“Take your shoes off,” I remind my mother. “Drop your keys; I’ll clean them.” “Wash your hands and get changed. Wait, no—take off your street clothes first, then wash your hands. But don’t touch anything else.” She comes inside. I cringe as she sets her sunglasses down on the kitchen counter, making a mental note to sanitize them when she isn’t looking, and give the counter a scrub too, of course. I follow her to her bedroom, watching her undress, confirming that her shorts and t-shirt make it into the laundry bag.
Will it be enough? Is it too much?
I have Chronic Lyme Disease, also known as Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome. For the last five years, my life has revolved around managing my symptoms, finding the correct diagnosis, and searching for an effective treatment for this increasingly puzzling, under-researched illness. After many years and countless useless treatments, Lyme has wreaked havoc all over my body and my immune system.
Every day I wake up exhausted and foggy. I have muscle and joint pain, nerve damage, dry eyes, headaches, heartburn, and insomnia. And as a result of all of this, anxiety.
Anxiety and pandemics are not a good combination. Some days I wish I would just catch the virus already—let whatever will happen, happen, and then if I end up okay, I won’t have to worry about it anymore. I am tired of worrying.
At home, I feel safe. But my bubble is not impermeable. We get groceries delivered by kind neighbors and volunteers from delivery organizations that cater to the immunocompromised, and suddenly the threat is inside. I suit up—gloves, mask, container of Clorox wipes, and begin the sanitizing process. “I got it,” I tell my mother, and she thanks me for taking on such a tedious task. But really, what I mean is, “I don’t trust you to be thorough enough—I need to do this myself so I can make sure.” And so I begin cleaning, starting with the floor, which I mop with bleach before setting the groceries down. The chemicals make my head spin. Then it’s on to wiping each surface of the milk carton, every crevice of the bread bag, stacking all the loose produce on a towel to clean later, with hydrogen peroxide. When I’ve finished, I am sweating.
Allow me to introduce you to The Chair. It has become a purgatory for potentially contaminated items. Whenever we return from a walk or retrieving the mail or sitting on the stoop, whatever has been exposed to Outside goes there. A book, a backpack, an Amazon package. They sit and wait out their CDC-assigned sentence—four hours, two days, nine days—depending on their material. But of course, I insist on longer. Because, well, we just can’t be sure.
Once the items in question have been deposited in their rightful place, we wash our hands. I sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as slowly as possible. But sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough—what about my wrists? And so sometimes, I sing again, inhaling the calming scent of Mrs. Meyers basil soap, seeping through my mask. Finally, I turn the water off with my elbow, wipe the faucet with an alcohol swab, and remove my mask, very carefully, and hang it on a hook by the front door. I wipe the doorknob and the light switch, then sanitize my hands with Purell—just in case any particularly willful germs had been lurking on the mask’s straps, or clinging to the dry side of the alcohol swab.
“You’re driving me crazy,” my mother says, after a walk around the neighborhood. I’ve just yelled at her for touching her insufficiently sanitized phone after washing her hands.
I know, I think. I’m driving me crazy too.
“Why can’t you trust that it’s clean?”
I want to trust—that would make everything so much easier. But my anxiety is not a switch I can simply turn off. And it isn’t unfounded, either. I have spent almost a quarter of my life fighting to regain the control over my body that Lyme Disease has taken from me. Now I am battling not only the invaders inside of me, but also the threat outside my door, and my only defense is the jumble of cleaning products in my kitchen cabinet. But unlike my Lyme treatments thus far, these chemical concoctions are real, foolproof germ-busters. If I use them enough, they will work.
I look at my mother. “I know it’s irrational,” I tell her. “But please—can you just humor me?”
She sighs, nods, and gives me a hug. She wore that shirt outside, my brain shouts. But I hug her back, gingerly, before changing my own clothes and lathering my hands with extra Mrs. Meyers.
Then my mother places her phone on The Chair and goes to rewash her hands. And I pull a fresh Clorox wipe out of its container by the door, feeling myself relax as I carefully coat each doorknob, light switch, and cell phone in the sharp lemony solvent.
Arielle Silver-Willner is a Brooklyn-born emerging writer and Editorial Assistant at Lilith Magazine.