A dwelling place for unclean diseases. But on the other hand I didn’t have it in me to fight against it any more, so I guess I just give up in some very fundamental way.
That’s when I had the life-changing flash of insight. All my life I have loathed and hated dirt and germs and disease, all my life I have feared and despised bugs of every sort, particularly the microbial ones.
But now I know why – it was because I was in denial of my own true nature. The contamination I feared was me. In that moment of truth I realized that the reason I hated bugs so much was because I was one – I’m not a person at all. I just thought I was. I was clinging to the illusion that I was. Being human and being afraid of germs was just an act I was putting on because I didn’t have the courage to own up to the truth – what I was fighting against had already happened. I might look like a regular human being to you but I’m not – I’m actually a composite microbial entity, a symbiotic life-form made up of trillions of microscopic bacteria. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m a bug. No human cells at all. Nothing human about me at all. I can see it so clearly now.
These days I’m a hell of lot happier. Now that I’ve ‘come out’ I’m a hell of a lot more chilled and accepting about things, I can tell you! I’m not fighting against the tide of infection and disease-causation any more. I’ve learned to accept it. I’m no longer in denial. I’ve learned to love illnesses, to embrace parasites, to delight in diseases. I’ve realized that all those viruses and bacteria and parasites and what have you that I used to be so afraid of are all my friends, They are my brethren, my kin. They are the kin who live under my skin. And on it too. We’re all one big happy family. A close-knit community…