mental health

I Can’t Let The House Get Messy Because Of My Anxiety

I am constantly worried that I am forgetting something, and compelled to check task-boxes off my list to give me a sense of control.

Mother using smartphone with children present
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This is going to sound like a brag at first, but stay with me. I am often asked: “How the hell is your house so clean with four little kids?” And every time I hear this, to my complementers' surprise, I become profoundly embarrassed. “Oh, don’t be impressed,” I explain. “It is very simply one of the ways my anxiety disorder is on display for all to see.”

You see, my house is never messy. Toys do not accumulate on rugs and tables. Art projects are not left out to be finished later, and couch forts never stay intact overnight. There isn’t one large, logical, end-of-day toy clean. Instead there are seventy-five little, incredibly inefficient cleanups from dusk until dawn. That’s because I can’t let it get messy. I operate this way because my anxiety demands it. Instead of being able to relax enough to allow my kids to create an environment conducive to growth and creativity, I treat their play space like an organized museum. Sometimes I even start cleaning mid-play because the accumulating “stuff” becomes too much and a small panic sets in. So I stifle their imaginary momentum, interrupt their plans, and take us all completely out of our wonderful moment together.

I clean so I don’t freak out. And the cleaning is the least of it.

I over-police seemingly safe, benign activities because I am constantly worried someone is going to die. My head is always on a swivel, barking out little safety commands and orders as my kids try to play. I remember being on a walk with my mom and my two young sons. We found a huge construction-site-style dirt pile in the middle of the road, and my three year old was so excited to climb to the top. I freaked. “What are you worried about, honestly?” my mom asked, assuming I didn’t want him to get dirty or, worst case, break an arm in some wild one-in-a-million fall scenario. I told her: “Death. I’m always worried about death.”

She actually couldn’t believe that a smart, logical person could have that worry looking at the given scenario. But that is always where my anxiety takes me. So playing at the park, vacationing on the lake, walking through the parking lot, running on the beach — I am on high alert, often unable to enjoy these precious moments with them, because I am frantically worrying about keeping them alive.

Consequently, I am constantly pulled to my phone — checking texts and emails, and updating my calendar. I have a racing mind that does not allow for much calm. I am constantly “future tripping,” worried that I am forgetting something, compelled to check task-boxes off my list. It gives me a sense of control.

In the middle of playing at the park or on the floor, I find my mind wandering, worried that I am missing something. So I grab my phone and start to scroll, in an attempt to ease my hyper-sensitive, live-wired brain. Of course it doesn’t actually help and only creates more device addiction and teaches my kids that my phone takes priority over them. But the pull sometimes feel so strong, and my anxiety always requires immediate attention.

I am completely unable to execute the “I’ll deal with that later” approach that I see my friends so successfully exercise. So for my family and I, interruptions to activities are common. Whenever an anxiety thought is sparked, for whatever reason, I mentally rocket-launch from the task at hand straight to the new responsibility, worry, or assignment.

Even when I stay physically present — watching the lacrosse game or playing Barbies – I retreat mentally to plan and problem solve. I lose patience and attention, often barking at my kids due to stress and distraction. It’s like a game of pinball in my mind all day, and I often feel like I have little control over the direction of my anxious thoughts.

At times it can feel near impossible to enjoy this slice of life the way that I want to, and I hate my anxiety for that. For so often plucking my attentive, happy brain from enjoying the laughs and smiles of my kids, and directing it toward shit that isn’t true, or doesn’t matter at all.

So, I am working on it. I am trying to consciously leave “messes” for a little longer each week, rather than destroying my kids’ adorably created scenes the moment they walk away. I am trying to leave my phone in a different room ( while still wearing my Apple watch because Jesus, Rome wasn’t built in a day). I am doing the “tapping method” when my mind starts to race, per my therapist’s suggestion. So far I hate it, but maybe it will grow on me. And mostly I am just trying to be aware, to recognize when my anxiety is pulling me from these important moments with my precious kids, so when I do find a solution I will know when to implement it. Because I am sick of letting it get the best of me, and I bet they are too.

Samm Burnham Davidson is an ex-lawyer mom of four who swears a lot. She lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.