starting with the kitchen

I want to dive a bit more deeply into why I started in my kitchen when cleaning my house, what I did to make a difference, and what I’ve learned from sticking with it. If you’re new to my blog, I’ve accepted that I’m a hoarder. And now I’m trying to do something about it on my own terms. I’ve posted about not giving up my de-stressing time to clean. This post is about what I have done and how I’m going to build on it. It’s a long one.

About two months ago, I took what I call a Spring Cleaning Vacation. I feel like there’s so much build up and backlog in my house that nothing I do on a small scale makes a difference. It’s like fighting an Ooze. You might hack away a little bit at the side, but if you don’t take care of the entire thing right then, the blob creature has oozed back over your progress by the time you return. And so you have to start all over again at the beginning, each time repeating the same effort without making any lasting change. I make my house sound like a monster, and honestly sometimes it feels that way. Which is not the way I want to feel about my house. So I decided to do something that would make significant visible change.

I took almost a week off work right before my partner’s birthday to clean up the house. I knew I wasn’t going to get The Entire House clean, so I decided which rooms were most important to me: the kitchen, the bathroom and my partner’s computer room.

Now, my partner’s computer room isn’t that messy, but I’d bought them an air purifier for their birthday, so my Breathable Air Package gift to them was to tidy up the little trash items that accumulate, like wrappers and soda cans, vacuum the carpet, and have the air purifier cleaning the air for a few hours before they got home from work on Friday. That was a pretty easy room to tackle. I mean, it was a lot of effort because I was moving furniture to get behind it and down on my belly pulling miscellaneous stuff out from under furniture so the Roomba could vacuum, but it didn’t require any hard decisions and it could be finished in one day. I set aside Friday to work on it.

That left me with Monday, Tuesday and Thursday (I went to work on Wed.) to deal with the kitchen and bathroom. I chose those rooms because the activities we do there require space and cleanliness and are repeated often, so not being able to do those activities easily gives the most amount of frustration and has a high impact on our daily lives. Let me preface my efforts by saying that I spent the preceding weekend as I normally would, spending time with my partner and dogs. I knew the week would be physically intense for me, so I didn’t push myself on the weekend. I didn’t go so far as to actually take any of my vacation time to, you know, have a vacation, but I at least didn’t clean on the weekend.

I had so many dishes, y’all. If you want to get an idea, read my last post called what is “a lot of dishes?” I had to do them over multiple days. I did the easy things first: plates, bowls and utensils. I usually let them air dry in between loads just because I needed the break from standing in one place. I’d consider what I’d tackle in the next load and set them soaking to make the actual washing easier. Sometimes I had to roll in my computer chair to sit down while washing because my back just couldn’t take it anymore. Since I find washing glasses to be incredibly frustrating because I can’t squeeze my hands down to their lowest points, I bought a brush just for washing them and left the glasses to soak for that first day.

The first and second days were high volume dish washing days. While one set was drying, I’d wipe down counters, scrub the stove top, crush soda boxes that had been blocking the side door for months, and switch over a load of laundry (more on that at the end of this post). When I absolutely had to do something else but wasn’t ready to give in to a break, I’d clean the bathroom. I spent two hours scrubbing just the inside of the tub. Really. Lest you wonder if my kitchen was just very cluttered instead of hoarder-level, there was significant animal waste from a rodent visitor that I’d caught but hadn’t cleaned up after. In my kitchen. Not making excuses or apologies. It is what it is.

By the third day, I could spend more time on the bathroom while I let the final, most difficult dishes soak in a sink filled with hot soapy water. By the weekend, I was finished. Kitchen finished. Bathroom finished. Partner’s appreciation for their clean space happily accepted. I felt accomplished and relieved. I had done what I set out to do plus cleaned off the dining room table. There hadn’t been time to touch the bedroom, but that was fine. It hadn’t been at the top of the list.

But it was the next couple weeks that taught me something new. I loved how a clean kitchen made me feel. I loved that I could just walk in and cook or prepare something. I didn’t have to move dirty dishes out of the way to make space to work, realize I needed something that was dirty, wash said item, find more space to set that item down and use it, etc. etc. Or turn on the oven to find out that dirty dishes had been placed in it to get them out of the way and were now cooking. It was a weight off of my mind to know that my partner could cook without getting frustrated at the lack of counter space. So I resolved to keep it that way. I resolved to do my dishes before they became so overwhelming that I had to take a day off work to get them back under control. And unlike all of the previous times I’d made the same resolution, this time I did something about it. I washed my dishes.

Once a day, or once every couple of days, I would wash all of the dishes that were dirty. At first it was just the momentum of feeling good about my clean kitchen that kept me washing, but eventually I realized something surprising. Something that kept me going in this new habit. It was easy. Washing my dishes right away was easy in comparison to three days of soaking and scrubbing. To weeks or months of buildup, guilt and frustration. The quicker I did them, the easier it was. And I didn’t feel guilty about soaking a baked-on-cheese-covered dish before washing it because it was the only one. I didn’t have to find space for it by rearranging piles of “soaking” dishes that had been growing bacteria for days. Or weeks. Or longer.

I’m not saying I like washing dishes now. Last night I sighed before doing the dinner dishes, but I sucked it up and washed them just so I wouldn’t have to do them today. It isn’t a “chore” if I do them when there are only a few. I never knew that dishes could not feel oppressive and time-consuming. They have always been a burden because I’ve always had a full sink. And/or counters. Even as a child, having the chore of doing the dishes meant washing plates, glasses and cookware for a six-person meal. And that impression is how I’ve assumed washing dishes would always be. It would always take a long time. It would always be back aching. It would always involve scrubbing. It would always mean feeling resentful of other people’s messes. And there would always, always be more. To avoid these things, I’d have to avoid washing dishes altogether. Because whenever I washed dishes, this is what I could expect.

Now I know that while there will always be more dishes to wash, that doesn’t mean a kitchenful of dishes. It’s like eight dishes. And if I do it right away, I probably won’t even have to scrub anything. It doesn’t feel like a chore to wash one pan, one spatula, one cutting board, one knife, two plates and two forks since when I’m finished every dish in the house is clean. But I couldn’t believe that dishes could be anything other than soulcrushing until I experienced this for myself. I tried flylady’s “clean your sink every night” without cleaning all of the dishes outside of the sink because it was too much work for one evening. Or several evenings. When you still can’t cook in your kitchen because all surfaces except the sink are covered, having a clean sink doesn’t count for a lot. (TBH, I still don’t care about my sink being empty before I go to bed. Late night ice cream spoons can be washed the next day.)

I got there eventually, but it had to be in my own way. I had to tackle the issue with no distractions and with enough time to get everything finished. Then I could maintain that state every day. I discovered that maintaining doesn’t take a lot of time. Maintaining doesn’t take a lot of decluttering decision-making that makes my heart pound just thinking about it. I can do it without becoming overwhelmed. At first that maintenance was every few days, but with practice and the creation of habit, it’s becoming every day. After almost two months of maintaining, clean counters are becoming the normal state of my kitchen. I don’t think that’s ever been true for me. Ever. It’s a big frikkin’ milestone. And since I’ve experienced the success, I’m more hopeful that I can apply the same practice to other areas of my house. Deep clean, then just maintain. I didn’t fully understand the difference until I experienced it.

Full disclosure, I credit my newly-prescribed ADHD medication with the ability to notice dirty dishes and act upon the knowledge that I should do something about them. Before, I would have backed away from the intimidation and mundanity of “doing dishes.” I’d put it off for “later.” And sometimes, really truly, I just wouldn’t notice. Or care. Without medication improving my executive function, I would have looked at those dishes last night and just walked away. There aren’t a lot of them. It’s late. I have work in the morning and should really get to bed. I’ve already washed dishes once today. So many justifications to procrastinate, some truly valid. I could totally believe them. That I washed those dishes instead of procrastinating is a noticeable difference in my behavior. The choices I’m making now are different than the years of choices I’ve made before. It makes me feel hopeful, even while I remind myself to take it slowly.

Okay, last note is on that laundry I briefly mentioned earlier. Here’s something that didn’t work for me. In between loads of dishes, I washed laundry. I washed and dried a large amount of clothing. But I never folded it or put it away. It was left sitting on the couch because I had higher priorities, namely the kitchen and bathroom. Two months later, that clothing has been pawed through to wear to work and moved to the love seat to get it out of the way. The clothing already on the love seat needs to be washed because it has been sitting there so long that it’s gotten dusty. It’s also been mixed in with who-knows-if-it’s-clean clothes. So now all of the fairly-recently-cleaned clothes are suspect, too. Laundry and my bedroom are the next areas I want to tackle. Trying to do them without making them the true priority, though, didn’t work. It was just a lot of effort for no return.

Come the July 4th break, I’ll be tackling the bedroom and laundry as my next deep cleaning project. The goal is to get them to a state that is clean and then just needs to be maintained. This level of maintenance will be a jump up from washing a few dishes each day. This will be washing, drying, folding AND putting away clothing. The deep cleaning may also require some purging to have space for everything to be put away in a practical place. This may be a difficult one, but I’m ready to tackle it. Deep breath.

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