My Trauma Made Me Rage-Clean
I struggled upstairs from my office with my mind swirling with the next steps of my day. I needed to go to my doctor’s appointment, make dinner, pack the kids’ lunches for the next day, help my son with his homework. Was tonight a bath night for the kids? God, my legs hurt. This auto-immune flare wasn’t stopping. All I want to do is lay down with an ice pack and rest.
I rounded the corner into our living room and froze, the anxiety train turning immediately to rage—dolls, blocks, and magic wands from the night before lay strewn across the rug. Throw pillows trailed from the sofa to the chair, even though the floor hadn’t been hot lava in hours.
I turned my head towards the kitchen and felt my shoulders clench. My husband’s dishes from the day lay in the sink despite the dishwasher's gaping mouth inviting them inside. One pair of his sneakers sat taunting me in front of the door.
The sofa creaked, bringing my attention back to the living room where Hubby lay, snoring softly under a throw blanket. I stomped around the house as I prepared to leave while rage-cleaning the toys from the floor. If I didn’t get to nap after a day of work, I certainly wasn’t going to let him have a peaceful slumber.
Once the toys were in their places and the pillows back on the couch, I fumed even more. Not only did he think that napping amid a disaster zone was acceptable, but Hubby also didn’t even have the decency to wake up when I rage-cleaned around him.
I grabbed my bag and stomped out of the house.
The doctor’s office was a short drive away. I made it halfway there before a memory took my breath away and caused me to pull my blue mini-van to the side of the road.
Twenty years before, being messy had cost me everything. It was just after my seventeenth birthday and I came home from exams in my white and rust (heavy on the rust) Chevy Cavalier to find the doors to our house locked. I tried the front door, knocked loudly, and then wandered around back. A pile of my belongings lay strewn across the freshly-mowed lawn, interrupting my walk to the back sliding door.
I dropped to my knees and dug through the pile, quickly realizing that every item from my bedroom at the end of the hall, save for the furniture, was outside in the June heat.
I ran to the sliding door as tears slid down my cheeks. There was no answer there either.
I picked up my belongings in huge armfuls and shoved them into the trunk and backseat of my sedan. I didn’t have a plan, but I figured getting them off the ground was the next right thing.
My mother’s van was there, parked right next to my car, so I knocked on the front door again, screaming for her to answer.
I drove back to the high school because I didn’t know where else to go. I wandered into the classroom of my favorite teacher, the one whose exam I’d just finished.
What happened next was a whirlwind, and I don’t remember much. But, from that day forward, I lived with my father and a stepmother who clearly didn’t want me there. I lost my home, daily interaction with my four brothers, and daily hugs from my mother.
Sometime later, my mother would tell me that she only threw my stuff out because my room was messy and I neglected to clean it.
As an adult, I kept my house clean at all costs. I’d neglect my need for sleep to sort toys into the appropriate bin, clean the counters after my children washed them, and rage at anyone who neglected to pick up after themselves.
That day in the car, a full twenty years later, I finally admitted to myself that losing my home had been traumatic, and, more importantly, I hadn’t dealt with that trauma.
For twenty years, my brain would see messes and equate them with the removal of love. My amygdala didn’t care that I was in the living room where my hard-working husband was taking a twenty-minute power-nap before rallying for an evening with the kids.
As far as my brain was concerned, I was in danger of losing my home and family again because of dolls and pillows on the carpet: cue fight, flight, or freeze mode (I’ve always been more of a fighter).
I’m not going to pretend that I never considered that experience to be traumatic. I’ve attempted to discuss it with my mother a few times as an adult, and she’s made it clear she isn’t interested in that discussion. At some level, not dealing with the trauma becomes more comfortable than facing it and moving through it.
I spent a lot of time ignoring it to try and stay as comfy as possible in my rage-cleaning world. Why would I want to admit that the problem was me instead of the habits of those around me? Dealing with our own shit is hard as hell.
For some reason, that day in the car, it hit me in a way that I could no longer ignore. I was hurting my family because I was too lazy to woman-up and deal with my trauma. Once I learned that I couldn’t unlearn it.
Admitting that my incredible amounts of anger at my husband and children not keeping the house clean was my own shit and not something inherently wrong with them has been a total game-changer.
I’d already decided long ago that if my children’s rooms were messy, that was their own problem and not one I needed to deal with. Common areas of the house, though, were areas I’d frequently angry-clean. But now, my anxiety about those spaces being clean and orderly at all times is reduced simply because I can acknowledge when my deep-seated fear of abandonment is triggered.
I could sit and stew in shame over how I’ve reacted to household messes in the past, but shame is a useless emotion that isn’t going to make me feel better or make me an example to my children. Instead, I apologized to them, told them what I’d realized, and demonstrate a different set of behaviors.
That’s not to say I no longer clean obsessively; I didn’t work through the trauma that quickly (because I’m human). If I feel the need to rage-clean, I can take a deep breath and identify that my emotions (fear, anxiety) are tied to my past, not anything that’s happening right now. I can tell my amygdala to shut up. I can articulate to the people who love me that they aren’t doing anything wrong — I just need to clean.
I imagine that the next step in healing this particular trauma is to learn to leave messes alone, or even (and I shudder just thinking about this) sit down to read a book amid kid-debris. Maybe I’ll get there, but even the small steps I’ve taken to acknowledge how the trauma of my youth affects my interactions with my family make me feel lighter. I’ve even started encouraging Hubby to take his power naps.
Maria Chapman is a parent of five, a personal coach, and a chronic illness warrior. Follow her newsletter, Lies We Tell Ourselves, for more truth.