Ask the Doctors: Jennifer

Wiping Away Her Fears?

"I definitely have a problem with germs," says Jennifer. "I probably wash my hands 30 or more time a day. My hands get so dry from cleaning with all this stuff, they crack, and they bleed, and they hurt."

"I absolutely think that my sister needs help with her germaphobia," says Jennifer's sibling, Kimberly.


"Nobody can wear airport clothes in my house," Jennifer explains. "If their suitcases have wheels, they can't wheel it through my house."

Kimberly, standing in her sister's house, shows off the shirt she wore on the plane ride there. "I turn them inside out, just in case on the way to the washer they touch anything," she says. Jennifer will also ask if Kimberly has wiped down her phone, her keys and her hands.

Jennifer washes her hands immediately after handling rented movies or even the mail. "I think money is disgusting," she says. "I basically wear three pairs of shoes to work. I wear my flip-flops in the car, these ones in the parking lot, put these ones on for the work day. When I come home from work I must go take a shower immediately." Jennifer works in a hospital.

"When Jennifer comes home, Kaylee wants to run to her," says Kimberly. "I have to hold her back. It makes me feel sad for Kaylee, because she just wants to hug her mom." Kimberly expresses further concern over the way Kaylee mimics her mother's habit of wiping down surfaces. "It's cute now, but it worries me long term because I don't want her to think that she has to constantly do that," she says.

Jennifer's germ issues have come to affect her relationship with her husband.

"I love my wife a lot," he says, "but it does get a little too much sometimes."

"My husband has mentioned to me that he doesn't know if he wants to have another baby with me because of my issue," she says. "If I don't change the way I am, I honestly don't know how the future's going to be for me."


"Do you want to change this?" Dr. Phil asks Jennifer.

"Absolutely," she says.

"Intellectually, do you recognize that you are overreacting?"

"I realize how ridiculous everything I do is," she says. "I just can't help it."

"Here's some good news," says Dr. Phil. "This doesn't mean that she's crazy. Sometimes

people get in this and they go, 'Oh, God, I'm nuts. I'm crazy.'"

"You're absolutely not crazy," Dr. Fields agrees. "And the good news is " you have [obsessive-compulsive disorder], but the kind that you have is so treatable. It's the easiest kind to treat. And I know you're anxious about medication. It can also be treated without medication, and if you can really see that you think you're getting rid of the anxiety by doing this kind of stuff in the moment " it's like an alcoholic taking a drink. It actually increases it. So, we can talk about what you can do."

Is Jennifer's house as germ-free as she thinks it is? To find out, Dr. Phil brings in an expert to run some tests.

Carolyn Jacobs, director of microbiology, says, "In preparing to do these cultures, we're going to use some sterile gloves. We'll be using some sterile swabs in order to get in those nooks and crannies. These RODAC plates lift organisms that may be on the counter. One of the dirtiest areas in the home is the can opener. So what we're going to do is we're going to culture the can opener. The kitchen drain is also one of the areas that bacteria lurks in. Some of the areas that we will take some cultures are of light
switches, the TV remote, the computer and some counter surfaces around the house. Now, we'll take these samples to the lab, and we'll see what we've got."


Back in the studio, the guests sit before a display of Petri dishes filled with samples from Jennifer's home.

"How is this helping me?" asks Jennifer with an uncomfortable laugh. "This makes me want to clean more." 

"OK, here's the point," says Dr. Phil. "You think that everything is super clean. Travis, what did we find out?"

"Germs are everywhere," says Dr. Stork. "We can't eliminate germs from our life. And what we're seeing here, these are actually colonies of bacteria."

"What did you find out from the can opener?" asks Dr. Phil.

"You can see there are multiple colonies of bacillus, staphylococcus, but here's the thing " completely benign. They're not going to hurt you at all," says Dr. Stork. "And just to prove to you that this is not harmful … " He rises from his seat just enough to stick a spoon right into one of the Petri dishes. Scooping out a generous portion of red gel, he puts it in his mouth. "Oh, that is some good bacteria right there! Wow!" he says, while his guests recoil. "All right, I fooled you," he says at last. "This is actually Jell-O."

"You're such a smart-aleck," says Dr. Phil. "But what's the point? We went in and sampled this, and you found bacteria because there's no way you're going to have a bacteria-free environment. If you made your house bacteria-free, such that your daughter was living like the Bubble Boy, and then went out into the real world, what would happen, Travis?"

"Well, there's a reason we have immune systems," says Dr. Stork. "We're supposed to be exposed to these things."


Dr. Fields says, "The fear that mothers I've treated who have OCD have " it's 'I don't want my child to die. I don't want anything to happen.' And it's something that all moms fear, but what you've got to accept is, ultimately you really don't have control over it, but what you do have control over is the moments you have with her, nurturing her and loving her instead of saying, you know, 'Stand back.'"

"What I know is you have a fear of germs, and it is disruptive to your life," says Dr. Phil, "and what I always look at is: Is the fear disproportionate to the threat? If people have a fear reaction in the absence of a clear and present danger, or disproportionate to a clear and present danger, then that means it's probably something you want to change, right?" Jennifer nods. "And your fear is much greater than the actual danger. You know that intellectually."

"Right," Jennifer confirms.

"But intellectually is not your problem; emotional is your problem," says Dr. Phil. "If there is a way for you to learn to co-exist with germs and not be anxious, and not wash your hands to the point that they're cracked and bleeding, and not push your daughter back until you can clean yourself in the shower, then would you want to do that?"

"Absolutely," she says.

"If you could deal with this with systematic desensitization, which is a treatment of choice for this, which is very effective and actually takes a very short time to do, if I make that resource available to you, will you do it?"

"Absolutely," she says.

"Because there's not any threat on this table here," says Dr. Phil. Turning to Kimberly, he says, "You're going to stop enabling her, right?"

"I will stop enabling her," she tells him.