I'll go insane if I have to clean the house!

I've gotten over a lot of stuff, but cleaning fills me with dread and despair

Published September 1, 2005 5:37PM (EDT)

Hi, Cary --

I'm a huge fan of your advice. And now I could really use some.

I'm a 20-something woman who has been blessed with a complicated psyche. Without getting too far into it, I have worked hard for a good percentage of my life to overcome crippling depression, debilitating panic attacks, and an eating disorder. Lately, I've been feeling fantastic.

But I'm left with one glaring psychological problem: I hate to clean. When I'm presented with the task of cleaning (for instance, by a sink filled with dirty dishes), I actually get the symptoms of depression and panic disorder all over again, despite having eliminated those responses to pretty much all the other situations I face in life.

I think the most disturbing (and fascinating) part of this has to do with what I feel when I DO successfully get myself to clean. After completing the job of scrubbing the bathroom or tidying the living room, I'm often filled with a heavy, nearly suicidal dread. I stand there in the clean room, and instead of basking in the fruits of my labor and celebrating my accomplishment, I feel like I want to die.

This seems to happen only with respect to cleaning -- not flying or exercising or working on deadline or any of the other things that used to make me feel bogged down and anxious. As for cleaning-related trauma, I did grow up with a step-parent who was a bit OCD, and my messy adolescent habits caused tension in my household, but we have since resolved our issues. I've tried to let go of all that tension I felt growing up about cleaning (who I was doing it for, and why), and I want to be able to clean for myself so that I can live a fulfilling adult life in a beautiful, livable space.

This problem is getting worse. Perhaps it's become magnified because so many of my other problems have subsided and I have a lot more peace in my life. This whole cleaning thing remains a gaping wound. And my quality of life is really suffering as a result.

I don't think there are any support groups for this particular problem. My shrink has suggested I hire somebody to clean for me and just find a way to get the money (since the prospect of earning extra cash gives me far less angst than the idea of cleaning), but I feel determined to figure out this puzzle.

Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Messy in Mass.

Dear Messy in Mass.,

I love the idea your psychiatrist has; it sounds like a good idea to hire someone to clean. Hiring someone doesn't mean you can't figure out what this is about as well. You can do both. In fact, hiring someone to clean may help you figure it out, by taking some of the pressure off and allowing you to experience the cleaning of your house at a distance. When you've seen it done a few times, you may then begin to imitate certain of the movements of the cleaning person, as a set of new gestures and behaviors.

Well, it's just a thought. Actually, I have had periods where cleaning had a powerful psychological significance. This has happened both with the problem of cleaning the house and also with the problem of cleaning the clothes. In the early 1990s, when I was living in the Haight-Ashbury and had only recently stopped drinking, there was a period when I was overwhelmed with the prospect of cleaning the clothes. At that time, I lived in only one room, so cleaning the house was not a big problem. But the laundry was very challenging. The laundry piled up. It became a malevolent presence. It was a pile of textile rebukes. After a great while I took it all to the Laundromat, but not before pummeling it with my fists. It was as though the laundry hated me and was trying to defeat me. I don't know why this was, except that laundry is one of the few things that cannot be ignored. And it is very close to the body. Either you clean it or it stinks and looks awful. It seems to bring us always back to the problem of the body, how it decays, how it stinks, how it brings us down.

Later, in fact quite recently, when I had become married and had purchased a house and was living in the house with the wife, the house began to be very untidy and unclean. Portions of it gradually became uninhabitable. If I started to clean, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of despair. I began to avoid even trying to clean the house, because of the way it would make me feel when I began. This went on for quite some time, during which the house grew worse and worse.

When we finally called someone to come and clean the house, by watching her clean, I saw how doable it was. I observed the way she did it and it seemed possible for me to do it as well. I was relieved of the feeling of dread and impossibility.

This led me to believe that if we stopped having the person clean our house for us that I would start cleaning it. It looked so easy. It didn't exactly work out that way. When finally, for financial reasons, we discontinued the service, we thought that it wasn't necessary to start cleaning right away. We took a vacation from cleaning. The house looked like it would stay clean forever! But with remarkable speed, the house became dirtier and more untidy. This trend continued unabated for many weeks while we attended to other pressing matters of work and play.

Then when things got really bad we called the cleaning person again. As it turned out, we never really did clean the house the way the cleaning person did. But at least we know that it can be done. It is not hopeless. We do clean. But from time to time, we do not clean enough. All we have to do, though, when things get bad, is call a cleaning person.

What could this possibly mean, this cleaning thing? What is the meaning of cleaning? Could it mean, perhaps, solitude and servitude? For instance, when I am called upon to clean, it is often when I am trapped alone in a house -- or used to be. In my family, cleaning was a kind of servitude. It was used as punishment. If you did something bad you had to clean.

To clean is also to confront your silent enemy of long fruition, the dirt of secret accumulation. It can also represent an encounter with our own decay, which is so distasteful, that heavy, slow, dragging feeling that is the opposite of transcendence. It is an encounter with entropy, the tendency of things to lose their sheen, to grow dull in the air, to corrode, to weaken and rot, to become covered over and eventually unrecognizable. And so, as perhaps one might have guessed, it is ultimately a confrontation with death.

This reminds me that when I was young I thought indeed that we would transcend; anyone who has done LSD even once has probably thought much the same: through this experience we will overcome all our difficulties; we will live in a new, brighter, fuller, truer place. And then (oddly enough, as I was telling my therapist this week!) we feel that old gravity of the animal soul, the death soul, the earth pulling us backward.

Is that why Buddhists like to clean so much?

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