Confessions of a Clean Freak

It’s no secret to the people who know me: I’m a level 10 clean freak.

I can’t help who I am, mind you. I suspect part of it is having grown up with a clean freak mom, one who worked tirelessly to keep the house clean and orderly when we were growing up.

Some nights, after dinner was cleared, she forbid us from revisiting the kitchen in case we spoiled the tidied perfection. She would vacuum constantly, mapping fresh tracks along the carpet, and loathed our chocolate-colored 80s fiberglass tub because it stubbornly refused to gleam.

There were times she’d grow hysterical with frustration — with the constant effort of keeping it all spotless. My sister and I were usually the target of this frustration (and fairly so, because we were also the trigger), and thereby enlisted in the work of bringing it up to standard again.

It used to drive me crazy that we were forced to abide by her ideals. We tried, on the rare occasion, to get away with half-assing the work, pretending that we’d done as we were told, but there was no fooling Mom. She was attuned to disorder, and that made compliance our shortest route to freedom.

It maybe sounds a bit extreme, but its not like we were forced, military-style, to scrub the floors with a toothbrush. I understand now that Mom’s preference for cleanliness wasn’t to punish us, but to maintain the sense of peace and ease she gleaned from exacting order over her environment. I understand because now, as an adult, I’m exactly the same.

There’s no doubt, of course, that my upbringing conditioned me to favour cleanliness. My younger sister shares this trait; we joke about our obsession, the need to keep order.

I used to bemoan Mom’s constant nagging and fretting, and now I run the vacuum several times a day, erasing dog hair and cat litter and migratory tree bits. I have, on many occasion, descended into hysteria over the dilemma of cleaning, and have likewise pushed myself to the brink of collapse in the name of flawlessness.

I cannot tolerate spots on the bathroom mirror, fingerprints on the kitchen counter or pine needles collecting in the doorway. Even if I’m sitting comfortably watching TV in the evening and an undetected film of dust suddenly appears in the shifting light, it takes every ounce of being not to attend to it immediately. Most times I submit, preferring the momentary disruption to the nagging discomfort of knowing it exists.

I sometimes drive my husband nuts with my Danny Tanner-level fanaticism, demanding his support in keeping things precise. He complains often that I’m annoying and unreasonable, but accommodates my requests out of love, and because his own standards of cleanliness have evolved in our years of being together.

The truth of the matter is that it makes me feel good keeping things spotless and organized. For one, I appreciate being able to enjoy my surroundings and the absence of clutter. I get to enjoy the rewards of designing and cultivating a space that looks and feels good, so that when I sit down to write or do yoga or read, I’m not preoccupied by messiness and things that need doing.

I savor being able to make our home a sanctuary and respite, a space of comfort and calm. The work to make it this way is exhausting at times, but well worth the reward.

The fact I’m also able to locate what I need when I need it is majorly reassuring.

There’s little else more aggravating than combing through cupboards and drawers, boxes and closets to find something . I’ve never been able to reconcile the idea of a junk drawer because we literally never had one growing up. The notion of tossing random items into an abyss of other similarly random items doesn’t compute.

It makes me feel good to keep things spotless and organized, but there’s also a small level of embarrassment involved. For one, I become unduly stressed about the potential for messiness, finally understanding why it was that Mom commanded us to keep out of the kitchen after the tiring work of restoring order.

When family and friends visit, I try my very hardest to keep my anxiety subdued for the duration of their stay. I can manage, at least for a time, to conceal my distress over the inevitable decline of orderliness. I can, for the most part, surrender to the moment, but not without reflexively cataloging the things needing cleaning once the guests have gone. At the end of each and every visit, I work at erasing the chaos and redeeming our space, relinquishing the original sense of structure and calm.

Of course, the embarrassment follows me outside the home, as well. On weekends away with R. or my friends, I can’t escape the need to wash up the dishes and sweep the floors, wipe the counters and make up the beds. The times we go camping, I habitually tidy the site, gathering beer cans and bug spray and half-eaten bags of chips.

I’ve even been known, when we have plans to be away for a weekend, to launder the bedding in advance of our trip to save myself the trouble in the future. And dare I admit I’m the type of person to empty the contents of their suitcase on the night of returning home, regardless of the hour and degree of exhaustion.

I can be a bit neurotic, there’s no denying the fact. I realized just how much when I injured my foot last January and was unable to walk for many long weeks. In fact, the inability to tidy and clean was one of my biggest torments during that time. I was frustrated and disoriented and resentful of my plight.

My lovely husband did what he was able amid the demands of caring for me and working during the day, and I was grateful for his efforts, but it was one hell of a challenge being forced to surrender my compulsion to clean.

It put things into perspective because it made me understand the extent of my rigidity, my readiness to run myself ragged in the pursuit of perfection. The fact I was unable to clean during those weeks of recovery was frustrating and uncomfortable, but didn’t make the roof come crashing down around me. The world didn’t fall to pieces because I wasn’t able to mop sticky footprints off the kitchen tile or scrub away the faint ring forming in the toilet.

I became aware that my preference for cleanliness could still be a priority without becoming a detriment, and resolved that I would try to always keep this sense of perspective.

It’s a challenge, to be sure. I continue to be directed by the need to keep order, to make things tidy and precise, but at least now I’m able to exercise some level of awareness and recognize when my fixation is practical, and when it borders on lunacy.

It’s not that I care less now about keeping things clean, but that I’m better at prioritizing. Do the bathrooms need scrubbing this very moment, I wonder, or can I put them off until the weekend, when I’m better rested and have more time?

Being a clean freak is hard work, but I won’t apologize for who I am.

Having a spotless home and hyper-organized life work works for me. It can make me neurotic and a little big naggy at times, but I can live with that, because at least my floors are sparkling.

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“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

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