I Have To Keep A Neat House Because Clutter Triggers My Anxiety

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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I get this itch every few months to trash or donate about half the things we own. I look around and all I see are unused toys, mismatched pieces of Tupperware, clothes that don’t fit, and wires belonging to god-knows-what electronic device that is probably broken or lost.

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It’s the same itch I feel when it’s the end of the day and my kids’ toys are still lying around in every nook and cranny. Even if it’s just a few toys and the rest of the floor is generally clear, I feel it. Or if it’s one of those nights when my husband (bless his heart) straightens up — which likely means that he just leans the toys against the baskets where they belong instead of putting them into the damn basket. Holy crap do I feel it then.

But it’s not just an itch, at least for me. Cleaning up clutter is not just another thing on the to-do list like packing my kids’ lunches, changing the car’s oil, or making my next dentist appointment. It’s a full-on ragey kind of panic. It’s the feeling that I literally can’t breathe with all the clutter that’s filling our house. It’s a feeling that the world is a chaotic place that I can’t control, and all of that chaos is represented by the loud, unruly, angsty wreck that is my living room.

Yes, I have an anxiety disorder. And sometimes that means I see the world a little differently than others do. The feeling that everything is about to fall apart and I must do what I can to put it back together is something I experience frequently. And for some reason, one of the ways that manifests is that excess stuff and clutter in my house drives me absolutely batshit bonkers.

I’m sure my upbringing and my childhood is partly to blame. I grew up in a messy, extremely cluttered home — my hardworking, stressed single mom was often too overwhelmed to keep the house in order. I don’t blame her for that given the circumstances, and I see now that clutter isn’t something she feels discomfort about; it suits her, actually.

But maybe I’m trying to compensate for that. Maybe I’m trying to mend my chaotic childhood that involved too many moves to count, custody battles, endless fighting and blaming and rage. Maybe I need to create order in my life — any order at all — just to feel okay.

Whatever it is, it’s how I am, and I’ve grown to accept that. I would not say that I have the neatest house on the block — not at all, really. I let my kids get messy. I let them have playdates where every single item in their bedrooms is unearthed and played with. I let them paint; build things with blocks, clay, and even mud. I let them cook with me and send flour sailing across the entire kitchen floor.

But I always, always clean up. Like, right away. And if I don’t, I get anxious. On the days when my husband is working 12-hour shifts and it’s just me and the kids — when I also have my own work to complete — it’s pretty dang hard to keep the house in order. I don’t always bust my ass to get it together then. I leave messes out. I leave peanut-butter smears on the counter, a sticky spot of juice on the floor, dishes in the sink.

But oh, does it drive me bananas. My reaction is physical, something I don’t feel like I can control. When I look out at the mess, I feel a pounding in my head. I feel the nerves under my skin start to bristle.

And when I finally get the chance to clean up, I do so in a rage. But it’s not just “rage cleaning” — it’s “I need to put my life together again so I don’t feel like I’m about to have a full-blown panic attack” cleaning.

Don’t worry — it’s not always that extreme for me. I’ve learned to let more and more slide over the years. And I absolutely don’t judge another person for their mess or clutter. When I walk into someone’s else’s mess, I’m generally pretty content. No one else’s mess but my own seems to get under my skin.

I know that we all have different comfort levels with clutter (and I’m sure that lots of people would see my clutter and think it’s unconscionable). But the feeling is always there for me, to some extent. And I know that I am not alone. I know that there are other people like me who don’t want to be “neat freaks” and who actually aren’t really, at least by certain standards, but who literally feel like their heads are going to explode when the house gets too cluttered and chaotic.

Solidarity to you all, my friends. I know how deeply your feelings of anxiety go when your house isn’t in order. I know it’s not something you can control. I know you don’t mean to be that way. And I know for sure that you aren’t keeping your house neat to appear better or more “together” than anyone else.

I know you keep your house neat for no one else but you. For your sanity. Your peace of mind. To keep your anxiety in check. And it’s not something that needs to change. You aren’t too “controlling,” “obsessed,” or any such nonsense.

You just like a neat, ordered house. Nothing wrong with that. And it’s who you are, and probably always will be.

Oh, and don’t forget: You are amazing. I am too.

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