Five years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It’s a condition caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, which manifests in extreme mood swings from mania to deep depression. I’d compare my worst stretch to riding a roller coaster that doesn’t end. Long story short, the diagnosis and counseling helped me understand why I feel things the way I do, see things the way I do, and behave the way I do.
I’ve made a lot of progress since, all thanks to supportive family and friends, an endless list of hobbies, and sheer willpower. But if there’s one thing that really gets me through the day, be my average if not best self, and keep the peace around me – it’s cleaning.
Now, this isn’t an apology for the KonMari method, nor is it a lecture on “adulting.” I’d like to stress one important fact: being able to keep a place clean and tidy without having to drag one’s feet from room to room is a solid achievement for anyone with a mental illness.
Two reasons. One, anyone who has depression understands how hard it is to get up even after ten hours of sleep, let alone pick up a broom and wash the dishes. And two, cleaning has a purpose; it’s a practice of self-control with tangible benefits to the mind and body.
But how did something so mundane become so instrumental in my mental health? Allow me to share four guiding principles that made me appreciate the power of tidying up.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
I’m an adherent of simplicity, a way of life largely influenced by my father and another old man named Henry David Thoreau. One of his famous lines goes like this:
“Our life is frittered away by detail . . . simplify, simplify.”
While this quote has a lot do about the material excess of living in a privileged society, it also equates to keeping a minimalist home. Like everyone else, I yearn for material things, too, but my devotion to simplicity overrides it. And the less I’m drawn into the consumer trap, the happier and more content I am.
Tidying up has become a way for me to emotionally edit my life, as well. It’s not just the things that don’t spark joy that goes straight into the bin. Sometimes, it’s people (toxic “friends” and hateful relatives), dangerous ideas, or unhealthy emotions, but not without careful evaluation.
Though I won’t be living alone in a cabin by a pond anytime soon, this quest for simplicity puts my focus on what I have, instead of what I don’t have. The physical manifestation of this is:
Finding More in Less
I’ve moved apartments about 11 times since college and I’m not lying when I say all my stuff could fit in four boxes. One box for my wardrobe, one for my books, one for my kitchen tools, and another for sentimental objects. Despite that, I’ve never felt like I was lacking something. And this is because, instead of accumulating things I don’t need, I make it a habit to throw or give away stuff that don’t add up to my happiness.
Don’t get me wrong, I find value in material objects, but I’m also aware that impulsive buying can take hold for people with bipolar disorder. So being prudent and practical about material things has to be a conscious effort on my end.
Having fewer things makes it easier for me to clean my apartment. Because I know how much stuff I own, it doesn’t take much for me to get started. In turn, I have more time and headspace to change things up, rearrange the furniture, and reorganize some more only because it leads to a new appreciation of old things.
The idea of “less is more,” however, doesn’t mean you need to keep downsizing until all you have is a mattress and a few clothes. It also means finding beauty in the mundane and ordinary, of prioritizing quality over quantity.
Since day one, we’ve been made to believe that if we study and work hard, we’re bound to have more in life. Owning a house or two, driving a fancy car, and having the flexibility to buy anything you want are tangible measures of one’s success. And while we may view objects as disposable, in the grand scheme of things, they’re not. They become junk-space, or the hapless debris left by our endless pursuit of instant gratification. The more we satisfy our ego and desire for validation, the more residue we leave on the planet.
The unfortunate gerund “adulting” is one of the many implications of this consumer culture. We’ve come to a point when mundane and essential things, like doing the laundry, running errands, and cooking have become rites of passage to adulthood. It’s never easy to be a grown-up. But embracing these menial tasks as extensions of our character rather than specialized roles for real adults is necessary for survival.
Though cleaning helps stabilize my mood, slow down the racing thoughts, and lighten my stress load, I sometimes dread it, too. But it’s just something I know I need to do myself as part of my self-help process of not just surviving, but enjoying life.
As Fumio Sasaki, author of “goodbye, things,” puts it:
“It’s often said that cleaning your house is like polishing yourself. I think that this is a golden rule. It isn’t just dust and dirt that accumulate in our homes. It’s also the shadows of our past selves that let that dust and dirt continue to build. Cleaning the grime is certainly unpleasant, but more than that, it’s the need to face our own past deeds that makes it so tough. But when we have fewer material possessions and cleaning becomes an easy habit, the shadows we now face will be of our daily accomplishments.”
Can tidying up ease some symptoms of your mental illness?
Absolutely not, and there’s no scientific study to back it up. But in many religions like Buddhism, Shinto, Islam, Judaism, and even Christianity, cleaning — like any practice of mindfulness — plays a vital role in one’s pursuit of spirituality. Ascetics make the vow of poverty not just to be free from consumerism but also to achieve a higher level of awareness.
Religion aside, if de-cluttering makes you feel better about yourself, then it’s worth doing on a regular basis. But like any piece of advice, what works for me may not work for you. In my case, cleaning is my way of achieving and maintaining a sense of peace and order or reinforcing a more simplified way of life. For Marie Kondo, it’s about choosing or leaving room for joy.