Something I invariably wanted to focus here on my blog is mental illness. Specifically, my own. I think one of the easier parts of feminism is letting go of yourself and focusing on the cause, but as far ableism and mental illnesses (also referred to as MIs) intersect with that, it can often be hard to talk about or discuss.
I’ve noticed that one of the topics a lot of us (my Twitter followers, that is) talk about in relation to our own issues, regardless of what they may be, is keeping a living space clean. I say “living space” because a lot of us do not live in a house. Some of us live in apartments, or even sublet rooms. Some of us still live at home with our parents or relatives. A living space is where, I believe, you spend a good portion of your time. This can include not just the entire domicile (that we may or may not share), or just the portion we’re responsible for.
Let me tell you, cleaning sucks. I don’t think it has to be said that everyone on the face of the planet, MIs or not, usually do not leap at the chance at cleaning things. But add to the fact that people might have anxieties related to cleaning, or fixations, or are working through depression and it suddenly becomes a losing battle to try and do it every day. Add to that fact that a lot of people who suffer from mental illness are acutely aware of this fact? Not having a clean house is practically seared into our brains as “abnormal” and that we’re falling right into the perception that people have of the mentally ill. It sucks. It really does.
I have conflicting problems: I have an intense anxiety about things not being clean and cluttered. But I also sometimes do not have the mental energy to clean. You can see already why this might be a touch problematic. In my mind, a slight amount of mess means my house goes from 0 to Hoarders without much reflection that it is not. I like my living spaces fairly cleaned up, especially my computer desk. The problem arises though when the entire house has gone un-picked up for days and I am in a mushy, depressive slump. It just adds to the guilt, the anxiety and all the other things that woefully come with it. This isn’t new ground, even for the Internet. The responsibility to make things live-able, especially when I have another person inhabiting this place, is a crucial one.
So what do I do? I cannot say that all my tips and tricks will help you. I specifically have anxiety issues and bipolar disorder, and that might not work for you.
- Do a little bit each day – it is so easy to let stuff pile up, especially if you are busy. Doing one chore or something easy every day not only keeps something clean (which is mentally rewarding) but it also lets the entire place from falling apart. It also lessens the work done when you tackle a bigger task like cleaning the stove-top or the bathroom.
- Organize – having things in a certain spot not only helps with me being able to find stuff, but it also means it’s easy to put everything in a place. It creates “flow”, which I think is organizational speak for “you can’t sit on the floor eating ice cream with a plastic shovel with your shoes in the sink.”
- Break it down – take bigger tasks and make them into lots of little ones. It means you can come back and not feel overwhelmed if you have to stop.
- Schedule (or not) – This is one of those suggestions that is fairly polarizing. Some people work amazingly well with a schedule, others don’t. I like a schedule to some degree whether it is a deadline (“Get this done by this date”) or a regular day to do things. Being flexible does help though, which is why I give myself a couple of days leeway on even weekly tasks.
- Get help! – This is pretty crucial if you have a partner, housemate or significant other living with you. Ask for help. It’s not a big deal. I know how it feels you should be able to maintain an entire household but some days you can’t. It’s not bad. You’re not a bad person. Sometimes this might mean, if you can afford it, getting a cleaning person. I do not have a cleaning person but I know some friends of mine who do. That’s okay! Sometimes we don’t have enough time (or spoons, or whatever) to clean.
- Admit defeat, do it gracefully – don’t cycle yourself into a guilt spiral if you don’t get to clean stuff. Cleaning is something you can do when you feel better. Shaming yourself doesn’t get it done nor does it make you feel better.
The Problem With Cleaning and Media Perceptions of Mental Illness
One of the biggest pressures I think those of us with MIs face with regards to our living spaces is that it the easiest way to appear “normal” – so much advertising and media, especially aimed at those of us who identify as women, is focused on a tidy home. It’s what we as women need to focus on! Whether it is the latest product for cleaning, or some way to make our lives easier to clean, a spotless home is considered central to a woman’s value and her public life if you believed ads. As a feminist, especially one with a mental illness, it’s pretty easy to see how society focuses on clean homes as a way of conforming to feminine performativity and how mental illness can cause us to spiral down when we cannot perform a basic task expected of us. It afflicts us in all stages of life: a single woman with matted hair and lots of cats, a married woman who shames her husband. I could talk a lot more about just the basic problem with regards to women and MIs, but I feel that might be a longer blog post for another time.
Another problem is that a lot of the gross, exploitative reality TV shows out there often pick on people with MIs or other problems (like being poor, ya!) so that it reinforces the notion that you’re a terrible person if you have MIs and live in a pigsty. It conflates all MIs with “unhealthy” levels of cleanliness. The aforementioned Hoarders does this quite well. Hoarders is one of those shows I really need to not watch, but I succumb to the temptation sometimes when it’s late at night and I’m up on Netflix. It is to my anxieties that most horror films are to children – I watch it through my fingers sometimes. But what I’m ultimately left with is how much TV plays on the idea that people with mental illnesses are unable to function normally all the time. While this might be true for some people, a great deal of people manage a couple portions of their lives (if not all of it) in a typical fashion. Mental illnesses can disable our ability to function in some areas, but not all. And if they do? That’s part of dealing with an illness. I just feel that so many reality TV shows profit off the idea that crazy people are all living in gross nest of our own excrement, and don’t really empathize with how someone on that show might get that way. Hoarding is part of a complex network of psychological pitfalls and anxiety. It’s one more way that media fails at representing those of us with MIs in a responsible, realistic fashion.
I’d really enjoy it if advertising and popular media didn’t fixate so heavily on our living spaces being the clear shame and identifier of our lives. I’d really love it if we didn’t exploit those of us with MIs for popular entertainment. I’d love it if I didn’t feel so compulsed to keep a house spotless because I’m a woman, and didn’t have such issues with it because of my anxiety.