I touched on this theme in my last blog post, but I wanted to go a bit deeper. To do so, I have to tell you a story.
I used to be a total slob. During my 18th birthday party, I opened up my bedroom door to find my super-meticulous gay boy best friend grinning smugly at me from my bed. He was dwarfed by my knee-high piles of clothes, books, and random teenage debris and was thoroughly enjoying the look of abject horror on my face. Now, I wouldn’t have made an episode of Hoarders, but I wasn’t far off. I was “messy”, not “dirty” – I told myself. And for the most part it was true. Weirdly, this same friend ended up being my first housemate a few months later, but only on the condition that I keep my slovenly nature firmly behind my closed door. I did, and for years, that was my modus operandi.
With housemates or lovers, I managed to keep it together in shared spaces and then exploded all over whichever room of the house was branded ‘mine.’ It was kind of like sucking your gut in all day long and then letting it go as soon as you walked in the front door. I thought of myself as the kind of person who didn’t “see” mess. I wasn’t bothered by it. Messy was my default state. Cleaning was a pretense I put on for others, and very possibly a Tool of the Man(TM). I had better things to do with my precious time than obsess over things like…y’know, drawers or like…hangers. Whatever. I was CHANGING THE WORLD, ferthaluvvagawd. No time for dusting the goddamn knickknacks!
I kept things relatively in check largely (maybe solely) due to the fact that I hate not being able to find things. I’d occasionally go on frustration-fueled cleaning benders that would result in the sparklin’est, smell-goodin’est room you ever did see. I mean, when I do shit, I DO SHIT – I just didn’t happen to do shit all that *often*. On those days, I would feel pretty darn good about myself. I would sleep a lot better, my mood would pick up and life would feel less stressful. This would last for approximately 1 week, maybe 2, and then the mess would start creeping in at the sides again. And by the mess, I mean me. Leaving shit. In piles. Like, everywhere.
Just before my 30th birthday, my long-term partner and I broke up. We sold the house we had together and I bought my own. For the first time in my entire life, I lived alone. I totally sucked at it.
I lived in my house like I was a college kid renting a room from myself. I unpacked most of my few belongings into my bedroom – and that’s where I spent most of my time. It, of course, was messy. But the larger problem was that I had no idea what to do with the REST of the house. It was a veritable wasteland. I had reverse claustrophobia. The emptiness made me feel lightheaded, untethered.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have money. I could have furnished the place if I’d wanted to. It was just that I honestly had no idea how to make a home for myself in the larger sense. I could decorate a ROOM. But 3 bedrooms? A dining room, patio, kitchen, living room, and family room on top? No one to compromise with. No one but me to make all the decisions. I knew I had to do something, but I felt paralyzed. To deal with it, I went totally SPOCK on myself; function over form, logical choices.
What did I need? I was an activist. I made a successful line of lip balm. I needed space for meetings! To stack tins! Therefore, I bought 6 totally uncomfortable wooden chairs and a monolithic, emotionally barren 8′ oak table and and put it smack dab in the middle of the living room. It was like those movies where they have to pass the salt on roller skates. Then I basically spent the next two years hiding from it in my bedroom, avoiding its vast, empty expanse which seemed a perfect visual metaphor for my angst.
I lived a total bachelor existence; condiments-only fridge, fast food or restaurant dinners with an occasional culinary feat thrown in, like boiling pasta or nuking a potato. I was on the run, constantly out with friends or lovers and dreading the nights when no one was available to distract me from myself. I woke up every morning in my cluttered bedroom, opened my eyes to chaos and mess, rushed through the desert of discomfort that was my home, and left it as quickly as possible. This went on for a good three years. The rest of my life was seemingly together – friends, good job, steady dating life, exciting activist work, travel, etc. But my home remained a strange combo of contained clutter and disused space. I had nowhere to rest. And it was beginning to wear on me.
I have an awesome therapist. So awesome, in fact, that I still talk to her over Skype now and then, even though I’ve moved to a whole ‘nother country. And I’d totally been avoiding talking to her about this because I knew I was going to have to ‘work through’ stuff to fix it. I was going to have to stop running. Sit still with myself. But it had to be done.
“I just, I don’t get it – you know how you’re driving along and you see some lady out in her front garden, all by herself, pulling up weeds or planting flowers? Like, what makes her do that? She could be out talking to friends, or inside watching TV or reading a book. What makes her choose to do something…I dunno, productive? Why isn’t she inside stuffing cheese slices into her face and watching Matlock?”
My therapist nodded along as I ranted. “It’s like she’s good company for herself, you know? Like the quiet doesn’t scare her. I bet her room is even clean.”
I don’t think therapists are *supposed* to laugh at you, but mine does pretty frequently. “I just, I’m waiting for the switch to flip. The one where something clicks inside me and suddenly everything makes sense and I’m a grown-up and I magically know how to stir-fry vegetables and sleep without the TV on at night and when it’s time to change the sheets.”
At this point, she shushed me. “It’s not a switch.” She said, calmly. “It’s not an overnight thing. It happens gradually. Right now you have a pretty high tolerance for being miserable. The amount of misery you’re willing to endure before you take action on it is fairly substantial. But the fact that you’re in here talking about it shows that this is starting to shift. This is taking action. It’s one level. There will be plenty more to come. And as you take each step and figure out its benefits, you’ll find that your tolerance for being miserable decreases – and one day you’ll turn around and look at your life, whether you’re out in the garden pulling weeds or changing the sheets on your bed, and you’ll realize that the switch was flipped a while ago.”
I’d never heard it put like that. It sounded really far-fetched to me, especially the part about pulling weeds. But – tolerance for misery? That sounded TERRIBLE. Was that actually what was happening? Was I just so used to being miserable that I didn’t even notice any longer? Was the fact that I didn’t “see” mess some kind of learned helplessness? It kinda made me mad. At first, at myself – ‘cuz that’s how I do. But then, I started getting mad at all the things/people/situations that set me up to accept misery from an early age, things that found me focused on survival instead of thriving, being hyper-vigilant instead of merely present and calm, things that made a little girl want to make her bedroom a NOT inviting place. Stuff like that. It was a lot to chew on. So mostly I just chewed.
After a few months, my metaphorical jaw got tired and I decided it was time for action. The first thing I needed to do was to totally not do anything at all. I needed to stop manically making social plans to fill every possible moment with distractions. I needed to be Good Company for myself. My situation was extreme so I decided the shift needed to be extreme as well. Like I said, when I do things, I DO THINGS. So I circled a date on the calendar and told my friends to consider me sequestered and totally off-limits for socializing for three months, starting then. It was gonna be trial by fire, baby. I was gonna get good and goshdarn comfortable with myself, even if it killed me. My friends thought I was crazy, of course. And mostly I was. But this was a Big Deal and I needed to make it an Event to stop myself from sliding back into my patterns. I was fascinated by the prospect, and totally terrified.
I set about preparing my ‘nest.’ If I was going to be sequestered in my house, I had to stop being scared of it. The dining table needed to be put in its place. I scooped out its extra leaves, bunched it down to a more manageable 6′ length, and moved it into the actual dining room. There, I smothered its menacing expanse in an orange silk runner, jewel-toned tealight holders, rustic placemats and a twiggy candelabra. It sat there in drag, looking contrite. I patted myself on the back and set off for someplace where they sold Real Furniture.
Over the next three weeks, I gathered a couch and loveseat, lamps, coffee tables, a TV, curtains (I lived on a 4 lane road for 3 years WITHOUT CURTAINS), proper kitchen utensils and all the functional things I needed to turn my house into a place I wanted to be. I bought decorations. I set up an altar. I cleaned my room.
Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get home after work. To rest. Resting was new. I hadn’t rested in YEARS. I sat on comfortable furniture and read books, watched TV instead of just listening to it as I fell asleep, napped. As the date loomed nearer for my social quarantine, I began to realize that the process of getting myself ready for it had actually rendered it completely unnecessary. I felt calm. Invested in my own well-being. My tolerance for being miserable had shifted considerably.
It wasn’t like, from that precise moment, I became a total neat-freak and I was completely organized and hung up all my clothes and learned how to cook and shop and pull weeds. First, I freakin’ hate pulling weeds, so that is just NEVER gonna happen. But you know, as I look back these 5 years later — I have done all those things. I am a pretty good cook now. I still have to look up words, I still rely on recipes and I still mess simple things up. But I’m getting there. I still leave little piles of papers on the coffee table, but it’s contained to one little corner and it gets sorted through with regularity. I’m still not awesome at hanging up my clothes (in fact my girlfriend refers to the semi-regularly occurring stack of shirts next to the wardrobe as my “little homeless friend” and teases it with cups of change) but it lasts a week, tops. And then I deal with it. I even clean when I’m stressed out now, because I find it soothing.
I still have a long way to go and my tolerance for being miserable around some things is still higher than I’d like. But taking an objective step back from the life I lead now and contrasting it with the life I lead back then, the difference is pretty astounding. I may not yet be my own best friend, but I am infinitely better company than I used to be. I don’t claim to have any magical answers for anyone else. For me, I just began to realize that the clutter around me had a genuine impact on my emotional health and, after admitting that to myself, it became less and less possible for me to ignore it. Mess became a blaring siren instead of white noise. Cleaning up felt less like an earnest but unnatural effort at self-care and more like a simple requirement. With each passing year, more and more things make that shift and I feel more and more holistically invested in my well-being. What worked for me may not for others who struggle in the same ways, but here’s hoping my story helps another to tip their own scales of tolerance from misery back to joy.