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My Germaphobia Ruins My Family’s Vacations

It’s 2 a.m. I’m wide awake, and I’m freezing. If I’d known we were going to have to stay in a hotel, I would have done what I always do before a hotel stay: Pack sweatpants and extra socks to make up for the comforter that I throw to the floor the moment I walk into a hotel room.

Then again, if I’d known we were going to have to stay in a hotel, I probably would have figured out a way to get out of it.

Like most germaphobes, hotel rooms fill me with the sort of terror I otherwise conserve for watching a Wes Craven flick in a quiet lake house on a back road on Friday the 13th. It’s not just the comforter (which rumor has it is rarely changed out by cleaning staff). It’s everything. Every single spot in that “home away from home” for a night (or more) is infested with germs, and it’s all I can think about when I’m there.

Germs are everywhere from the remote control to the bathroom counter, from the light switch to the carpet traversed by thousands of strangers. This isn’t my overactive imagination talking. Scientists have headed into the places where vacationers bunk for days on end and found them to be a breeding ground for everything disgusting you can imagine. One study by researchers at the University of Houston found that that bacteria levels in hotel rooms were between 2 to 10 times higher than the levels accepted in hospitals.

Ten times the bacteria you will find in a place where people go to have their bacteria treated… and I’m supposed to just lay down and to go sleep? I have battled depression and anxiety — with the help of medication — since I was a teenager, and I want to pretend this doesn’t bother me. I’ve grown! I’m doing better! But the truth is, hotel germs have turned my dream vacations into a living nightmare.

I take vacations when I have to, but it’s not because I want to.

I do want to see cool places and show the world to my daughter. I do want to get away from my small town and the day-to-day of work and raising a child and paying bills. But just thinking about what could be growing beneath my feet while I walk to the bathroom for a late night pee makes me want to jump in a hot shower and start scrubbing. I’d rather spend a stay-cation in the place where I know my enemy than traveling the world, only to come home with the creepy crud.

The irony is I’m not manic about cleanliness at home. I like things to be fairly clean, but I have pets, and I recognize that there will be tumbleweeds of fur that need to be sucked by by the vacuum, and mud tracked in by dirty paws. At-home dirt isn’t the same as mystery dirt in a mind that even I can admit is contradictory.

I’m a germaphobe

If that sounds strange, perhaps it’s because germaphobia is not an exact science. In fact, it’s not even a technical diagnosis, according to Dr. Anne Gilbert, psychiatrist and director of the Behavioral Health Care Center at Indiana University Health.

Gilbert says people who express a germ fear may be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder or anxiety, but she tells First for Women “germaphobia,” itself is not a clinical diagnosis. And simply expressing some consternation over the ick that is in a hotel room is not necessarily a cause for alarm.

The psychiatrist admits even she wears socks in every hotel room because of germy carpets. If you’re squicked by squirmy things that may be hiding in your vacation spot, you may be OK. It’s only if the fear of germs is affecting your life enough to change your behaviors that Gilbert says you may have a problem.

I confess: I’m there. Hotel room germs make vacations uncomfortable, even untenable at times. The unplanned stay that left me shivering — our puppy ended up needing emergency surgery at an animal hospital hours from home — was a necessary evil, but it cost me a night’s sleep and a stomach ache that wouldn’t go away for days.

I was stressed about our puppy, sure (she’s OK, by the way), but it wasn’t until I took a long, hot shower in our own bathroom — which I clean — that I started to feel like me again.

Gilbert has good news if you struggle with germy hotel rooms. Her tips?

Get educated. While hotel rooms are germ laden (see? I’m onto something), she says the germs are not that potent. The old “you have to eat a pound of dirt before you die” adage may not be technically true, but it applies here. Some germs are just part of life.

Add creature comforts. Throw on socks. Bring your own pillows. These may be avoidance measures, but they’re also ways to make a hotel room more homey, and thus less of a fear factory.

Clean up. Pack some Clorox wipes for that bathroom counter. Throw your own towel down under your toiletries. If it makes you feel safer, Gilbert says there’s nothing wrong with playing housekeeper in a hotel room.

Or, if you want to play by the rules of one who’s been there: Pack extra socks for the walk on the carpet, sweats for a night spent with no comforter and flip flops for a step into an unfamiliar shower. And if you’d rather skip out on that vacation, well, I can recommend some two-hour road trips.

This essay was written by Jeanne Sager.

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