I can always tell the level of stress I am under by my response to dirt – and, to be more precise, my need to clean obsessively.
I have long suspected that I have quite pronounced OCD traits – but they fluctuate depending upon how anxious I am. As a child, I grew agitated if my more relaxed siblings rucked up my carpet – and, during the worst of the emotional abuse, I felt an overwhelming need to have duvet covers straight, cushions at precise angles and books lined up in rigid alphabetical order. The world felt safer, I suppose because I had a sense of being in control – even if it were only of minute, and trivial (to many) things.
Having said the above, I am not in the slightest bit house-proud – am, in fact, more slattern than domestic goddess. But I do have a strong streak of Neat Freak about me – and shudder inwardly when order is turned upside down or tidiness is changed to untidy mayhem.
I have become much more rigorous, almost neurotically so, about keeping my new house clean, however. I feel tremors, almost like minor panic pangs, when dog hairs encroach upon the pristine carpet, or debris collects and clutters up windowsills and other surfaces. When dust gathers, I itch to remove it – and, if very wound-up, cannot relax until it has gone. The same goes for bread-crumbs. I feel restless and uneasy until I have cleaned them up. Shifting the problem under the table, where they cannot be seen, does not work: I know they are there, a crunching reproach, an area of bread-based anarchy in my little kingdom.
It is not about fear of germs, oddly enough. That doesn’t worry me, though perhaps it should. I am not in the least bit obsessive about cleaning myself, or my clothes; in fact, on weekends, I am quite happy to slob about in the same outer garments (though, obviously, the hose end of things gets a daily change!) for forty-eight hours, and am certainly not someone who needs three showers a day!
No, it is about order and control, about feeling safe in my environment, about being able to make inanimate objects do what I want – often as a reaction against the mass of animate beings who will persist in doing their own thing and ignoring me!
Early on in my teaching career, I noticed a weird correlation between loss of control in the classroom – and the corresponding urgent desire for squeaking cleanliness in the home. On days in which I encountered the war-like tribes of the more dysfunctional adolescents (and lost the battle), my reaction, once home, would always be to hoover the place within an inch of its life, or polish a surface until I could see the end of the street in it – or get down on my hands and knees and express my rage and hurt and fear in a crazed mega-scrub of the kitchen floor.
So, for me, the urge to clean things is, actually, more psychological than functional; more to do with my own neuroses than any genuine Mrs Mop ability! It is rooted in a need to feel safe and secure; to limit the encroachment of threat; to maintain control over a shaky and scary situation – and, I think, to soothe jagged nerves and find physical release in absorbing, if tedious, tasks.