My kids get so mad at me when they go to grab their glass they started their day with and it’s nowhere to be found. You can find me closing the closet and pantry doors behind them when they aren’t even done. If one of them leaves an important school paper out, it gets tucked away in a drawer. If they bring home leftovers and they don’t get eaten within a few days, I chuck them.
My sense of urgency when it comes to order can be debilitating. I’m not sure where it came from. Maybe it’s because when I was seven I had a plantar wart and I’d put medicine on it every night. One night, I left the medicine out and my little sister (who was a baby at the time) ate some of it. It was the first time I saw my dad panic and not know what to do. He was on the phone with poison control for a long time and I was beside myself. My sister was okay; she never ended up swallowing the medicine, but it literally burned a hole in her pajamas.
I never left anything out after that day.
There was also the time we were staying with friends who had a dirty house. This wasn’t just messy; it was covered with thick, sticky dirt and it had a strange smell. As a military child, we moved a lot and there were times my father’s friends would open their home to us for a night or two, which was very nice. But there was something about this house that made me feel dark and sad. I began cleaning because I didn’t know how else to rub those feelings away. I was six at the time and I remember standing there wiping down a bell collection, wondering why everything was sticky and splattered with goo.
My need for order escalated around the time I started counting calories all day, every day. I was sure to only get 1200 calories, max. My room always had to be spotless. I’d get up and work out before school, then go to work after school, where I earned tips for bagging groceries. If I didn’t earn enough in tips, I’d be so hard on myself. Then, I’d go home and do homework, constantly adding up in my head what score I needed in order to make the honor roll again.
I was sixteen. Not only was I trying to be perfect, I was trying to control everything around me. And I could control how clean my room was and what I put into my body.
It took a few years to soften, but I did. I let go of measuring my food and working out every day. I didn’t beat myself up if I only got a C on a college paper. I was happier; I liked myself more, and I had a lot more life in me to share with other people, and I often wondered why I was so strict with myself for so long.
The one thing that has stuck, though, is my need to pick up. If something is out of place, it’s like I have an antenna that shoots up in the back of my head and I spin around trying to look for it.
My ex-husband suspected this about me and would often move something around in our house, ever so slightly, to see if I would notice.
The first time he did it, it involved moving a few rocks I’d collected at the beach with my kids. They were placed just so at the edge of the tub, and instead of them being sprinkled out in their regular formation, he’d moved them into a clump.
He was lying in bed watching me and laughing. He said it took me about five seconds to notice. “Your back was to me when I did it! How did you notice that?”
I laughed with him. It was funny, but I also felt a bit hopeless.
It was then I realized how strongly it affected me to have something out of place. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was 5-seconds bad.
When I post a picture on social media, I’m not spending time cleaning up to impress anyone. That is how my house looks all the time because I obviously have something to prove to myself.
When people come over and they make comments about how clean and orderly my house is and ask me where all my stuff is, I feel more shame than pride. It’s like wearing my obsessive need on my sleeve.
It’s because I have to have it this way. I can’t live any other way. I wish I could loosen up a bit, but I can’t — for the sake of my own sanity.
I am not better than anyone because my house is sparse and clean. It is this way because I can’t relax enough to let my kids keep their backpacks on the table, or leave a cookie plate on the coffee table for a few minutes. I have to get up and march like a soldier and get that shit put away. I don’t know why. Maybe I think these objects that are out of place are secretly telling me that I’m lazy, or someone will get hurt if things aren’t picked up, or if I let one thing go, I’ll start letting it all go.
I constantly apologize to my kids. I am working on this. I’ve gotten better about leaving their glasses on the table or island. I let them be as messy as they want in their rooms, and I try and ask before I throw out any food that’s lingering in the fridge.
But I need people who are walking into my world to know something: My clean house isn’t a symbol to make you feel less-than. You are normal. My house looks only like this because I’m not sure who I’d be — or what would happen — if I didn’t constantly scan the room and keep everything buttoned up.