During most of my life, I’ve needed to hit rock bottom before I’ve been able to make a significant, lasting change. I hit rock bottom hard last spring in my quest to become medication-free. I almost completely tapered off lithium and just when I thought I was going to achieve my goal, mania set in, followed by suicidal depression. I wound up back in the hospital for a good chunk of the summer. I’ll just say it wasn’t quite like visiting Maui.
After my relapse, I finally uttered out loud that I needed bipolar medication. I wasn’t simply spouting a Big Pharma party line. I was truly sincere in declaring that I needed the meds because I finally found a combination that lifted my bipolar depression.
A year later I’m hitting rock bottom in a different, much less alarming way. I’ve begun to spring clean. It sounds a little ridiculous, not to mention uber-boring, but please bear with me. The fact that I’ve been able to clean more than a couple of dishes is huge. A mere five months ago I was bedridden with fatigue a good part of each day due to Zoloft side effects. I am actually excited that I can eradicate heaps of dust that accumulated in my living spaces during my depression era. Usually the only thing that can cause that much excitement in my world is a brand-new book or a Green & Blacks milk chocolate bar.
Although Spring, 2014 won’t officially begin until March 20th, last Friday our warm, sunny weather felt it had arrived in full force. “Springy signs” such as daffodils and blooming Japanese plum trees have appeared over the past week. That particular Friday I chauffeured the girls to school without too much drama in the car’s backseat. After I walked them to class, I navigated driving home amongst my fellow parents. Just exiting the school parking lot has always been challenging, and I needed to be fully alert. Some of these parents have the driving manners of a felon on methamphetamine and possess the IQ of a squid. I returned to an empty house where I could write in peace. But something stirred in my veins besides wanting to write my blog and surf Facebook. At first I couldn’t quite believe it, but I realized I felt an overwhelming compulsion to clean our decrepit home. I tanked up on some super-strong coffee and I stood quietly for a moment.
Due to detritus just about everywhere, I would need to clean in baby steps. The easiest task to start with seemed like vacuuming. Little did I know that vacuuming one bedroom and one living room would be so time-consuming, physical, and utterly gross. Our rat colony, now in Rat Heaven, left droppings galore which they emitted during their time on Earth. I knew that underneath my queen bed there was a ton of dust. After moving the bed and pulling a muscle in my back, I discovered that one of our girl’s hobbies was hiding candy wrappers underneath the bed. There was a huge amount of chunky dust everywhere I looked – so much so that I emptied the vacuum’s dirt receptacle three times in half an hour. On the bright side, I was happy to have a vacuum that actually worked. Best of all, it was awesome to experience the gratification that comes from the sweat and toil of cleaning.
I am very fortunate that I don’t live with a Neanderthal-type of husband who demands his wife to keep the house in spotless condition. Craig has had every right to drop me a hint to clean. I am a stay-at-home-mom and I have time to do some rudimentary tidying up around here. He knows I’ve felt too exhausted, depressed and overwhelmed to impersonate Martha Stewart, and I’m forever grateful to him for his understanding.
My daughter Avonlea knows we can’t afford a housecleaning service, and told me she would give me her piggy bank money to pay someone to clean our home. She explained that she felt embarrassed to have friends over due to the mess. I felt like I won the “Worst Mom of the Year” award in that moment. I’ve considered asking for a one-time professional deep clean as my upcoming birthday gift rather than books, a facial, or chocolate.
As a teenager long before I was diagnosed with bipolar, I took good care of my surroundings. When I attended college, I’d clean whatever room or studio I was renting on a regular basis. I’ve actually had a stint as a professional housecleaner. In my early twenties I had the good fortune to visit Vail, Colorado. While I was there I was hired to clean condos for seventy dollars a day. I did a reasonably good job and I took pride in my elbow grease.
I expanded my cleaning repertoire when I worked at a gym for a couple years. I began as the morning front desk greeter, and then I became a certified personal trainer. My daily responsibilities included cleaning the gym before we opened and throughout my shift. I cleaned all the gym equipment, the jacuzzi, and the large women’s and men’s bathrooms. I’ll never forget one morning when I discovered that a female member had left me a disgusting fecal “present” in one shower. I couldn’t comprehend how a woman could expect another human being to clean up after her in that way. I think that’s when I started searching the classifieds for an office administration job.
Over the past fifteen years during our marriage, we’ve vacationed at housekeeping-style rentals. These spots have usually required a cleaning fee, but of course we couldn’t leave the places a pigsty for the cleaner. We were instructed by the owners to follow basic cleaning checklists before leaving. Since I knew what it was like to clean professionally, I’d go above and beyond those lists’ requirements; I’d strip beds, remove all hair in the sinks and showers, and make sure that nothing skanky was in the toilets…that kind of thing.
Last year when I became manic during the med-free experiment, I agreed to housesit for a friend. As a surprise gift to her family, I decided to clean her home. I had a tremendous amount of energy, and I cleaned as if my life depended upon my doing a meticulous job. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when my friends walked in the door to see my handiwork. During that same time period, I also cleaned our own home before throwing a surprise birthday party for Craig. I didn’t do as thorough a job as I did at my friend’s place, but it wasn’t bad. At least I didn’t go on a $30,000 shopping spree or do other disturbing and/or dangerous things people sometimes do when they are manic!
I am most definitely not hypomanic or manic now. My meds are working, knock on wood. I’m sleeping, exercising, and my psychiatrist is comfortable with how I’m doing. A few days ago I took it as a good omen that I was asked by the International Bipolar Foundation to be their “Story of Hope and Recovery” which they featured on their website.
Cleaning, although not the most exciting or profound topic, has become a meaningful metaphor in my life. By removing some of the squalor around me, I feel less lethargic. Whisking away the nasty grime has allowed me to enjoy where I live instead – I no longer feel guilty for neglecting our home. My inner hippie also believes that when I clean my small workspace this week, I’ll clear stagnant energy left over from my depression. I’ve observed some friends wave burning clusters of dried sage in their rooms for purification purposes. I prefer the smell of orange essential oil, and will dig up my old mini-diffuser in the closet.
Once my workspace is complete, I will finally be able to finish giving birth (pun intended) to Birth of a New Brain. Some of you reading this essay may be “clean freaks” (lucky you!) and may not relate to letting dirt reign supreme. For those of you whose depression has influenced you to sully up your surroundings, consider downing a pot of black coffee (even if you don’t drink it) and do just one thing. Vacuum. Clean the refrigerator. (It won’t take as long as you think.) God forbid I forget to mention the toilet. If you do any or all of these tasks, I promise, you might end up with sore muscles, but you won’t be sorry.
Good luck, and I can’t resist writing this: May the force be with you.