I didn't step out of home even once in three months
What's it like for someone living with mysophobia to get through the Coronavirus pandemic? Horror-thriller writer K Hari Kumar recounts his experience
More than seven days have passed since I risked that flight from Chennai to Kochi. And though, still in quarantine at my family home in Thrissur, it feels like I am finally able to breathe. Our house is in the back of beyond; there are more trees swaying below the heavy rain clouds, than people. For a person like me, who lives with mysophobia [an extreme and irrational fear of contamination], this has been a blessing in disguise.
I have been on pins and needles since late December last year, when there were rumours of a contagion spreading in the Chinese city of Wuhan. By the second week of January, there were confirmed reports of an outbreak. People were dying like flies. I cannot quite explain how anxious that made me. It felt like I was finally living my worst nightmare. This fear, I was experiencing, was rooted in something unexplained that happened to me 10 years ago, as a 22-year-old. I was in my final year engineering then, and living in Gurgaon [now, Gurugram]. I remember snacking on a bhutta [roasted corn] on the roadside, and picking up an infection soon after which left me indisposed for months. It began with a shooting pain in my stomach, which quickly moved to my back, and head, due to which I lost consciousness on several occasions. During this time, I couldn't eat a morsel. I had become 15 kg lighter, and the sudden weight loss, had damaged my liver. The many doctors we reached out to, had put me on antibiotics, but never ended up diagnosing the condition. I was only able to recover eight months later, after switching to Ayurvedic treatment. That incident left me scarred. Even as I was beginning to put this behind me, another experience caught me unawares in May last year. I was newly married and had moved from Mumbai to Chennai. This was around the time of the Lok Sabha elections. I had gone to a supermarket to buy groceries, and, while paying at the counter, I recollect the cashier sneezing into my face. This was almost 10 months before the pandemic, and "masks" and "social distancing" were still not part of our everyday vocabulary. I came back home, forgetting all about it. But the very next day, I caught the chills. My fever shot up suddenly, and my throat started to hurt. This was accompanied by diarrhoea. Once again, my doctor couldn't diagnose what I had, and I was put on anti-malarial drugs, though I had tested negative for malaria.
After that I had developed a phobia for closed, crowded spaces. And, if I was caught in such a crowd, and someone happened to sneeze, my heart beat would start racing, and I'd break into a cold sweat.
Needless to say, all of this affected how I responded to the Coronavirus outbreak. I remember buying an N95 mask for myself and my wife on Makar Sankranti [January 14], long before the virus was even a known phenomenon among the Indian public. Somehow, I knew, it was only a matter of days, before we were going to be affected, too. When I was invited for a major literary festival in Bengaluru, a few weeks on, I refused to take the flight, because I was scared of picking up the infection, and travelled by train instead. I even turned down their offer to put me up in a hotel, and stayed at my brother's place. The entire family thought I was being stupid. On March 2, after a visit to Tirupati with the family, I finally decided I wasn't going to step out again. I ordered four PPE kits, a bunch of masks, sanitiser, and shopped for three months' worth of groceries. I withdrew emergency cash and kept it in my wallet. My wife, who had picked up a viral fever, was still going to work, but I convinced her to stay back home, too. So, technically the two of us had quarantined ourselves nearly two-and-a-half weeks before the national lockdown.
K Hari Kumar before taking his flight to Kochi from Chennai last week
The next three months were quite hard on me. I was so paranoid that I didn't step out a single day. I would check the infection statistics online, every hour. During the lockdown, my wife would go out to purchase basic vegetables from the vendor nearby. Since most of our cuisine consisted of sambar-rice, congee and dal khichdi, each purchase of veggies lasted for close to three weeks. We only drank warm or hot water. We didn't even attend to the doorbell. In case of an emergency, if the neighbours reached out, we'd keep the latch on, and talk from a distance. There was some contact one could not avoid, of course. I remember we ran out of gas in May, so when the delivery happened, I cleaned the outer surface of the cylinder with Dettol. The delivery boy didn't have a mask, so we gave him one of our unused masks.
The first time I left our home was at the end of May, and that too, because we had run out of supplies. By then, my anxieties had begun to quell. This was also because others were following social distancing measures, and were now wearing masks. Even then, I avoided using my card for transactions. If I did use it, I didn't touch it for the next 10 days. Cards had to undergo quarantine, too. But because the cases of COVID-19 were increasing by the day, I was desperate to leave Chennai. The only way to reach home quickly, was by flight. And, despite my reluctance, I decided to brave air travel. We had exhausted our PPE kits by then, and I had only one left, which I gave my wife to wear. Meanwhile, I dressed myself up in three layers, and wore two masks, a skull cap and hoodie, along with a shield. The two of us stuck out like a sore thumb. The plane was packed, and it was hard to follow distancing rules. While I was sweating throughout the journey, I knew this would end once I was home.
Though I write about ghosts, spirits and demons for a living, I am not scared of them. I am intrigued by speculations of death and afterlife. But the thought of germs repulses me.
Most events have a stimulus, says Mumbai-based counselling psychologist Malvika Fernandes. "There is a theory called social learning, by Albert Bandura, where he proves how all our phobias are learnt and our emotional reactions are closely linked with sounds, objects or experiences," adds Fernandes. She explains that in Kumar's case, "closed spaces, sneezing by someone else, and unhygienic conditions" led to bitter experiences, which have now become triggers for his phobia. A good move, says Fernandes, would be to 'avoid' situations that make you confront your stimuli. "So, not stepping out of the home is a rational move. It's what we call self-preservation. Next, is systematic de-sensitisation. That is taking baby steps, to get used to the stimuli. So, if you have a fear of picking up Coronavirus, you can simply start with having a conversation about going outside your house, and discussing safety measures that you can take. Once you are past that, you can try going till the main gate of your building, and start questioning the fears that are being generated. Later, you can start going to a place that's walking distance from home. All fears are valid, and so is this one. But if you are not able to cope, it's best to reach out to a therapist."
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