Monday, December 31, 2012

Cleanliness is next to what now?

Hoarder's children don't learn how to keep a house clean. (I know, I know. Bow to the Queen of Stating the Obvious.) Not only do we not learn how to clean, but we also learn a complete lack of consistent routine; ironically, rampant perfectionism (of the "if you can't do it perfectly, you might as well not even start" variety); and a sense of being completely overwhelmed by life (hoarders aren't exactly known for teaching their kids how to break a task into smaller, accomplishable pieces). That, plus my mother's voice in my head ("Everybody else knows how to do it. You're just really lazy") have made figuring out this home maintenance thing an uphill climb.

Here's the thing, though. As my personal life completely imploded over the last year or so, I began to realize how much living in chaos affects my outlook and stress level. Even if I have a well-developed case of hoarder's child clutter blindness, at some level I do register the mess and feel stressed by it. And so, fifteen years after leaving my mother's home, I set about really figuring out how to address this issue once and for all. Here are some of the highlights of what I've learned.

1. Cut yourself some slack. As a culture, we view people who don't keep their houses clean in a truly negative light. I really struggled to let go of viewing my messiness as a deep, personal flaw. What worked for me was to take a deep breath and replace my mother's voice ("What's wrong with you?") with something I would say to a friend in the same situation (usually, "Do you realize how much you've already gotten done today? No wonder you're tired"). Repeat about a million times, and you'll be on your way.

2. Have less stuff. Some children of hoarders go the stark minimalist route. Some, like me, just struggle with having a bit too much clutter. I now keep a Goodwill bag in my closet. When I come across something that isn't useful, loved, or beautiful, into the bag it goes. Every month or so, I donate the bag o' crap so it can go clutter someone else's house. Less stuff to maintain = less time cleaning = more freedom.

3. Learn how to clean. Read blogs and books about cleaning. Learning how other people do it not only demystifies the process, but makes it seem a lot more doable. It also lends itself to learning tips that streamline some of the little annoyances in your life. (Among my favorites? Store sheet sets in one of the matching pillowcases. It keeps your sheets together and negates the fact that you couldn't care less about folding the fitted sheet neatly! Another super-handy one is to keep a dish wand (the kind that stores cleaner in the handle and has a scrubber on the end) in the shower and wash it down while you're in there. My shower has never been cleaner!).

4. Ask a friend. A really good, non-judgmental friend. I've discovered that pretty much everyone I've talked to would like their house to be cleaner, which makes me feel better. For the really ridiculous questions, though, it's been great to be able to go to my best friend. She knows all about my hoarder mother and never makes me feel silly for asking questions I should probably know the answer to already. (How much time per day do you spend cleaning? Wait, you clean your washer?)

5. Figure out what works for you. There are about a million systems out there for keeping your house clean. I've had a bear of a time figuring out which one might work for me. They all seem so overwhelming. I finally started small, with setting a timer for 15 minutes a day and cleaning whatever was bothering me the most until it went off. Did I do this perfectly every day? Nope. Did it simplify things enough that I felt less paralyzed about just diving in and getting started? Yep. Recently, I've combined this strategy with matching a particular task and/or room to a day of the week. Cleaning on a rotating basis takes away the indecision and also makes me feel like I have a deadline. Vacuum on Sundays, deep-clean the kitchen on Mondays, living room on Tuesdays... (Full disclosure: I've tried this system before and always ended up quitting and feeling like a failure. If I was too tired or lazy or sick  to do the work on Monday or Tuesday, I'd tack it onto Wednesday's workload and pretty soon be so overwhelmed that I'd just throw in the towel. What makes this time different is that if I skip a day, I actually skip it. Didn't do laundry on Wednesday? No problem. The next laundry day is Saturday. I'll do it then.)

6. Perspective is key. I have a tendency to be an all-or-nothing thinker (again, thanks, Hoarder Mom!). "I didn't clean the house today" somehow turns into "I'll never figure out how to do this" which turns into "I'm a terrible person." Keeping things in perspective helps keep the emotionally charged topic of cleaning house from becoming, well, emotionally charged. If you can stop this train of thought in its tracks, "I didn't clean the house today" can become "Well, at least I finished the dinner dishes, and that's okay. Wait, I'm okay!" And that feels pretty good.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Blargh. Holidays.

Typically, I'm not as Scrooge-y as this post title would suggest. I love me a plate of Christmas cookies as much as the next gal, preferably consumed in a spruce-y smelling home filled with beatific loved ones.

Okay, so I've got the cookies. The beatific loved ones? Not so much. Then again, apart from Madison Avenue's Christmas ads, who actually does? Given that I'm fully aware of my family's lack of basic functionality, Hallmark holidays aren't something I've ever actually expected. What has taken me by surprise this holiday season, as I work through the emotional detritus of being raised by a hoarder mother and a absentee-ish father, is how sadness about that has bubbled to the surface.

If you haven't been following along on my internal journey, allow me to recap: I grew up with an emotionally abusive, mentally ill hoarder mother. (I almost typed "I was raised by" until I realized that, as I spent most of my childhood parenting my mother, it would be more accurate to say I raised her.) My angry father avoided the chaos of home by spending the majority of my waking hours at work. I've popped in and out of therapy over the last decade. This is largely spurred by my tendency to crash in and out of wildly unhealthy relationships that, when examined later, make me feel dumber than toast. Given that I'm not actually dumber than toast (or any other breakfast food, for that matter), after the latest unspeakably spectacular implosion of my personal life, I decided I should probably buckle down and figure my shit out.

And so, here I am. I've never been especially into blaming my parents for my mistakes. I'm sure this is largely due to growing up with a mother who blamed everyone but herself for her mistakes, but I have a larger-than-average bent toward personal responsibility. (Occasionally, this means I take responsibility for other people's lives, too, but that's another post. And more fodder for the therapist's couch.) I'm a grown-ass woman, for god's sake, and I'm the one making my choices.

Except I'm realizing more and more that, while I am making my own choices, they are profoundly impacted by (wait for it!) my mother. (That will come as no surprise to you. For me, on the other hand, it's like a most unpleasant excavation of my internal workings, fraught with repeated realizations of how much the messages she gave while growing up have affected my adult life.) Hence my current attitude toward the holidays. This season is often difficult, but this year, I have the added layer of a wash of hostility toward and complete lack of desire to spend any time with my mother. My solution thus far is to not visit for the holidays. That, plus lots of deep breathing, self-medicating chocolate consumption, therapy, and running seem like they'll get me through January 2nd and out the other side of the holiday season. Until next year, anyway.