Saturday, May 1, 2010

Cleaning, Clutter, and Chronic Pain/Illness

Spring housecleaning! Our mothers and grandmothers tackled this job as soon as the weather permitted the windows and doors to be opened to air out the house after the long winter. Then began the ritual of cleaning everything--furniture, upholstery, drapes, ceilings, walls, woodwork, floors, porcelain, etc. By the time they were done, everything had been picked up, put away, scrubbed clean, and the house and its contents looked fresh and neat.

I can remember tying a scarf around my head, putting on an old shirt and jeans, pinning a towel over the broom or dustmop, and pacing back and forth, back and forth, arms stretched over my head, as I walked the length and breadth of the livingroom, kitchen, or whatever room I happened to be in, removing dustwebs and dust from the ceiling. The walls got the same treatment--up and down, up and down, with the broom or dustmop--after the furniture had been pushed into the middle of the room section by section. Then the drapes and upholstery were vacuumed, the rest of the furniture was dusted, the floor was vacuumed and then mopped--everything done in that precise order so you weren't getting dust on things that had already been cleaned. Throw rugs were taken outside, draped over the clothesline or porch railing, and beaten until the previously trapped dust had floated away on the breeze. (You always made sure you weren't standing downwind, or you'd end up looking like a dust bunny yourself!)

This ritual was passed down from my grandmother to my mother, and from her to me. I continued it in my own home for many years. But, after beginning my journey with chronic pain and illness, that kind of in-depth spring (and fall) cleaning went proverbially "out the window." I could no longer raise my arms over my head long enough to complete even one swipe across the ceiling, let alone do the whole thing. And I no longer had the energy to complete the cleaning of a whole room, never mind the whole house! Housecleaning tasks that I used to do daily, gradually became weekly, and sometimes monthly, semi-annually, or not until someone else could do them.

I once read a quote that said, "A house should be clean enough to be healthy, and messy enough to look lived in." Mine definitely looks "lived in." It's amazing what you accumulate in thirty-plus years of marriage and raising a family. And I swear paper multiplies at night while we're sleeping! In addition to my own things, there are things that had belonged to my mother that passed to me after her death, and had to be removed from her house before it could be sold. So, I ended up with a dresser in the kitchen and boxes in the livingroom behind the sofa--whatever didn't have its own niche was boxed and piled to be gone through at a later date. Another old proverb often quoted is, "A place for everything, and everything in its place." But lives get busy, things get set down to be taken care of "later," especially after an emotional upheaval like the death of a loved one, and later keeps getting pushed further into the future.

I just want to point out here that there is a difference between clutter and hoarding. Clutter accumulates when we are busy, tired, or just plain too lazy to put things where they go or throw out what isn't needed. Hoarding is an illness, a compulsion to keep things because there is an emotional attachment (rational or not) to everything that crosses our path. For some, it might be a compulsion to buy clothes, even if they remain in the original bags with the tags on them for years on end. For others, it's the inability to distinguish what is useful from what is not because "I might need it some day" or because they feel that throwing things out is "wasteful." Hoarders, as seen on two recent TV series--"Hoarders" on A&E TV and "Hoarding: Buried Alive" on TLC--need help from both a mental health professional and an expert organizer, preferably one who is familiar with the dynamics of hoarding. A person with too much clutter, on the other hand, may just need a system, or plan, and perhaps some physical help to deal with the "stuff" that has accumulated, especially if they are physically limited by chronic pain and exhaustion.

There are any number of books on the market to help you deal with clutter problems. I know, because I have several of them cluttering up--I mean located on--my bookcases. Here are some that you may be familiar with: Getting Organized from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern, Clutter's Last Stand by Don Azlett, The Messies Manual by Sandra Felton, and many others. These are three, though, that I've found helpful in my own war against clutter.

No matter what book you use, or what strategy you decide to employ, the first thing you need to do is draw up a plan of attack. Don't just dive in because that can lead to frustration and a worse mess. Then try some of these strategies:
  • Start with one room, or one part of a room, at a time.
  • Divide the job into several smaller jobs.
  • Try to enlist help from family or friends if you can't do it alone.
  • Have whatever materials you will need ready, such as boxes labeled "Toss," "Donate," "Sell," "Keep," or whatever works for you.
  • Decide how long you will work, and set a timer. Say you set the timer for 20 minutes. At the end of that time, decide if you want to keep going or if that's enough for the day. If you decide to go for another 20 minutes, that's fine. Just don't overdo.
  • Schedule in breaks so you don't wear yourself out one day and do nothing the rest of the week. After you finish one of the smaller tasks, take a coffee break and sit outside for 10 minutes, or listen to your favorite music.
  • When you finish the task set for the day, evaluate: what worked for you? what didn't? what can you do differently next time?
  • Reward yourself for a job well-done, even if all you cleaned off was an end table. By doing a little bit at a time, over time, you'll reap the reward of a more orderly home and the satisfaction of what you've accomplished.
There are also clutter support groups online, such as Or, talk to a couple of your friends about getting together and taking turns helping each other with the decluttering with the hostess serving refreshments afterward.

What are your clutter issues? Have you tried using a book, or a support group? What worked for you? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below.

Next: Dealing with Paper and Junk Mail