Anyone who knows me, but particularly my family, will agree that I’m not a tidy person. Once when I was a kid, a friend of mine actually tidied my room when she came over to my house, because it was just such a mess. I’m uncontrollably messy — even though I don’t particularly like living in a room that looks like a disaster zone, I rarely have the self-control to keep it any tidier.
But every now and again I’ll go on a cleaning spree and I’ll completely overhaul my room. Like today.
This afternoon I tidied my room, including my desk — which is a task in and of itself — and vacuumed it. I changed my sheets and did a load of laundry, so there’s now a TARDIS quilt cover hanging over my airer in a vaguely sinister fashion. There’s a load of washing up that I need to finish (it’s currently soaking) to be able to go to bed with a clear conscience, but I’ll do that as soon as the kitchen sink is unoccupied. My room is cleaner than it has been in a good couple of weeks, and I’ve only been back in Cambridge for just over three.
And there’s a reason for this. Most of you are aware that my mental health is … not particularly stable. I mean, if you’re unaware you’ve either never read this blog before or you haven’t been paying much attention, because let’s face it, it’s been a pretty major factor in some of my post topics recently. It has a tendency to go through periods of decline, and the past week or so has definitely been more on the bad side of the scale. On Friday, I didn’t make it to my morning lecture because I couldn’t get out of bed. On Sunday, I spent almost all day in a chair hating everything including myself.
This means that stuff, and crumbs, have a tendency to accumulate in a semicircle around my bed and the comfy chair next to the bookshelf at the end of it, leaving most of the rest of the floor clear, but making the room look completely appalling in terms of tidiness.
For me, cleaning is a pretty obvious symptom of recovery — or at least, of a good day after a series of bad ones. It’s a coping mechanism. When I’ve spent several days in bed, I don’t want to go to sleep in the same sheets. When I’ve been living among mess because I didn’t have the strength to leave my room, I don’t want to come back to it when I’ve finally left the building. And when I’ve been drinking cup after cup of tea to try and keep warm while not moving at all, I tend to need to do some washing up.
Cleaning is a way of getting rid of all the bad vibes. If it wasn’t so freezing outside, I’d open the window to let in some new air, too, but I don’t really want any snow getting in. Some hail came through the leaking window the other day and seems to have destroyed my printer — that’s enough weather for me forever.
I can vacuum away the mud I tracked in from outside, and I can put through the wash the sheets I spent day after day in because I didn’t want to get up, and I can tidy my desk so that work doesn’t seem quite so intimidating. I even did my filing, putting lecture notes and handouts in folders, which is a pretty major job and just now I realised I missed a couple. But you know, it’s an improvement. Especially since my hole-punch is broken.
It’s funny, because I never analysed my reasons for cleaning before. I knew that when I’m stressed out I have a tendency to move furniture so that I feel like I’m in a new environment — the change allows me to take a break from whatever it was that was stressing me out, and the physical act of moving things is helpful too. And I had other reasons for cleaning today, like the fact that I’m due to get a new chair this week and I wanted to be able to get it in my room without difficulty.
But I didn’t think about my emotional and psychological reasons for these actions before. I think I’ve become much more conscious of my feelings over the past eighteen months, but particularly recently: talking to a counsellor forces you to think about why you’re thinking or feeling something. Every doctor I ever see tells me I’m very self-aware and I know what triggers me, both in terms of physical and mental health.
Writing also makes me more self-aware. It wasn’t until I started thinking about what characters in TV and films wore and what that said about them that I started paying attention to it in my own writing, but that quickly transformed into an interest in clothes in real life, something I never cared about before. Suddenly I was aware of what clothing said about my identity and I started actively constructing that image instead of wearing whatever came to hand.
So when I’m thinking about how I deal with emotions, on one level I’m trying to work out how I’m coping with something and whether it’s healthy or whether I need to change it, but on another level I’m also thinking, “Would any of my characters take this approach? Who? Why?” Maybe some day you’ll see the cleaning trope in a story of mine, even if the motivations are different.
But finally I think it’s because cleaning and tidying are fairly out of character for me, I started questioning why I was doing it. It’s always the least characteristic or stereotypical actions that say the most about people, whether in life or in writing. And it’s something I’m trying to keep in mind when developing characters.
(Also, is there anything more appealing than clean bedsheets? I think not.)