It has been over a year since my obsessive compulsive disorder was diagnosed. It was assessed as mild, although noted that it became closer to moderate under times of stress (my dad died and three months later I spent a week cleaning every inch of the kitchen floor). It manifests itself in cleaning rituals with some interesting discussions about whether my purchasing habits are a symptom. And to think I imagined having sixty pairs of shoes was normal….. But in the main, it seems manageable, with medication – if I ever get the depression back under control I will ask to go back on Sertraline, the drug that made my house seem cleaner – and therapy was also recommended. But I just don’t have the time for a weekly session over a long period and no, that isn’t because I have all this cleaning to do.
So, yesterday is my first day off in a five day break. I sleep late which is bliss and then I plan my cleaning. I envisage where I will start and what polish I will use from my extensive collection. I get up and start in the living room in the usual corner, working around the room. I use the special wood polish and feel the sense of accomplishment and calm as the surfaces are smooth, as the cushions are placed in order and the dust and carpet ‘bits’ are vacuumed. C comes in and asks me what I am doing and I tell him. He looks resigned. I carry on. I have a target of the downstairs floor by 2.30, when I must go and collect J from school. I vacuum through the downstairs floor, using the right attachments which means changing them regularly and then I start on the kitchen. It is the room in the house I love most and I intend to do my usual routine of polishing and cleaning every surface and shelf. I change the order slightly, I wax the oak table before cleaning the stone surfaces and as I feel the overwhelming sense of calm at nearly being finished, a thought strikes me. Is this behaviour the same as L’s restricting of food and counting of calories? How would I feel if she contemplated the weekend as a time when she could restrict and count to her heart’s desire? And most of all, what would I do if the ‘cure’ or therapy for me was to stop cleaning. To live with dust or untidiness permanently? I think to myself that this would be nonsense, surely. How does it harm anyone to do this? I can immediately hear L’s inner voice – that she is just eating healthily, like everyone is supposed to do. I ask myself, why don’t I just stop this cleaning ritual right now, in the same way that I sometimes urge L to eat this chocolate, this piece of cheese right here, right now? I know how sad and defeated and frustrated I feel when she just can’t. And nor can I stop. I keep cleaning, vacuuming and polishing until it is done. And as I sit there for two minutes before leaving to collect J, I have that familiar sense of calm, but a wholly new empathy for L.
The reality is, that no one died of a clean house, whereas it is estimated 10-20% of eating disorder patients die prematurely. My bones are fully formed and dense, there is no need to check my potassium levels and assess the risk of heart attack or to worry about future fertility. If those were the risk factors of mild OCD then I should be stronger in changing these patterns. But I have new ideas about how to help L, just from thinking mindfully about my own behaviour. Hey, perhaps I should clean more often? Just kidding.