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Unf*%& Your Habitat: The Depression/Messy House Cycle

When I first started Unfuck Your Habitat, it was a housekeeping blog very squarely aimed at lazy people. Mostly because I am one. As the blog gained momentum, though, I started hearing from people who were using the fundamentals to help them battle through something more serious than laziness: mental illness. More specifically, depression.

Now, I’m no stranger to depression. I don’t make it a secret that I have issues with depression and anxiety, just like I don’t make it a secret that I have poor eyesight and a bum knee. Depression, however, has its own set of related life issues that my poor arthritic knee has never caused. And one of those is the self-perpetuating cycle of depression and a messy home.

When you’re in the midst of a depressive episode, cleaning your house comes in on the List of Things You Want to Do somewhere after taunting a hive of bees and tap dancing on live television. Things are awful. It’s a struggle to walk to the bathroom. Making dinner seems more impossible than advanced calculus. Anything that’s not your couch or your bed might as well be hot lava. And so the mess builds around you. I purposely use the passive voice there because when you’re depressed, it seems nearly impossible that you’re contributing to the chaos of your house, because that would require energy, and you sure as hell don’t have any of that to spare.

Then you look around your messy house. And you feel worse. You feel more depressed, because now you’re exhausted and hopeless and can’t pull yourself out of bed, and on top of that, your house is a shithole. Which makes you feel useless on top of everything you were already feeling, and then probably overwhelmed on top of that, and quite frankly, having that many feelings at once during a depressive episode is like being crushed by a ton of bricks. So your depression gets worse, and your mess gets worse, and the two keep feeding on each other and it seems like there’s no end in sight.

Here’s the thing: you can interrupt that cycle. It’s difficult to imagine, and it requires a shift in thinking, because when you’re depressed, you’re looking at big-picture stuff. And you sure as shit aren’t going to be able to clean your whole house, so why even bother, right? Wrong.

Take five minutes. Just five. Set a timer. If you’re on the couch or in bed, look to see the closest surface to you. It’s probably the coffee table or your nightstand. For those five minutes, just focus on that one surface. Clear it off, throw stuff away, maybe even dust it. So when your five minutes is done and you’re back in bed, you have one clear surface to look at. You have an accomplishment to focus on. You did something. You don’t have to do everything.

In fact, you shouldn’t do everything. On the flip side of depression, we have manic episodes. For many people, myself included, manic episodes often manifest as cleaning marathons. While you might think this is a great thing, because, hey, clean house!, manic marathons can be damaging in a number of ways. You’re exhausted at the end of it, what you’ve accomplished isn’t sustainable because you’re not doing any maintenance on the mess, you’re just whirlwind-ing your way through it, and your brain, on some level, associates cleaning with being sick.

So, five minutes. That seems easy enough, right? No? It seems completely impossible and unreasonable? I understand. No, seriously, I do. But just try giving me five minutes. And make sure you stop at the end of it. Who knows? You might feel so energized by having one clean surface that you want to keep going, and that’s great. But not right away. In an hour. Or tomorrow. Give yourself plenty of time to take a break. The only expectation you should have is getting through those five minutes, and having one surface cleaner at the end of it than it started out.

The one thing I hear over and over again from members of Team UfYH about their depression is that these tiny accomplishments give them something to be proud of. Something to be positive about. Something that reminds them that they deserve better, and that they’re the ones who can make that happen. Shifting your thinking for just five minutes, knowing that it’s this tiny little moment of time, can be enough to reach in and interrupt that cycle. Don’t misunderstand me: cleaning your house is not going to cure your depression. But depression and a messy home don’t have to go together. You can accomplish something. One surface is a pretty big deal. It’s change. It’s positive change. And it might help lead to more.

You can do five minutes. I promise.

[Author’s note: I am not an expert on anything, least of all health or mental health. Nothing in this post is intended to replace proper medical care. Please keep yourselves healthy.]



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122 replies on “Unf*%& Your Habitat: The Depression/Messy House Cycle”

I just realized this post is several months old. Wish I had seen it then.

It’s so important to recognize when you’re overwhelmed and that ignoring the problems will only add to what needs to be done. Tackling a little bit at a time and saying “good enough” or “I’m glad I got started” or both are great first steps. The two hardest things are to get started and knowing when to stop.

This is exactly what I do to get out of depressive episodes. I have found that when I think “Oh no, so much to do, where should I start??” I am unable to do anything at all, but if I think “Okay, I can stop anytime I want to, this is not that important – so I’ll just do this tiny thing, and see how it goes…” I usually do lots of things.

I think I’m going to try this on the space surrounding my computer. It’s progressive messiness has not been helping my depression & anxiety fighting. I might feel better once that’s done.

Thinking about doing it is definitely making me realize how much all that depression/anxiety has been increasing, though, because even cleaning for 5 minutes is producing an apathetic I-don’t-wanna reaction. Maybe I won’t say fuck you, depression today, but I’m sure as hell going to show it who is boss by cleaning this table within the fortnight.

(Or tomorrow. I really just wanted to use the word fortnight, to be honest.)

Yes! Exactly! I would have so many of those days, and for some reason getting the dishes or laundry or litter box done made things seem not worse. Especially the litter box.  Even if I couldn’t clean, I was responsible for two little kitties.  I HAD to get over whatever was keeping me in bed, no matter how hard those damned 10 minutes were…  I couldn’t let my kitties get UTIs!!!

PoM, in addition to everything else you do for me, could you possibly move in and follow me around and periodically yell “NO MARATHONS!” at me?

I just spent two hours dealing with my plants and kitchen, and while both of those things are picture-perfect now, i really need to embrace the “do a little bit every day” aspect of UFYH, because man, I marathon like WHOA.

Speaking of which, onto the bedroom! …. in 20/10s. I will try.

I really very much needed to read this today, thank you.  I don’t think my house has ever been this bad in my life.  It is demoralizing and makes my depression worse.  This is a major re-occuring theme in my life.  Overwhelmed? Avoid. Make everything worse? Check.

But I will do five minutes right now. I can do that.

Well, I set a timer (first I figured out that my phone does have a timer), then I just did what you suggested. I cleaned the surface in front of me, which was my coffee table. I got done in like three minutes so I cleared off the ottoman and put back the couch cushions. I’ll tell you what, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s more than I’ve done in a long time.  My son is with his dad for the summer so I don’t have a lot of motivation to keep it tidy. I don’t think I’ve washed dishes in a month. I have no clean dishes and my solution is to just not go in the kitchen.

But last night I cleaned something.

Thanks for writing about this.
I can’t really discuss why it is so important to me, because I’m in the middle of the cycle right now; and using my brain is an effort I can’t muster. Today was better, so the dishes are (mostly) done now, but it is hard to feel a sense of accomplishment when there are still piles of clothes, papers, random shit, everywhere.

I can’t stand doing dishes but have to daily or they would never ever get done. I’ve learned it’s so much easier to deal with them as they get dirty than to let them pile up. Mr. Bats refuses to do dishes.

That said, Yay on you for doing the dishes. I suffer from depression also and while I can usually handle other little tasks like cleaning off my nightstand…ugh, dishes. You are so amazing!

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