D is for Dirty


I used to carry around disinfectant wipes and/or a bottle of purell with me all the time. Before the days of wet wipes and packaged purell, I would carry little packets of rubbing alcohol wipes–you know, the kind they have in bulk supply at doctors’ offices. On public transportation, I would wipe down the seat before I sat down, or wipe down a pole before wrapping my hand around to hold. Or anywhere public, for that matter. During flu season, I’d wish I could sanitize the air of viruses, and all year round I feared bacteria floating through the air, let alone those residing on said seats and poles and handrails.

I was always this way–when I once rode the RTD (L.A.’s MTA used to be called the RTD–the misnomer, “Rapid Transit District”) to the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA) with my friend in high school (hello, from the suburbs of LA this is a huge expedition), I diligently wiped down my seat before sitting down, to the stares of other riders.

My mother was a nurse who, when she cleaned the house, called the act, “disinfecting,” using surgical grade cleaners to wipe down kitchen counters until she stripped the finish off of surfaces. Nothing was clean until the germs were gone. She would chant, “Once you get something dirty, it will never be the same again, never the same clean it once was when new.” That line stuck with me.

My friend would brush the leaves off a wooden bench. Was that bench clean? No, because the germs were still there. Wipe, wipe.

This compulsion only increased when I worked at a medical facility, surrounded by disinfectants and germ-killing procedures. It also didn’t help that there was a lot…and I mean A LOT of greed in that particular corner of the medical industry. Surgeons would scream at me if surgeries were cancelled; not only were they dismayed at the cancellation and the impact on their schedule, they were mostly furious at the loss of revenue.

Until then, I’d always seen doctors as role models, as highly educated and deft practitioners of saving lives and good health. Ok, maybe doctors could be super horny and full of drama, like in St. Elsewhere or ER or Grey’s Anatomy but no one’s a truly greedy asshole, not even McSteamy. It shocked me to see that patients could be seen as revenue sources, and it shocked me to see the behavior of very very greedy doctors. It felt…corrupt. I felt dirty. I felt unclean. I felt I would never the same as when I was new. I felt I would never be clean again. I felt dirty.

And so I would wash my hands.

I would wash my hands again.

I’d get screamed at. I’d feel pressure to make money in an industry vertical that I’d before seen as altruistic practitioners of medicine ala Marcus Welby, M.D. I would go into a dark empty room and cry. I’d never heard such profanity directed at me in a workplace before.

I’d wash my hands again.

I’d wipe my keyboard.
I’d wipe my desk.

I’d get screamed at–why is everything cancelled? We’d undergo inspection by the Department of Health Services. They’d scrutinize every single corner of our facility, pore through our procedural manuals. Were we clean enough?

I’d wash my hands. I’d wipe my keyboard. I wiped the surface of every single thing. I’d watch the scrub techs mop the floor of the surgical suite with a special mop only used for that room. With industrial grade disinfectant that smelled sweet and artificial. I’d wash my hands. I’d wipe my keyboard. I’d wipe the doorknobs.

I’d hold my breath. Once I even wore a surgical mask. I took it off at the behest of my coworkers, but I’m telling you, I felt SO MUCH BETTER wearing that surgical mask.

I quit that job. I applied to, and got into MFA programs. I kept carrying around surgical gloves and purell and wet wipes.

I went through a bottle of purell each week. I went through my portable packets of wet wipes more than once a week. I wore surgical gloves when I used the computer lab at school and had to use a shared keyboard. A fellow MFA student leaped up and said with a smile on her face and concern in her voice, “Jade, what is UP with the gloves?!” I would wear surgical gloves when I went to a buffet, the thought of touching the same serving tongs that some stranger had just used seconds before me gave me the heebies.

I quit going to buffets because the thought of people breathing on my food, and possibly coughing and sneezing onto the open vats of food gave me heebies I couldn’t mitigate.

And finally. And finally, I said I couldn’t deal with this. More specifically, my husband said to STOP. STOP. STOP. STOP.

So I stopped carrying purell and wet wipes. I put my hands on things. I washed them afterwards, but I did not use purell and wet wipes. No purell. No wet wipes. NO disinfecting.

I chanted to myself that viruses eventually die, and that shopping cart over there had probably not been touched in an hour. At first I picked abandoned shopping carts in the far corner of the parking lot. Even then, I made my husband push the cart when possible. And then I was, one day, okay with using one that someone had just abandoned a few seconds previous. And no wiping.

I still wash my hands a lot. But I refuse to carry the purell and wet wipes. I met a friend I hadn’t seen in years and years. She asked me if I had a wet wipe. I said no. She was surprised. I told her, I don’t carry them anymore.

She said, eyes widening with surprise, that’s good.


Joining Charlotte’s Web in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous letters:



Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes, Memories

13 responses to “D is for Dirty

  1. Brilliant! Such a great piece of writing, in so many ways. I think it’s fascinating that the compulsion become worse when you were in the company of people you found morally corrupt. I also think it’s amazing that you stopped, just like that.

    I have to admit that shopping trolleys do give me the heebies though.

    • Thank you! It made sense to me that it got worse in the company of corrupt people because of the concept of “cleanliness” at least in my life–but as for quitting…it took a long time. It was hard. I’m still germ-phobic today.

      But I think my quitting was, in the end, helped by my stroke, when my brain was so damaged that there was no way I could be OCD. And so I adopted a new pattern of behavior during my recovery…even though I still grab doors in the places most people do not touch them (i.e., high up, or lower down, etc. etc.)

  2. Yep, I never use door handles if I can get away with it. My mother is germ-phobic too — but she never had access to surgical-grade cleaners when I was growing up! (Boy, would she have loved that.) I think our biggest hangup is showers in hotels. Any smell or signs of mildew and our toes curl involuntarily … sigh.

  3. I’m loving these alphabet-themed essays! Great idea, and great writing!

  4. insightful. I don’t personally know of anyone who has experienced OCD, in some form or fashion, and up until now, I haven’t thought much about how it starts. the delineation of a downward, uncontrollable spiral is evident here. and more importantly, i now understand the disinfectant wipes near the shopping carts at the grocery store here lol.

  5. heather

    i have been reading these quietly. love them–small and beautiful. and i’m debating whether to adopt the alphabet: a history project as well. πŸ™‚

    • Contemporary Troubadour: Don’t remind me! πŸ™‚ I ignore I ignore I ignore those things and chant, “K-I-T, Keep It Together” and just step right on in…

      Elizabeth: Thank you. πŸ™‚

      mensah: OCD is definitely a downward spiral–lose control, try to regain control….!

      heather: thank you thank you! I would totally love to read your alphabet project. And would love for you to join me.

  6. I’m the opposite. I’ve always believed that the more exposure to germs, the stronger the immune system–maybe because when I waitressed, sometimes handling hundreds of dirty plates in a day, I almost never got sick.

    As for the morally corrupt, however, there’s not enough Purell on earth.

    Thanks for a fascinating post. I’m happy to have discovered your blog. The alphabet has never been so interesting.

    • Thank you patry, for stopping by and dropping a kind note! Funny how I, the OCD-prone, am a big proponent of vaccinations (including the flu vaccine)–you just made me realize that paradox!

      And yes, I wish there were some sort of Purell/vaccine for the morally corrupt. Can you imagine? πŸ™‚

  7. Pingback: F is for Fall « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  8. Pingback: G is for Gatsby « Writing Under a Pseudonym

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  10. Pingback: I is for I | Writing Under a Pseudonym

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