#92: Cleaning the garage

#92: Cleaning the garage

Sometimes wins are big and elaborate. And others are significant in their smallness. This week was one of the latter.

These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.


Story

Housework with OCD is a bitch sometimes. (Also seems true even without OCD, but I can’t speak to that.)

One of the challenges is due to the nature of my flavor of OCD—scrupulosity. As I described in a post earlier this week, Magically divine gas, it is essentially perfectionism with the constant threat of eternal damnation. Many parts of life get over-moralized and I feel paralyzingly guilty about not doing the “right” thing.

Mental illness often latches on to the areas of life that matter most to us. This is certainly true for me. My biggest triggers are feeling like I’m not a good enough husband or father.

When I went through my intensive outpatient program at The OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center, I learned that a common cognitive distortion is black-and-white thinking. One of my friends in our group said she struggled with the opposite. She would be paralyzed by all the gray and struggle to decide because she could see so many options and so many facets to each of them.

That is not my problem.

For me, my brain often says there is one option that is right, or moral, or fair, or just, or righteous (again with the over-moralizing). Everything else is heinous and wicked.

These aspects of my OCD combine to make things like household chores almost unbearable at times. I have been working to confront this for years. Lately it has helped to have the added perspective of mental health instead of feeling like a horrible person if I didn’t want to do all the jobs that felt required.

One practical difficulty is that I will often procrastinate doing a job until I have time to do the whole thing. And to do it “right.”

There is one household job that continually seems to defeat me—cleaning the garage. With seven kids, the garage reduces to a hazardous state of clutter in the twinkling of an eye. And no matter how well we do at cleaning, it seems to make no difference a few days later.

The garage seems to be the most fertile ground for exhibiting the broken window theory. As soon as there is some kind of mess, stemming the tide of filth becomes impossible.

A couple weeks ago, we replaced a toilet and a bed, and placed the old ones in the garage to await a trip to the dump. Since then, the garage became impassable. The pile of shoes was becoming sentient and somehow the snow boots and coats emerged to pile up in front of the storage fridge.

We talked about cleaning it as a family for a Saturday activity. We threw out the idea of cleaning for half an hour, but dismissed that out of hand. That would be enough time to move everything out of the garage, and then where would we be. Instead, we decided to run from our problems and go to the excellent Provo Farmer’s Market on a small family trip.

My wife and I talked about how to schedule time to get it done. We figured we would need a good four hours. I asked her some questions to understand what bothered her most about the mess.

Sunday morning, my wife took a couple of the girls up in the canyon. While she was gone, I decided I would go out in the garage and clean. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it all, but I wanted to make a dent.

As I started cleaning, my ten-year-old son came out. I put away my podcast and we chatted for, and I started handing him boxes to break down. We got a bunch of garbage cleared up, organized some of the shoe pile, and cleaned up the winter clothes. After an hour or so, we had a clear path cleared and decided to stop.

We hadn’t cleaned the whole garage. But we also hadn’t done nothing. It was a great win. I had overcome my natural tendencies and made progress. It felt great.

Lesson

The Happiness Lab, one of my favorite podcasts, often reminds me that our brains lie to us. Especially about what will make us happy.

In my case, my brain lies about what is necessary. Success usually comes when doing much less than I think will be required. And at other times, even more is required.

But I was reminded by this experience with the garage that we feed our fears. When we allow ourselves to act based on avoiding what we fear, we add fuel and power to those fears. Each time we put off doing something, we make it a bigger and harder task in our minds.

Sometimes, we do have to finish a project all the way. You can’t replace a toilet part-way and move on.

But most of the time, we can take incremental steps that set us up for success in the future.

Instead of increasing the power of the task we fear, we can take some of it back. Then when we come back to it, it is more manageable.

I like to think of this as our present selves being compassionate for our future selves. Show them some love and make their lives easier.

Challenge

This week’s challenge I give to myself, and to you if you’ll accept it, is to find something we are afraid of doing that we want done. Rather than spending time our emotions and why we are feeling that way, take action. Chip away at it. Make a step forward.

If we need to, set a timer and work on it until the timer rings and then move on.

As we do this, we will build our self trust. We will show ourselves compassion. And we will take back a bit of control from our minds.

Remember that we get to choose. We are in charge of our lives. And they can get better over time, in many small ways.