Hello, my name is Emily and I am cleanaholic.
I’m addicted to cleaning. Well, not the act of cleaning, per se, but cleanliness. Truth is, I hate to clean. But you want to know what I hate more? Crumbs on a table. Hair on the bathroom floor. Dusty bookshelves, the inside of a food-stained microwave, dirty dishes in the sink… I could go on. The very sight of unnecessary filth sends my self-inflicted distress into overdrive. A mess left unattended makes me want to cry.
Yes, I realize there’s something wrong with me. Which is why I’ve taken to the blog. Awareness and acceptance are the first steps to overcoming any addiction.
I haven’t always been this way. Growing up, I didn’t need to be. My mom was the perfect housewife, constantly cooking and cleaning and washing and folding, so that our home was always (comfortably) spick and span. She eventually taught me her ways, and by the time I left for college, I had a solid cleaning routine down pat. I put it to good use throughout my years in borderline-disgusting on-campus apartments, but I don’t ever remember my OCD-like tendencies interfering with other aspects of my life. Honestly, I was pretty normal back then, if a little on the anal side.
The trouble began not long after I graduated, when I moved into the first place I could call completely my own. My pride could’ve been to blame, sure, but I have another theory: During that all too familiar post-college era of insecurity and uncertainty, keeping my place clean and tidy seemed to be the only thing over which I had full control. And so, every other Sunday, like clockwork, I’d dust and scrub and sweep and mop until my tiny home sparkled. Then I’d walk across the hall to my boyfriend’s (much messier) apartment and do it all over again. Yep, I was that girlfriend.
If left at that, this habit of mine wouldn’t have been so bad. But my obsession with cleanliness combined with my hatred for cleaning would turn me into a madwoman for a few days post-quarantine. Once the two apartments were pristine, I would do everything in my power to keep them that way for as long as possible… Which usually meant insisting on ordering takeout instead of dirtying the kitchen, barking at Scott to leave his shoes by the door, and even—ugh, it pains me to admit it—avoiding guests at all costs. Parties = messes. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, I’m still ashamed.
But no matter how much I would sanitize, dirt, dust, and grime would eventually accumulate in the crevices of my well-earned Sparkle City. And within two weeks, the dreaded CLEANING DAY would appear yet again in my paper planner—right below the day’s date and and always highlighted in yellow, my least favorite color. Cue the angst.
You’d think that this sort of thing would just be a stupid phase, temporary insanity amidst a quarter-life crisis. The fact that I had my own home in the first place was a wonderful thing, and I should’ve felt nothing but gratitude towards my privileged situation. But anxiety doesn’t care how #blessed you are.
While I wish I could say that I mellowed out after that, getting married (hello, new roomie!) and moving into a house last year only made the issue worse. Most days, I wouldn’t even trust my husband to wash the dishes without my thorough inspection. Obviously, I needed a wake-up call. And I finally got one, two months ago, when my family (two parents, two siblings, and a pup) came to visit for a long weekend. Halfway through their stay, while my mom, husband, and I were cooking up crawfish cornbread in the kitchen—okay, they were cooking; I was cleaning—I found myself in an abnormally irritable state. In fact, I became so noticeably flustered that Scott felt the need to pull me aside privately to ask what was wrong.
Of course, I had no answer—because nothing was wrong. Literally, nothing. Everyone was having a good time! I was thrilled to have my family stay with us! But here I was acting like a moody, ungrateful brat. I chalked it up to PMS and went on a walk to clear my head. While my cycle could have very well played a part in my sudden onset of overwhelm (don’t you just love that luteal phase?), I knew there had to be a deeper root cause at play. It was only after the crew had left on Monday morning and I was halfway into my cleaning routine, breathing a sigh of relief, that it hit me: my mini meltdown on Saturday stemmed from my neurotic need for a perfectly presentable home at all times.
Seriously, where did this come from?
Rather than deny my problem, however, I humbly acknowledged it and without a second thought, went straight to the experts for help. Enter two of the world’s finest and (least fussiest) hosts: my own mother—the Clean Queen herself—and my Uncle Alfred, event planning extraordinaire. When I told them about my neurosis and asked in desperation how they effortlessly seemed to master the art of hosting, here’s what they had to say:
Clean before guests arrive and after they leave, but while they’re there, just let it go. There’s no mess that can’t wait until later. Don’t have time to clean beforehand? Make your bed and call it a day. No one will notice the difference anyway.
Simple as that, and I knew they were right. Life is too short to miss out on moments with family and friends because you’re too busy cleaning—or worse, worrying about cleaning. And honestly, who cares if your kitchen isn’t spotless? I took their words to heart, vowing to cast off my useless anxiety and put their advice to the test immediately.
I’m proud to say that Scott and I recently hosted dinner at our home twice: once for our neighbors, and once for Scott’s aunt and uncle. Both times, we cooked deliciously messy meals—and both times, I resisted the temptation to begin gathering dishes as soon as everyone had finished eating. On the second occasion, I didn’t even touch the dishes. Scott was the one who voluntarily cleaned up—and I let him! I stayed put at the table and focused on being present in each moment. The glass of wine in my hand did well to distract me from the pile of soiled pots and pans on the stove, and the good conversation made it easy to forget about the rogue bread crumbs that had fallen on the floor.
Surprisingly, all it took was a change in mindset to quiet the control freak in me: not only was I able to relax and enjoy my company, but afterwards, I felt so much more energized and fulfilled from the evening than I normally would have.
I’m not quite where I want to be just yet, but I am making progress. This month, I went three whole weeks between deep cleans instead of two, just because I could. And I didn’t fret about it. See? Progress! While the thought of hosting no longer fills me with dread, I know it’s going to take a lot more practice to overcome my addiction for good. But alas, there’s hope for me yet. Life will always be messy. I’m finding that it’s only worth living, though, if we can learn to embrace the mess.
Photo by Catt Liu.