Capless markers are scattered all over our kitchen floor. Crumbs congregate in large numbers on our couches and rugs. The dishes keep piling up. The kids keep ripping through every single fucking thing. And my anxiety is palpable.
I clean the whole house, top to bottom, like the neat-freak champ that I am. I obsessively wipe down surfaces, vacuum up a storm, and stick everything back into its original place. I breathe slowly and deeply as I marvel at the calm atmosphere around me. For a few short moments, it will stay exactly like this, and my worries will take a much-needed nap.
My name is Lindsay Wolf, and hyper cleaning is a trusty coping mechanism I use while living with a mental health disorder. I am the mother who micro-manages every item in my house. I am the wife who constantly asks her husband to chip in with the chores. And I am the woman who grew up in a traumatic home that led me to this state.
As an avid fan of cleanliness and order, you can imagine the overwhelming stress I’m feeling during my family’s coronavirus self-quarantine. Over the years, I’ve become more flexible with the chaos of having two kids under five and all the messes that it produces. Some days, I throw care to the wind and let the house sit in complete disarray while I stay present with my children or work a long day from home. But there is still a nagging deep inside of me to find something, anything, to clean.
The origin of these feelings can be traced back to a childhood that left me in a regular state of panic. I’ve spent countless hours digging into it all with therapists and am on some amazing antidepressants to manage my symptoms. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD a year and a half ago, and every day since has been a bittersweet journey of trying to embrace it.
When I was a kid, all I knew was clutter. We were raised in a home that was perpetually gutted from the inside out with renovations that never seemed to end. We had way more companion animals than any of us knew what to do with. The laundry room was often overrun with massive piles of dirty clothes that I loved to hide in as a child. And it wasn’t a strange occurrence to spend an entire day inside and have my feet stained black from the dirt that clung to them.
Holidays and birthdays seemed to be the prime time when we’d finally clean every room up. All of the chores were usually left on my dedicated mother’s shoulders, as my dad was a caring but emotionally distant guy who often lived in his office to avoid conflict at home. Now that I’m a mother to two small children, I have no fucking clue how my mom could ever manage to keep her sanity in a house that was far too large for her to handle by herself. The heartbreaking truth is that she didn’t. In addition to the tremendous amount of dirt and clutter, I felt chronic waves of anxiety and shame as I encountered physical, verbal, and emotional abuse at home that left me hating myself and terrified to make a single mistake.
When I grew up, I found that the only way to deal with the painful feelings I didn’t understand was to seek perfection at any cost. I kept my body impossibly thin through harmful methods, overachieved in every aspect of my life, and obsessed over each detail in my apartment to make it appear attractive and orderly. I also spoke in ways that seemed pleasing to others, hid emotions that felt too messy from my personal relationships, and followed a creative career path that revolved around popularity and success.
Then I had children, and the shit hit the fan. I gained a bunch of weight, my to-do list shrank dramatically, and my home lost any semblance of organization. I found myself repeatedly self-harming, experiencing panic attacks, enduring muscle spasms, and wondering why the hell I couldn’t get my life back together.
I started cleaning to fill up the hole inside me where productivity used to live and found myself repeating a vicious cycle. I’d wipe until there was nothing left to wipe up. I’d take a deep breath and feel at peace for a hot minute. Then I’d watch my toddler destroy it all and manically pick up after her. Irritation and impatience would boil up inside of me, and I’d do whatever I could to survive the rest of the day. I’d panic clean at night, pray that my husband’s late-night Netflix marathons wouldn’t ruin all of my hard work, then wake up the next day to start all over again.
Even now, it’s still so challenging to accept that I have complex PTSD that stems from the ongoing trauma I endured from a young age. But I totally get that in the early days of parenting, my mental health disorder was speaking to me loud and clear. It was begging me to stop the hustle and pay attention to it. Creating a tidy home was just a side effect of trying to avoid looking directly at the painful trauma of my youth. It took me two whole years to actually start listening and get the help I needed. I’ve come a long way from letting my “neat freak” flag fly 24/7, and I’m also a lovable work in progress who is doing everything she can to help herself heal.
These days, I still clean to manage my anxiety with the nearly-full cooperation of my husband (LOL). Some days, he admittedly drops the ball, and I’m left floundering. But he finally gets how important it is to my mental health to keep the home in some kind of balance. Yes, I still have moments where I pick up stuff in a flurry, usually while listening to Lizzo or Arcade Fire to keep my motivation strong. I look like a mad scientist while I’m at it, and my kids get a kick out of foiling my plans every chance they get. But now, instead of only looking at them as a frustrating hindrance to my organization, I see my children as the reason to put the goddamn broom down every once in a while and breathe deep without requiring everything to be in its right place first.
There are certainly some fun perks to being a master organizer, even if I haven’t reached full “Marie Kondo status” yet. I know where everything is, so nothing really gets lost in our house. I’ve memorized so many cleaning songs for kids that I’ve lost count, and I sing them regularly with my little ones when they jump in to help. And they do jump in to help me, despite us not pushing them to incessantly take on daily chores. My children see the example of a mom who benefits from neatly stacking blankets on couch arms and making sure the houseplants have enough water. They are being raised by a mother who has come a long way in her own mental health journey and isn’t afraid to show her authentic self as she continues on it. They get to love a mama who finally isn’t too consumed by her own pain to make messy memories with them.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt to know that while their father may be totally cool with leaving clothes on the floor and crumpled up tissues on tables, he also loves their mom so much that he’s learning how to change his sloppy ways. His wife is eternally grateful for it.