Friday, March 8, 2019

It's Not For Pinterest, It's For My Mental Health

Not my real home, by any means.

My mother-in-law recently visited and stayed with us for about a month. I wanted her to feel welcome and at home but most of the time, I wondered if my home felt too 'sterile' for her, too 'stiff'. I made it a point to keep repeating to her that I didn't care what she touched, used or whatever, I just wanted her to feel comfortable. But then she always made a comment about how neat and organized everything was, and though I took it as a compliment, I also wondered if my home made her feel stifled. I hope not. 

She isn't the first one to make that observation. Every so often someone would visit and give the same compliment about how neat and put together everything looks. I appreciate such comments but if I'm being totally honest, I can't say it gives me pride. A lot of the times I shrug it off, say thank you with a bit of a nervous laugh, and then, depending on how comfortable I am with the person, I say, "It helps my sanity"...or some iteration of that. I think people assume that I say that jokingly, but really I don't. 

I was prompted to write all this today because of Wendy Wisner's essay on Scary Mommy, where she admits to having the need to keep a neat home because of her anxiety disorder.

I, too, get stressed out with messes. I can tolerate a certain level of it but definitely not for a prolonged period of time. This is why I try not to linger too much in my husband's work space. I know I'd end up throwing a bunch of stuff or putting things away where he might no longer locate them, both of which will end in a fight, hence more tension and stress for me. I've learned that the best thing is to keep my blinders on and offer him some help in organizing every now and then. 

Don't get me wrong, no space in my house is perfect, and my office in particular is not as clutter-free as I want it to be. However, I always feel the need to have 'stacks' or 'groupings' or 'containerized messes', basically any method that just allows me to see open, clear surfaces...breathing room, if you will. Otherwise, it becomes unbearable for me, and I feel suffocated. 

When messes build up in my space (I'm not one to judge other people's homes), I get cranky, my chest feels tighter than normal, I get tension headaches, and then I can't control the compulsion to tear through the messy space and ruthlessly declutter. There have been a few times when my husband has had to step in to snap me out of this trance and call me out on my unreasonable grouchiness. It's not a pretty sight, which is why I've learned that the secret is to not let any space I frequently see get to that point of chaos.

The relationship between clutter and stress isn't anything new. The science behind it was even further highlighted by a UCLA study of 32 families in Los Angeles confirming that the more 'stuff' one possessed, the more elevated the stress hormones were, particularly for the mothers. 

I've never been formally diagnosed, but I don't need a doctor to tell me that I'm an anxious person. Unfortunately, my anxiety bothers me enough to consider the possibility that I do have an anxiety disorder and led me to check the Mayo Clinic website to read the list of symptoms. I pretty much checked off 8 out of the 12 listed. 

When anxiety strikes, it's often a challenge for me to control. My brain races and I catch myself starting to hyperventilate. I can't even begin to tell you the amount of effort I put in to calm myself down, to rationalize, to observe my thoughts and practice mindfulness as Eckhart Tolle teaches. 

I pray, whether it be personal words or something repetitive like the rosary to silence my mind. 

I talk to my husband and ask him to help put things in perspective, knowing that my brain is on overdrive and can only see worst-case scenarios. 

It's like being in a speeding car that I neither have any control over, nor desire to be in. 

I feel stuck. It can be scary. It's exhausting. 

A lot of the times, all I can do is wait for it to pass. I think that's still a blessing, that I'm able to convince myself that this too shall pass

And 'this' could be anything: my son's health or a minor illness he's going through; a home repair that needs to be done; an upcoming vacation; some unfounded, out-of-the-blue worry about family overseas...really mostly things no one has much power over. 

These things I worry about I can't control, and there's no telling when or how they will pass. So in the meantime, I control what I can—my physical surroundings, my home's stuff. Sometimes, the more out of control my inner world is, the greater the compulsion to organize my physical surrounding. It's really about feeding my sanity a sense of order which bears the fruit of a sense of comfort, calm, and predictability for me. Where predictability exists, a sense of power resides. 

No one likes the feeling of powerlessness. And this compulsion for neatness is definitely one of the ways I'm able to feel that I'm not completely powerless after all; that not everything in my world is unpredictable and that I don't have to ride that speeding, reckless car at least for the moment. 

I don't want anyone's pity. I'm not sure if all this revelation on the darker side of my mind is a total surprise to anyone who personally knows me, or if it's something that's always been apparent. But whether or not this changes how people see me, all I ask is for you to have more compassion for anyone who you suspect suffers from anxiety. 

It's definitely not something we desire, something not all of us choose to simply medicate, and we absolutely hate the thought of inconveniencing others with this burden. 

But it is what it is, and I'm doing my best to keep it together, to cope how ever I can, even if it means hours and hours of sorting and clearing away the cobwebs, at least the tangible ones for now. 


  1. I like an ordered home. I do get nervous when I am in a cluttered home. I have to not look around!

  2. I also can't take a cluttered home. I'd much rather have a home that's "too neat" than one that's messy and out of control. I've been in them and they give me hives. Your house looks lovely and peaceful.

  3. Our home is very uncluttered too (I feel like we were way ahead of our time with minimalism!) We often have people comment on how we don't have a lot of stuff and our kids said that their friends thought we had a "display home" like the builders use to get sales! I'm not going to apologize to anyone for having a clean, tidy and junk free house - consumerism disgusts me a little and I like the fact that we don't fill our house with stuff that we don't need. I think your reasons are just as valid - you're right - it is what it is :)


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