My uncle often tells the story of how every Sunday when he’d visit my parents (pre-divorce), they’d drink tea and chat, and every five minutes or so, my dad would jump up and straighten the tassels on the rug so that they were all in perfect symmetry.
Cut to 43 years later, and last week my uncle watched as I jumped up and hovered with a dustbuster over the light gray rug in my house that seems to attract particles of dust and dirt like a magnet. I hover over it twice a day, sometimes three. I simply cannot relax if it’s dirty. I watch TV with my husband, but secretly I’m watching the pieces of lint staring at me, willing me to clean them. Eventually I can sit no more, and up I jump to grab the dustbuster, as my husband pauses the TV and complains that my OCD is out of hand.
And he’s right, it’s a problem. I’ve been to a therapist about it; I explained to her that I couldn’t go to bed if the cushions on the sofa weren’t straight and my other cleaning obsessions. She told me to try and let things go more. Did it work? Yes and no. I try — I really do — to not “sweat the small stuff” and yet, I do. I can’t relax, think straight, or function if the house is a mess.
So where does it all stem from? While my father’s own OCD likely has something to do with it, it also comes down to my anxiety. I was an anxious kid who felt very stressed about my family situation and the fact that I had no control over it. (My parents were divorced and at one point I had three different homes I lived in.) In therapy, we worked out that my lack of control over where I lived, who my parents dated, and who they broke up with, made me feel like I needed to have control over other areas of my life. Some people develop anorexia, or bulimia, or form addictions; I needed order.
And I still do. My husband has found me naked post-shower, tidying our sock drawer because “I have to.” Or getting out of bed at night to organize the dressing table. Or wandering around the house room by room, methodically checking things off my list as I pack to go on vacation. He says I never “switch off.”
And this obsession to have everything tidy ALL THE TIME is taking a toll on my kids. They’re nervous and jumpy, exhausted by the endless cleanups and angry at my inability to have a single thing out of place. Sometimes I feel like I’m not letting them express themselves and enjoy their own space. I need to loosen up and let go — I know that. But easier said than done.
Part of the issue is my fear that if things are disorganized, then I’ve somehow failed. I’m always worrying about what others think and whether or not they think I cut it as a mom/friend/colleague/writer, so a messy house only adds to my fear that I’m not “good enough.” I wish I could just be more like my husband, who doesn’t give a hoot about what anyone thinks and happily dances to his own (messy) tune.
In therapy, I explained that when my friends came to dinner the other night, as we sat and talked, all I could focus on were my kids’ handprints all over the walls. She smiled kindly and said, “But you have children and that is just part of having a happy, healthy family — a visual reminder of all you have.”
Could it really be as simple as a change of perspective? Are those dirty, grubby mark all over the walls a sign of our failures, or cute reminders of the life we have created? It’s time I started thinking the latter.
I’m off now to vacuum, tidy up, mop the floor make a cup of tea, and try to relax. Who’s with me?More On