A healthy mind in a tidy house

Time to come clean.

I can’t.

I’m rubbish at keeping my own house clean. That was an unintentional pun, by the way. Coming clean was intentional. Rubbish wasn’t.

I hide my rubbish. I hide this.

The funny thing is, I took these pictures after I’d already vacuumed and mopped the ground floor. I’ve sort of ordered them by progressive messiness. I hadn’t cleaned the ground floor in over two months. Had to do it now, because my dad is coming over to pick up some stuff this Wednesday. Can’t let him see how bad it is. I’m showing it to the internet. Can’t show it to my dad.

(The picture of the cat hair? My entire living room was like that. Upstairs is still like that.)

Another funny thing is that I’m actually pretty good at the physical act of cleaning. I know what to do and how to do it. I was a professional cleaner for two years. Old ladies with a life’s experience of housekeeping gave me compliments on how well I kept their house clean. I’m good at it. And very thorough.

Which is where the autism comes in, I suppose.

Not only do I have problems with executive function, actually getting to the point where I can start cleaning and not overanalysing all the things I need to do and becoming completely paralysed from all the choices involved, I also have a problem with doing a half-arsed job. I look at a household chore and picture what the end result needs to be. And then I want to make that happen. I focus too much on the end result. And with housekeeping that means I usually end up feeling either overwhelmed or like I haven’t accomplished enough.

Because housekeeping is far more about doing a little bit each day and not worrying about getting it “done”.

And I can’t do that. Once I start, I need to finish it. I need to reach that end goal in order to get my dopamine hit. My happy buzz. My sense of achievement. My reward.

So instead, everything about household chores seems designed to make me feel like even more of a failure than I already feel I am.

And that’s when you get those pictures.

There’s two reasons why I can finally be honest about this. Firstly, I hope this will make someone else on the spectrum feel a bit better about their own mess. You’re not the only one. There are many of us who struggle. When you’re struggling, it’s no good beating yourself up about it: you need to find other ways to cope. I’m still working on it, but I think that admitting to myself that I won’t get that satisfaction from cleaning, that I won’t need to do it perfectly because there’s no reward anyway, will help me in that.

Secondly, this is not the worst it’s ever been. The worst would need a trigger warning for contamination OCDs and probably a hazmat suit.

The title “A healthy mind in a tidy house” is a play on the Latin Mens sana in corpore sano, which means a healthy mind in a healthy body. This is taken to mean that a person is only healthy when he is occupied both intellectually and physically.

Update: I’ve managed to make some progress!

35 thoughts on “A healthy mind in a tidy house

  1. Oh my gosh, I just wrote something about this to post on Wednesday! Can I link to this post? Your description of why this happens is a little different from mine and would make a nice companion piece.

    I think perfectionism plays into it for me too. Cleaning can feel so overwhelming and I get exhausted just thinking about it. Then starting feels like an even bigger chore so I put it off more but then it only gets worse. Such a vicious cycle. Plus there’s the whole, “I’m only going to have to do this again next week/month/whenever” problem.

    • I don’t know what to say! Of COURSE you can link to this post, I’d feel incredibly honoured and flattered! Thank you!

      I’m still trying to figure out the why, there’s many aspects to it. There’s the perfectionism like you describe, and the executive dysfunction that I struggle with. The overanalysing also plays a big part for me. Describing the thought process behind doing the dishes to someone else even made them feel tired and overwhelmed! And when I don’t have enough energy to complete the entire process, I don’t even start.

      • My post is about why I can’t even seem to do the little things, like trimming a stray thread off a rug that I’ve been noticing every time I go in the bathroom for weeks! It’s ridiculous. The big stuff just feels insurmountable, which is why I have someone come in a do a thorough cleaning every two weeks. It’s not even a luxury, it’s a necessity. Otherwise, like you said, haz mat suits might be needed. 🙂

        • Oh, that was one thing I didn’t mention. I had a pot of leftover rice sitting on the hob. When it started to become a bit smelly, I moved it outside. This was just before I took the pictures.

          I can’t remember when exactly I screwed up the courage to open the pot and throw out whatever was in it. About two weeks later I think.

          It was moving. Literally. Think red goop with white larvae writhing inside it.

          I had to lean back as far as I could while emptying it in the garbage bag. IN THE OPEN AIR. And even so I could barely keep from throwing up. The smell was that awful. Like it completely bypassed my brain and just went straight into my stomach. My cat came to look what I was doing and EXPLODED towards the back of the garden. I have no other words for the burst of speed he put on.

          I wish I could say emptying a pot like that was the first time for me. But it was certainly the worst.

    • The dish washing example, if you’re interested, went like this:

      • Clean out sink.
      • Make sure drain isn’t clogged.
      • Start running hot tap.
      • Determine correct temperature based on amount of dishes. More dishes = water needs to stay hot longer.
      • Locate brush.
      • Add dish washing liquid.
        • Make sure to use enough to get everything clean.
        • But not too much, bubbles will obscure fragile things and knives. Dangerous.
      • Start putting dirty plates in sink. Because my drying rack is small, this has to be done in the below order so that the biggest plates end up on the drying rack first.
        • Breakfast plates
        • Deep (pasta) plates
        • Dinner plates
      • Start adding forks and spoons and dinner knives.
      • Add serving spoons and big sharp knives.
      • Check if there is enough room on kitchen counter to put drying rack.
        • If not, make more room by stacking leftover dirty stuff.
      • Unfold drying rack.
      • Do dishes in reverse order of putting in. Big sharp knives first.
      • Place everything on drying rack.
      • Check water temperature and cleanliness.
        • If cold and dirty, empty sink, then start from top.
        • If warm and clean, proceed with rest of dishes.
      • Start putting bowls in sink.
      • Add coffee and tea mugs.
      • Add sturdy glasses.
      • Do fragile wine glasses one by one. I’ve had a wine glass break in my hand. Not fun.
      • Do rest in reverse order of putting in.
      • Place everything on drying rack.
      • If there is no room left on drying rack, clean kitchen counter with cloth.
      • Check water temperature and cleanliness.
        • If cold and dirty, empty sink, then start from top.
        • If warm and clean, proceed with pots and pans.
      • Clean pots and pans one by one, saving greasiest ones for last. If needed, soak.
      • Dry off pots and pans one by one because by now there’s no room left on the counter.
      • Put away pots and pans.
      • Empty and clean sink.
      • Wait for rest of dishes to dry before putting away.

      By this point, I usually go do something else and then forget to put stuff away. Which means I end up using things that are on the rack for about 5 days until I run out of room on the kitchen counter between the rack and new stacks of dirty dishes, which is when I put the rest of the clean stuff where it belongs. To make room for dirty stuff.

      • Whoa, that’s a serious process for dish washing. I think I”m the only person in the world who washes dishes the way I do (one piece at a time under a running faucet – probably wastes huge amount of water).

        Regarding that last part, I usually use whatever is out first so there’s less to put away. Same with clean laundry. I’ll toss it all in a pile on the floor (bad habit) then start wearing stuff from the pile. Of course, in the mean time the dirty stuff starts accumulating again.

        • Totally not the only person in the world who washes things one item at a time under the running faucet! Although I was beginning to think that I was the only one, too.

          I have a dishwasher now. It’s very exciting. What does having a dishwasher mean? It means that when I finally tackle the giant pile of dishes in the sink, instead of washing them one at a time under the running faucet, I can rinse them off and put them in the dishwasher. Neat!

      • I know this list sounds extremely OCD. But I don’t think I’m obsessive-compulsive, because it’s not a problem for me to follow a different routine. This is just what goes through my head when I think of doing the dishes.

        • Not only do I wash each piece by hand, one at a time (if at all), but we HAVE a dishwasher! I bought it 10 years ago for an apartment I got after my divorce- it’s portable. I have not used it in 10 years. My husband uses it almost daily, but we’ve only been married for three years.
          Here’s the problem: it has to be hooked up to the faucet. That means I have to:
          1. Clear the top
          2. Clear a spot in the sink, if it is full
          3. Pull out the cords and hoses and connect it
          4. Rinse dishes enough to be washed (I might as well wash them!)
          5. Load the dishes – this is a big deal, due to my spatial awareness problem.
          6. Load them again, because I did it wrong the first time and there’s not enough dishes being washed – this is a big deal because of my ADHD
          7. Put in soap
          8. Turn it on and wait – ADHD again
          9. Put them all away – another big deal because the last stage of a task is nearly impossible for me to accomplish
          10. Unplug and roll back the unit – see above.

          Whew! I’m depressed and exhausted just writing it out. Much easier (though grosser) to leave dishes in the sink and wash them as needed 😦

      • My dishwashing process avoids putting sharp or fragile things in the sink unless I’m in the act of cleaning them. Someone surprised me with a knife in the sink they didn’t tell me about growing up, and I sliced my hand pretty badly. After that, I refuse to put sharp stuff where they’ll be obscured by bubbles, and I yell at anyone who tries to throw a knife in when I’m washing. I do the knives after everything else, and I don’t care if the water will be grimy. Nothing says I can’t fill a new sinkful.

        Reasons why I’m so adamant: In addition to all the nasty infectious things that can grow on pots and pans, I also have a hyperactive vasovagal reflex. Which means when I get a needle or a deep cut, my blood pressure nosedives. Sometimes I pass out. The symptoms other than fainting associated with this are also very unpleasant and usually take about ten minutes to pass for me. Not fun. And by and large avoidable – all I have to do is not put knives in my dishwater.

        Which is yet another reason I’m super glad I wasn’t diagnosed as a kid – if I’d been a kid, that adamant-ness would’ve been chalked up to rigidity and not, y’know, strongly wanting to avoid passing out and feeling a combination of weak, dizzy, shaky, and nauseous for the next ten minutes.

      • Oh God, I’ve had that gross pot o name that food too. It has happened and sat there for a couple of days and no one attempts to move it and at that point I ask hubby to take it outside and get rid of it. Then if I agree to the empty pot coming back into the house I have a sink full of very hot water, detergent and a very healthy does of bleach to clean out and disinfect anything that was growing in it. Ugh. Wish I could say it’s only happened once.

    • You know, I’ve never been diagnosed autistic but this post speaks to me in a lot of ways. I think it’s time to get tested or at least bring it up as a possibility.

      Thanks for this post and I hope you’re doing great and having a wonderful day!

      • Thank you for commenting! It’s such a weird feeling when the things that you always thought were “just you being strange” are in fact shared by a lot of others, isn’t it? I remember when I first came across blogs by autistic adults, and just sat there nodding my head, “yep, this… and this… and ohmygod THIS! I’m not the only one!”

  2. Thank you for sharing… I totally get you on this one. It was particularly interesting to see the photos.

    I get the dishes done by always doing them in one particular order, like a factory line … and put them to dry in one particular order. That makes it easier to start and get it done because it sort of sequences the work into parts where each part does not seem overwhelming. Disadvantage: it really bothers me when my husband does not put the things to dry in the same order, because “I couldn’t find the spoon because it was not in its place!” …but I try to keep myself in check with that…

    For all the other chores, it is still a problem to get them done. I tried making a visual card system on a board with velcro strips, but it didn’t work… It got too complicated and it did not give me the overview, specifications & kick-starter effect that I had hoped for, so I ditched it (well… it still sits on the wall! – but is idle).

    However, I have a new idea: to bundle clusters of related chores like my psychologist initially suggested (I think I wrote about that is in the post you link to…) and create a laminated visual A4 card for each “set” of chores, which specifices & breaks down the tasks (to counter perfectionism & getting lost in details). I imagine I would end up with something like 7 – 10 cards, and I would try to make them visually appealing and simple.

    Lamination means that I can use a white board pen to “tick off” tasks on the card, and then just wipe it all off when I’ve done them all and put the card back in its A4 pocket. And I think the completion & wiping it off will make it easier to see a set of chores as a completed achievement, which enables me to let it go and take a good long break before beginning another cluster. And make it easier to finish whole areas to “OK fine” standard rather than a few tasks to perfection… because the value is in the overall liveability and not in having 1 or 2 brightly clean corners in a sea of chaos…

    So I hope to make a system that make doing chores more like a game where each level is completed before moving on, rather than a neverending hell of household chores that keep popping up everywhere so that it looks like an absurd task to try to keep up with them.

    Extra benefits: it could make sets of household chores (represented by the A4 cards) into negotiable items, for example if I give a card to my husband, then he is responsible for finishing that whole set of chores. Or he could negotiate to give it to me:-) That could make household chores feel & be perceived more like “real” work outside the home where one is being paid per hours & can negotiate benefits. I imagine that could work for kids too:-)

    *Under Construction* 😉 … a slow process, still thinking:-) and of course it is always much easier to get ideas than to carry them out.

    • Thanks! Your post was one of the triggers for me to start thinking about this. I started writing but then I realised it would be really hard for me to describe the chaos… so I started taking pictures. And then it took me about 3 hours to work up the courage to post the pictures. I’ve never let anyone see my house like this.

      I like your ideas about how to make a system that works for chores. The negotiable items sound like fun! I’ve also been experimenting with Goal-Fish but that doesn’t trigger me enough to go and DO something. Under construction, as you say!

      • Thanks for your reply:-) and it makes my day to hear that my post inspired you:-)

        It is a good idea with pictures… it makes it more real and easier to relate to. Despite some differences, my dirty dishes do look enough like your dirty dishes to make it clear that the phenomenon belongs in the same category:-)

        I have had a look on Goalfish earlier, but it doesn’t quite do it for me.

  3. I found an interesting website (with a lot of curse words, so stay away if that’s not your thing), basically addressing the entire messiness problem. The writer does use trigger words like “lazy” but they seem to be very sensitive to the fact that sometimes it all seems too overwhelming and they give very practical advice. The mini challenges are brilliant, like this one: “Open a closet door. Spend five minutes doing something to improve that closet.”

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  5. Hi,
    Just want to let you know that even though I identify as NT my “processing list” for washing-up looks almost identical to yours except I only move each item into the bowl to wash it and then straight onto the drying rack. Water checks happen when the rack is half full and full; and then usually the rack has to be emptied before starting the washing process again with new hot water (or wandering off and forgetting it for half an hour). I absolutely need to organise everything on the side so it goes into wash /dry in the right order before I can actually start washing.
    The real difference, I guess, is that unless I am having a bad day I can plan several of those steps in one go without forgetting where I am or panicking that I have missed one out.
    Good Luck with it all

  6. Hello. I came here from “Musings of an Aspie”. Thanks for writing this blog.

    This specific post, plus the one about dopamine (I switch between everything calling my attention to having little attention to anything at all, but more the first than the second), plus the ones about your executive function experiences when restarting yoga, made me think about my own difficulties with executive function (even for easy things, it’s not like when I procrastinated writing my MSc thesis, it’s “I need to put these papers away in their folder. But my folders are not all tidied up, and I do not know if this is the best way to reorder them, and maybe the papers from this category will not fit this folder and I should order them in a different way, and I’ll never get this finished up, and PANIC and *brain freezes*”).

    I am actually having to fight myself to overcome my difficulties in Executive function as there are things finally realized I want to do but cannot yet get to the “how” or to the “do it”. I do know that I really want to do them.

    Thanks again for your blog. I like what I have read so far 🙂

  7. I’ve absolutely been here, and beaten myself up for feeling like I must be “lazy”! Like you, I know that I’m perfectly capable of cleaning up well. I like to have a clean, organized house. I’m embarrassed when it is not, and someone surprises me by coming by. (Well, embarrassed isn’t the word. Horrified?) I have young children, and, having grown up in a disgusting, bug-and-mold infested house, whose floor you couldn’t walk on, I’m obviously determined to do much, much better for them. I want my home to be spotless, but would settle for “lived in.” But…my apartment still approaches “yuck!” more often than I’d like to admit. Why? I know how to do it. I want to do it. I have the tools with which to do it. I have the time. And, I’m not a lazy person.

    Your post really struck me, because it’s the answer to that “why?”! It’s a combination of EF, and being overwhelmed, and needing to be “finished.” Struggling with the “just a little bit at a time.” I let things pile up until something is obviously NOT okay, and then I clean it all in a flurry, and glory in the results.

    For me, what helps in not getting to that point is having the things I need for cleaning right where they’d be used. So, the moment I go, “Huh. That’s kind of messy.” I can reach over to what I need and clean it. There’s no “planning” involved, and it feels more natural. So, lysol wipes on every wipeable surface. Vacuum cleaner plugged in, always, where I need to vacuum the most. That kind of thing. It works for what I can do that for; I need to find more ways to do that! (laundry and taking the trash out are still struggles! Because there is ALWAYS a way to put “one more piece” on top of the bin.)

    • and then I clean it all in a flurry, and glory in the results.

      This! This is soooo me. I liked one of the comments on musingsofanaspie calling it Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome (CHAOS). My cleaning mostly gets done in the few hours before the arrival of friends. Apparently shame is a big enough motivator to overcome the EF / procrastination / laziness cycle. But it doesn’t feel healthy.

      I like your idea of leaving cleaning tools where you need them the most often.

      • Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome– I love it!!

        Agreed that shame works, but doesn’t feel healthy.
        I also feel like, I get to a point where, I’m like, “I’m still happy, even though things are messy. Therefore, it’s okay that things are messy.”
        When I’m having a visitor, this changes to, “I’m happy, even though things are messy. But, because things are messy, this person will think less of me. That doesn’t make me happy. Therefore, it isn’t okay that things are messy.” Then, suddenly, there is a REASON to get rid of the mess, and I do, generally very quickly and efficiently. I just didn’t have a rationale before that moment!

        Lately, though, I’m realizing that, “I’m still happy, even though things are messy. But, (kids can’t find toys. play area is approaching unuseability. etc) kids can’t use their space, so kids aren’t as happy as they could be. Therefore, it’s not okay that things are messy.” I wasn’t in this place before, because up until recently, my oldest was young enough that it didn’t seem to matter to her, either. But, now it does, so a clean house is slowly working its way up my priorities list. Still not as much as I’d like it to, I’ll admit…but at least enough that all of her areas are always pleasant enough and useable. Yay?

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  9. Thank you for this. this has been an ongoing struggle for me and it helps so much to read that others struggle with it too.

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  13. I know this is an older post but I just want to say thank you. I’m reading it now (11.24.14) after finding a link to your blog and this topic from Musings of an Aspie. You mentioned you had two reasons for posting. The first is right on for me, though I might need the trigger warning for the second being OCD is something I deal with : ). My thanks to you are for the former. Your pictures could be my house, and I too have professionally cleaned as a part of my paid employment over the years and I am also very good at it. However, at home, I can get overwhelmed, and just plain tired. I began cleaning out the walk in closet that my husband and I share well over a month ago, probably two in fact, and last week I finished the closet (and it’s not like it was that bad, just clothes I no longer wear, luggage that did not belong there etc.) and yet in our bedroom proper there are still the remnants of the things I took out of the closet. An old camcorder that my sister gave me for Christmas three years ago that quit shortly after she gave it to me, a mini DVD player and a couple of other odds and ends. Across from those scattered items on the floor is a small loveseat (it’s a large master bedroom) at the foot of our bed that is a magnet for clean unfolded laundry (usually mine) and when I have the energy I put it away. Across from that sofa and to the left is a clean quilt, and other similar items that have likewise been in a pile there to take downstairs and put away for the same amount of time as the other items that came out of the closet. I can’t say why I have not picked them up and moved them, I look at them and walk past them and think I should do something with them, and then think It’s more energy than I have. In reading your post I think it may very well be for the same reasons. The all or nothing thing. If I start I know I am going to spend at least two hours at it, and while I will feel good about what I have accomplished, as I do for how great the closet looks each time I step into it and snap on the light, the idea of how much there is to do to get it to that point, sends me into the all or nothing space, instead of I could do a bit at a time. I’d love it if I could do it once and have it be done. Like painting a wall and it is done for years, or until I get bored with the color. But no, with cleaning, dust falls, hot air rises, and the cats and dog shed, not to mention the rest of the household that help out with the piles on flat surfaces. I love them all and would not want them anywhere else, but do wish things would stay neat for longer, dust on the cupboards would not settle there, or the cats would shake off their feet when they step out of the litter box. Thank you for sharing your pictures. It could be my house, and I’ve seen my kids bedrooms with the chip bags and empty bottles many a time, more often than not. It makes me smile to see your pictures and realize that we are just being us and all is well and I can let go of my self judgement. Going to check out the helpful hints and see if I can be a little less black and white, and a little more, a little at a time. : )

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