A Germy Victory

A few weeks before DragonCon, I learned that one of the five host hotels - the Sheraton Atlanta - had an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease.

I’d never heard of Legionnaire’s before, but a quick Google search told me that it was a rather unpleasant disease with potentially lethal consequences. Even though I’d felt nothing but excitement for DragonCon until then, I began to feel nervous.

It was the legacy of the days when the thought of germs occupied my mind all day, even if no one around me was sick and I felt perfectly fine. Often, I felt the need to ask an adult - usually my mom - if she thought I was sick, or if my forehead felt warm, or if this cough sounded like it warranted attention.

Online, dozens of people in my various DragonCon Facebook groups started making Legionnaire’s memes and posting every update from the hotel and the CDC. For a while, the source of the disease was hard to find, and we assumed the hotel would be closed. It was a comfort to think I could simply avoid it, but a week before the convention, the hotel reopened.

Like many people I saw online, I wasn’t convinced that the disease was eradicated from the hotel. I was relieved that the source was found, but the source was the air conditioning that would definitely be turned on high. And there was no way to avoid it entirely, as it was my job to pick up my badge and Dad’s while he was at work, and the badge pickup was at the Sheraton.

Briefly, I imagined the germs that might still be dormant in the air conditioning of the hotel, spraying out into the crowd. People coughing, sneezing, getting worse, having to go to the hospital. It was just plausible enough to worry me, although I’d accepted that I’d just have to do it.

I arrived home a few days before, mostly to enjoy the company of my mom, Nana, and dog (who ran over with his tail wagging when I showed him my new cosplays), and when I got home, I saw that Dad had the very amusing idea to put a Giant Microbes version of the Legionnaire’s bacteria on my bed.

The gift meant a lot more to me than the dad joke it was intended to be. I understood that he had faith in me to go to the Sheraton and pick up our badges and be fine mentally as well as physically, and I took this token of faith with me to downtown Atlanta on Thursday afternoon.

And just like everyone else at the convention, I started my journey at the Sheraton.

If I’d been in a similar situation when I was a kid, I’d have done one of several things: try to hold my breath as long as humanly possible, rinse out my mouth at a water fountain safely away from the building, cough into my elbow repeatedly even if I had no need to, and if I had to open my mouth to speak to the check-in clerks, I’d have probably spit just a little in the corner of my mouth. All of these steps would be to get rid of the germs that I couldn’t see but I would know were there, and even then, I’d be thinking about it all day and beyond. I’d carefully watch myself for symptoms, even the slightest tickle in my nose or throat or feeling of fatigue enough to send me into a whirlwind of anxious thoughts.

I won’t deny that I was a little nervous to enter the Sheraton, even though I knew that they wouldn’t be open if people could still get sick. But germs, as I knew from my compulsions, are hard to get rid of, and there were so many people packed into the room that the odds of someone being sick - from a germ at the hotel or one they brought from somewhere else - were high.

But I still did it.

While I was there, I breathed, I talked with people, and I even showed off “Leegie” the plush virus in line, who was a great hit. I got my badge and Dad’s - he accompanied me the other days, although he didn’t cosplay - and even stayed in the building for about another hour to purchase some official con merchandise. I talked to people in line, shopped, explored, and by the time I left, I wasn’t even thinking about Legionnaire’s Disease anymore.

Nor, in the ensuing days, did I think much about all the coughing, sneezing people around me. At a convention of 85,000 people, plenty are going to be sick, I’ve learned - and getting sick afterwards is a very small sacrifice compared to the joy I feel during these conventions. “Con crud,” as it’s commonly known, was something I expected, and even though I don’t particularly like being sick, I wasn’t obsessing over it.

As things turned out, I didn’t end up getting sick after DragonCon. Several of my new friends did, even people who I spent a great deal of time with, but I never felt sick. Even without doing any of the compulsions I would have done as a child, or even something more reasonable like drinking extra orange juice, I didn’t get sick.

It took me many years to learn that lesson, and many more to be able to apply it to the point where I can ignore people around me who aren’t feeling well. It’s harder for me when people are nauseous or vomiting thanks to my emetophobia, but in general, I have learned to stop thinking of my potential illness ahead of my actual happiness.

After all, that weekend, I had much better things to think about - rushing to Tolkien and Fire Emblem photoshoots in my two new cosplays, shopping in a four-story mall filled with nerdy merchandise, being the first person on the dance floor at the Tolkien-themed dance party with my friends from last year, talking about an amazing new video game with new friends, competing in a Pokemon Go tournament, doing a Galadriel-themed photo challenge, and much more.

There was simply no room for OCD to ruin my weekend, and it shows me how far I’ve come - and how much farther I can go in the future, as I continue to follow my goals with the help of friends and fandoms new and old!

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.