Between Robby graduating from law school and getting a job, his parents graciously took us in. He had been attending school at the University of Minnesota, a fantastic school in the middle of a terrible job market. So after he graduated, he took the Texas Bar exam and applied all over the state. We decided not to move anywhere until we knew where he would be working. For several months, we lived in his childhood bedroom (which had been gloriously redone by his mother). We had our own living room with an enormous TV, a wet bar, access to a kitchen with miles of counter space, two ovens, AND two stoves, a pool, and homemade meals. I was starting to understand that, yes, young adults *can* get jobs and move out of their parents’ houses, but it’s just so much better with Mommy taking care of you.
And my in-laws definitely took care of us. My mother-in-law let us choose what she would make us for dinner. They rented movies every week for us to watch together. She let me make giant messes in her kitchen and didn’t ground me when I broke one of her sacred stoneware baking pans. My father-in-law spent days clearing out space in the garage for our car. He let us drink his fancy wine and set the AC to 65* in August. And once, when I was feeling crumby, my MIL made me meatloaf and potatoes just to comfort me. We were so grateful for their generosity and hospitality during Robby’s transition from Minnesota law student to Texan lawyer.
We were completely cared for and comfortable, but I was a mess. I had a hard time dealing with the uncertainty of our situation, not knowing where we would be living a month down the line. And even though we had an entire floor of the house to ourselves, I imagined conflict where there was none, and constantly felt like an intruder in their home. I had nothing of my own, everything was in storage. When summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter, we couldn’t dig our winter coats out of the storage unit because we hadn’t had the foresight to put them near the front when everything was unloaded. It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d still be living in a borrowed room by Christmas, but we had just moved from Minnesota and had a ton of winter-wear, so I didn’t want to buy anything new. I spent the early winter wrapped in a giant wool scarf, then broke down and asked Santa for a light coat.
As anxiety built up in my chest, I started developing strange symptoms. I have always preferred a tidy home, but suddenly I was very emotional about clutter, spots, dust, perceived smells, and humidity. The humidity was hard to fix, as anyone who has been to Houston, aka Swamp City, can attest. The lack of winter weather and condensation dripping from the windows fueled an inexplicable rage that lead to me fiddling with the AC twelve times a day, driving to Starbucks for extra-hot lattes, racing home to put on a giant sweater and slippers to pretend it was ‘normal winter’ and not ‘unholy Swampmas’. I have a feeling coming straight from Minnesota, which I adored, contributed to this phenomenon.
The mess was the real problem, and the fact that there actually wasn’t any mess was my husband’s real concern. I was basically hallucinating messes that weren’t there. My in-laws have a cleaning lady, for goodness sake. As someone who moved at least every two years from the time I was 12, I have been given the opportunity to purge my belongings frequently. When you live in a spacious home for 25 years as my in-laws had, you accumulate things. I wasn’t used to living in a house with things. My purge urge became stronger and I was throwing away things I needed, like receipts and a sweater that wouldn’t stay on the hanger. I started (very rudely) going through the pantry and demanding we throw away anything expired or suspicious looking. I, a guest in the home of my husband’s parents, was rifling through their shelves and trashing things that didn’t belong to me. I was convinced that something would give me food poisoning and trigger a flare after I had just spontaneously gone into remission. While food poisoning could do that, I am quite sure my MIL wouldn’t serve me poisonous meals (though I wouldn’t have blamed her after the way I criticized her cabinets).
And then it happened. I went into the wet bar to get a soda and there it was: a red wine stain the size of a pea. A stain! I would have to remove it with water! A red spot on a cream counter! I CAN’T LIVE IN THESE CONDITIONS! Nevermind that I could have been the one to spill wine on the counter and just hadn’t noticed until the following morning. Nevermind that it came off with a wet paper towel and left no permanent mark. Nevermind that it wasn’t my counter to begin with. That little red spot was a mark upon my soul, and so I cried. And then I found a psychiatrist.
Everyone has quirks. I eat mints in even numbers, boil potatoes in even numbers, turn the volume up and down in even numbers, but always make an odd number of cups of coffee. I need everything to have a place, and if something doesn’t fit, I sometimes throw it out or hide it from myself (getting crazier), and I clean wood floors in three steps: dust mop , steam mop, then polish (with optional vacuum step between dust and steam if I have time). But my doctor confirmed that crying over small messes that could be fixed in less than a minute was indeed cause for concern.
Therapy helped me get my anxiety out in the open and validate my feelings of uncertainty about our future. Obviously, I’m not a Syrian refugee or persecuted minority, but my life was in disarray and I needed to talk to someone. My husband is an excellent listener, but I didn’t want to burden him when I knew he must be feeling the same anxiety, but to an even greater extent, as he waited for his Bar results.
And so, when my life is out of control, I obsess over mess. How does one cope with mild OCD while raising two boys in the dustiest city on earth? For the moment, my life is organized, my loved ones are cared for, my children are healthy, and I can’t possibly scour my house every day and keep my children from spilling, so I make do. I hate mess, but instead of crying I just grit my teeth. I bet my fillings sparkle like diamonds from all the friction.
I noticed that when I voiced my concerns about everyday messes, my son picked up on it and started to become concerned when he spilled or tracked in dirt. I want my kids to grow up with basic tidying abilities, but I don’t want them to be afraid to live in their own home. My new mantra is “accidents happen, but if it’s not an accident GET THE MOP, KID”. I try to have safe spaces for mess and just focus on cleaning those areas a few times a day. All food is consumed at the table, play-doh (bane of my existence) at the kiddie table, bubbles and balls outside. I’m working on helping myself out with the mess by putting down a splat mat even though I think they are ugly, and planning to repaint the dining area walls because what kind of idiot uses flat paint that can’t be cleaned? I have touched up the paint in there three times and we moved into the house in October. I can’t repaint the house every time we have spaghetti for dinner, so I’m looking for a shiny paint color to help with cleanup.
The dust cannot be helped. Rusty, red, and super fine, the stuff is absolutely everywhere. I got a vacuum cleaner that advertised its ability to catch fine dust, but it creeps in through windows that have never been opened, around doors that have been locked for days, in my car which I previously assumed was air-tight. Since my anxiety levels are mild to medium right now, it’s annoying but won’t ruin my day. I’m the laziest kind of OCD patient, who wants things to be spotless but hates to clean, so I just obsess and fester until a kid gets a fever and my stress and worry bubbles over into intense cleaning, purging, organizing, and rectal temperature-taking.
For several reasons, it’s best to avoid my house on those days.