Monsters Inside of Me

Picture 24 Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?” Anonymous

Growing up in the era of “Walk It Off” parenting, I was never
allowed to get too in touch with my hypochondria. Occasionally, I might
get my hands on a National Geographic magazine that would feature
Amazon explorers, tribes that had never been touched by the outside
world or an expedition into the heart of darkest Africa.  To properly
frame the perilous nature of uncharted corners of the world, the
articles would relate the hazards associated with indigenous people,
nasty flora, unpredictable fauna and myriad microscopic predators that
could all kill a man – often in bizarre and horrific ways.

I did not just want to know about the 1000 ways in which I could die
– – I wanted to witness them.  The fact that most of these diseases,
parasites and insidious bacteria were transmitted through unclean
drinking water, monkey bites, and unnatural encounters in dark,
forbidden places did not matter to me.  I was certain these germs were
lingering everywhere.

These were the days before Purell and the bathroom at the local
Shell gas station seemed the perfect breeding ground for microscopic
predators waiting to hitch a ride home on an unwashed hand.  The public
restroom was an essential pit stop for any kid on a long bike ride from
home. I tried to hold it to avoid the dimly lit, gray tiled stall that
seemed to radiate filth.  Truthfully, I’d rather risk getting caught in
the bushes but sometimes nature left you no choice. I was fairly
convinced that Lenny, the grease monkey who changed oil and pumped full
service gas, had contracted some kind of brain parasite using his own
bathroom.  Perhaps it was the fact that he always called me “Bubba”
regardless of my repeatedly telling him my name was Mike. It might have
been his perpetually filthy hands or his facial tic that would whip his
head sideways as if a naked super model was riding by on a unicycle.

I did not appreciate just how microphobic I had become until I
“stole” a free venereal disease pamphlet in the local pharmacy, went
home and committed it to memory and then proceeded to contract the
disease over the course of the next 24 hours.  I rationalized I must
have picked up the STD from the Shell station toilet seat – even after
using the wax paper seat cover that would always stay in place and then
float away mischievously just before you sat down.  I distinctly
remember my mother suffocating her laughter as I came clean about my
condition.  She suggested that if I did not scrub so aggressively with
the Dial soap, I might not have the “burning “ sensation.  I dialed
down the Dial and things did improve.  However, I was wary. I
understood this ancient scourge could incubate for years and lead to
insanity.  Just ask King George III.

Things only got worse after seeing the movie “Hawaii” with Julie
Andrews and Max Von Sydow where people stricken with the dreaded
tropical disease leprosy were forcibly relocated to the island of
Molokai.  The initial symptoms of leprosy might be as simple as a slow
to heal lesion or cut.  My scraped knee that would ripped back open
each week when sliding improperly in baseball might as well be a motel
with a big neon sign saying “ vacancy “ to any tropical disease.
Before I knew it, my fingers would be breaking off on my pencil in
geometry class.

Just a few months later, the film Papillion debuted with Steve
McQueen starring as the convict determined to escape from French
Guyana’s Devil’s Island.  In a particularly disturbing part of the
prison escape adventure, Papillion attempts to enlist the help of a
local leper colony to make his escape from captivity.  The head leper
was grotesquely afflicted and eager to test Papillion’s willingness to
accept the lepers as equals in exchange for their assistance.  “ Care
to have a smoke?” The leper asks as he hands the Papillion the cigar he
has just been smoking.  As Papillion takes the smoldering Cuban, he
notices that the leper’s finger has come off and is clinging to the
cigar.  As only Steve McQueen would do, he unflinchingly takes a deep
satisfied puff.

It was about this time that my knee started to itch again.  The scab
had healed but just one unclean cut and I could be easily transformed
into one of those legless guys who pulled themselves around on
skateboards begging for quarters. My mother once again intervened to
explain that the incubation period for leprosy was three to five
years.  If memory served, she was quite certain that I had not been in
the tropics during my third grade school year.

Years later, I realized that my older brothers had much to do with
my bacteriophobia. It was always the same scenario – – a summer
campfire and a tall tale about the guy who became a zombie from tsetse
fly sleeping sickness. Or he might describe the sad life of Jo-Jo, the
Wolf Boy, afflicted with hypertrichosis also known as “the werewolf
disease”.  Yet, the most indelible of all stories involved the dreaded
intestinal tapeworm.

As the fire cast ominous shadows across my brother’s concerned face,
he whispered. “You know how they would they would get rid of your
tapeworm’s in the Middle Ages?” He would ask rhetorically with his face
screwed into a grimace of false empathy.  “They would starve you, and
then make you sit on a chair covered with honey.  The tapeworm would
roar out starving for food and then five guys would pull and pull and
pull.  If they got it all, you were cured.  If it broke off, forget it.”

Yes, it was very gross.  And yes, from that point forward I ordered
well-done meat, compulsively washed my hands and refused to visit any
country that had not been independent for at least 50 years.  My sib’s
hyperbole included the description of a record-breaking 34-foot tape
worm taken out of a man in the Philippines.

I suddenly began to suspect that our refrigerator was a youth hostel
for killer microbes.  Raising boys had my mother permanently behind on
household hygiene with our Frigidaire serving as the greatest living
monument to this fact.  We were trained to check the expiration date on
any perishable food item– lest we get a mouthful of lumpy milk, fuzzy
gray piece of bread or cheese wedge with great blue mold spores
blooming like spring forget-me-nots. She did her best, but it was a
losing battle attempting to clean up behind four thoughtless primates.

In a brief and paranoid span of a week, I began to hint at the lack
of sanitation in our house.  As she wiped the counters with the sponge
that smelled an old Gym sock, my mind’s eye saw our eating space as a
massive Woodstock of breeding bacterium.  She would have been better
off just wiping everything with a raw pork chop.  “ I heard you can
catch a tape worm from eating off a dirty counter top.” I said with my
most official sounding voice.  “ Hmmm” was all she said, absentmindedly
continuing to load the dishwasher.  “I heard a kid from Pasadena got
one that was 25 feet!” “ Really.” Again, no reaction.  “Yeah, and they
had to tie him to a tree and starve him.  They put a jar of honey ten
feet away and during the night the tapeworm crawled out to get the
honey.  They caught it and it’s going to be in Ripley’s Believe It or
Not.”  That got her.  “Michael, who have you been talking to?”

I survived my Andromeda Strain childhood somehow despite the
imminent pandemics of flu – swine, bird and Spanish influenza as well
as legionnaire’s disease, AIDS, Hantavirus and Ebola. Years later, in
his book, Guns, Germs and Steel,
award winning author Jared Diamond confirmed just how close to death I
was sharing that most of the world’s pandemics initiated as a result of
people living in proximity with animals. Apparently, dogs came with
ringworm, tick bites and rabies.  The cat was memorialized by singer
Ted Nugent for his ability to afflict a person with Bartonellosis also
known as Cat Scratch Fever.  I shuddered at the millions of microbes we
must have ingested as we handled rats, turtles, lizards, gerbils,
hamsters, snakes, birds, rabbits and guinea pigs. As more evolved
warm-blooded hosts, I was amazed that we did not become a hotel for
hidden organisms.  Perhaps, all the nitrates and red dye #2 we consumed
in hot dogs neutralized the sexual reproductive capabilities of the

In my late forties, I had more or less subdued the demons of my
mysophobia – fear of germs. However, society has changed.  The world
has become flat and the numerous filters that once spared our
adolescent minds from the media blitz of fear and loathing have been
stripped away.  The media cannot wait to rub your nose in these
terrible afflictions.  If it bleeds, it leads. Even educational
channels have sold out to our fascination with stories of the bizarre.

Recently, my brother alerted me to a new Animal Planet television
show called, “Monsters Inside of Me.” Ever the helpful sibling, he had
pointed me back in the direction of my childhood fears.  I tuned in one
evening just in time to watch a young American afflicted with botfly
larvae (literally crawling out of his back) and a woman whose brain had
been infested with maggots from eating raw pork. The show went on to
describe how fast these flesh eating, blood sucking, brain damaging,
and lung leeching parasites can kill their hosts.  Worst of all, it was
all happening in America.  (My theory was they all used the same
restroom at a New Jersey roadside rest stop. Those bathrooms, I’m
telling you are killers.)

I now try to stay away from Animal Planet but it calls to me at
night. The organisms are once again on the creep and coming to a
theatre, hospital and public restroom near me. I must be ready.

And the weirdest part of all is my knee – – it’s started itching again.

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6 replies »

  1. I would have never found my new favorite show, “Monsters Inside Me”, if it weren’t for DISHOnline.com This really does give me the creeps, but its great to spread awareness about all these parasites and diseases. I have and work at DISH and from their new website; I was able to set a new timer so I can record the show for future viewing.

  2. Animal Planet’s parasite show is one of my favorites! I wash each leaf of lettuce because YOU NEVER KNOW. I examine the front and back of each leaf, too. I had parasites! I have never been treated for parasites, and I don’t want to!

  3. Darn it, I kept hoping the article would wrap up with some sort of negation of these risks but you just left me hanging and worrying. Is there a self test you can do for parasites? 😉