catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 6 :: 2011.03.25 — 2011.04.07


Disinfected mind

Spring cleaning is every day.  It’s been that way for a long time. 

I still haven’t been able to figure out why. 

Imagine waking up with a to-do list in your head that secretly rewrote itself while your eyes were closed.  Imagine that happening every day.  Furthermore, imagine every new list being just about indistinguishable from the last.  This weird phenomenon (what I’ll provisionally call Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) has a cumulative effect.  For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever worn clothes out; I just wash them out.  And I’m sure our electricity bill would be more manageable if I vacuumed less, or didn’t run the dishwasher as often as I do, which can sometimes be twice a day.  I don’t know how much I’ve spent on soaps, or bleaches or brushes, brooms and towels.  My only guess is that the sum is overwhelming. 

My favorite aisle in any grocery store, of course, is where all the detergents and mops are kept.  The smell is intoxicating, on a couple of levels.  But I’m drawn to it.  And once I find those aseptic joys, I search for the things I haven’t tried.  And there sure is a lot!  I remember when Swiffer products arrived on the market and how I experimented with the dust mop and the wet mop and the various floor cleaners that can be used with the wet mop.  For as much as I like things to be predictable, the variation of my cadre of cleansers from month to month wouldn’t suggest it.  But I guess this experimentation is still part of a broader approach to always stay one step ahead of dust.  My arsenal is diverse.     

My grandmother tells me stories about how I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing in my room as a little kid until everything had been put away.  EVERYTHING.  The ironic frustration (which persists to this day) is that play invites disorder.  Actually, it needs it.  I can’t understand that. 

I ask myself a lot, and in various contexts, why all of this has to be.  Is it because of the way I think?  Or is it that I have been formed, in that strange behavioral sense, to adopt these habits like they are part of my daily survival?  Or do I clean because I can’t find a way to answer my own question?  I can’t tell. 

One of the most common definitions of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder relies on the idea that if something is done that “gets in the way” of daily functioning, it’s pathological.  But there’s a fine line to traverse there.  For instance, how do we distinguish between idiosyncrasies (which are socially applauded) and pathologies (which are not)?  And if we can manage do to so, what comes after the distinction? These are some of the foundational questions of psychology.  I guess my inability to do anything other than raise them here means something significant about their inscrutability, but I don’t lament this fact like I used to.  I’ve learned that I don’t really have a choice, and in some sense I’ve learned to live with myself.  But in another more important way, I haven’t.    

You see, one way to read my fixation with cleanliness is that it’s a manifestation of loneliness, or a persistent sense that everything is not all right.  That’s a scary thought for anyone.  To a certain extent, I’ve come to cope with this incredible weight by assuring the cleanliness of my environs.  It helps me feel like everything IS okay.  Rarely is this proven more starkly than during moments of personal crisis or high stress.  When I moved to Washington, D.C. after college, for example, and found myself unemployed for three months, I probably did more laundry on a weekly basis than a family of five. 

But it goes beyond the material.  There’s interesting sociological and philosophical scholarship out there that tracks the relationship between human frailty and the various ways we try to evade it, or make it less problematic. The important thing for us clean-freaks to realize is that no amount of scrubbing can permanently undo the feeling.  If it were that easy, the world would probably run out of bleach.    

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