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Healing My Inner Crazy

alec vanderboom

I am not a normal person when it comes to the task of cleaning. First, I have a sanguine temperament, which means I don't like to do unpleasant things. Dusting cobwebs from the ceiling and intensely scrubbing the mildew off my shower stall, generally fall under the "things I'll easily save for another day" category in my own head. That's my nature part.

Then there is the nurture part. I grew up with several members of my family of origin having a form of OCD. As a young kid, I have repeated experiences of different people "going flip out crazy" over one of my minor cleaning mistakes. At the time, I didn't know that there was a neat line between "their issue" and "my issue." In my head, my incompetence at cleaning caused their reaction.  I started to associate house-cleaning with extreme danger.

Still today as a 39 year old adult, I have what I can only describe as minor PTSD symptoms whenever I start to clean my house. There's this intense anxiety that flares up. I start taking shallow breaths and feel a tightness in my chest. There's this shame spiral that starts. "This mess is overwhelming! I'll never be able to catch up. I'm such a loser for letting it get this bad." If I don't stop that intense shame experience, I can easily flare up into anger. "Why doesn't anyone in this house pick up stuff besides me!"

(I'm probably the only person in America who has deep shame associated with three day old dried oatmeal stuck to my kitchen floor but I share my personal weirdness in case it's helpful to someone else with a similar handicap in another area of their life).

So God has a great sense of humor. He takes a women who is terrified and incompetent at housecleaning, and makes her the mother of six children!

I started out Lent this year finding out that I was 6 weeks pregnant! Yeah! For the first few days, I was really happy about the new baby. We picked out a name. I have my little cheerleaders in my life who are jumping up and down in support of this new life. I took the slogan from my recovery "One Day at a Time!" I don't know how long I'm going to get to mother this little one, but I'm going to celebrate everyday she (or he) is here.

Then the fear started. And the fatigue. I'm sure its inner-related. Once my body gets tired from normal first trimester pregnancy stuff, my mind starts to weaken in the fight against anxiety. The fatigue and sickness is hard. The mental stuff is super hard.

One of the things that helps me cope with my anxiety is to "nest." I want to fix up our house. I want to paint the blank walls I've been looking at for 3 years. I want to finish our taxes. I want to organize the kids' rooms. I have this new human being that is coming into our family. I know I'm going to be out of commission for a while, so there's is this focus to "get things ready" for a new baby.

I've had the "nesting urge" in the second and third trimester of pregnancy. I've never had it in the first trimester before. I don't know if that's because I lost a baby in the second trimester last year, so my head's picking up in the middle. Or if I'm worried we could be having a second funeral in a few months. Whatever it is. I really want to nest. At the same time, that I'm weak.

God uses everything for good. The thing I realized is that I really have to seek more help from my family. I have to heal my inner crazy.

It's Lent. My number one resolution is to not yell. Ever! For the whole six weeks. Prior to pregnancy that would have seemed pretty hard not to yell during cleaning session. To avoid snapping at my kids, I either did the major cleaning tasks myself. Or skipped all the cleaning jobs I didn't think were critical.

Now I've got that combo of fastidiousness with cleaning combined with great fatigue. It's weird. But things are actually easier. I have to enlist my kids help. At ages 10, 9, and 6 asking kids to pitch in for general housekeeping is a general part of good parenting. (I don't want to raise kids who are totally unprepared to be decent college roommates at age 18). All the same, I didn't have the strong motivation to teach "basic chores" until I was pregnant with number 6.

Yesterday, we cleaned the girls room. I've got an almost 2 year old, 3 year old and 6 year old sharing the master bedroom in my Cape Cod. Even with pretty good toy organization, stuff gets messy quickly. In the past, I would have asked my three older kids to help clean their own bedrooms. I wouldn't have had the patience to sit quietly on the sidelines while they gained experience in sorting out the jumbled mess. I would have jumped in after a few moments, barking orders, feeding my own shame spiral, and feeling totally frustrated that this activity wasn't done quickly and efficiently.

Even the stuff I did to help the "not yelling during housecleaning" were only on the surface. For example, I'd try to play fun music while we cleaned. Or I'd try to artificially keep calm and give compliments. It's was better than losing my temper. But it wasn't great. It was like a "white knuckle fix."

It's wild to think that pregnancy has just fixed that problem. Instantaneous grace! When we cleaned the bedrooms this past week, I laid on my toddler's tiny bed in exhaustion. I had to point to things and kindly ask them to be moved. The difference was my own heart. I was completely grateful for my kid's help. I was in a position where I wanted this room cleaned up due to my own agitation (anxiety) but I absolutely was not in a position to do it alone. I was in a position were I was asking for help, instead of demanding it. Surprise, that one interior shift made the whole job so much more comfortable for everyone. My three kids cleaned two bedrooms and a second floor bathroom in record time with almost no fuss.

I'm really encouraged this Lent to heal my inner crazy when it comes to housecleaning. I invested in some green housecleaners that have a really nice scent. I usually use simple, cheap things to clean: vinegar, baking soda, lemons and water. This month I wanted something commercial that was a little stronger and yet still safe for pregnancy. I picked up two bottles of Mrs. Meyers. This product has some cool scents like Basil, Radish, and Honeysuckle. The scent alone calms me down whenever I clean. It's like aromatherapy. When I start to get tense, I can focus on the smell. That kind of awareness of the present tense is enough to stop the anxiety cycle.

I'm so grateful to be in recovery. I'm so grateful to be a Mom. I could have spent my whole life living this big important public life--when I gave to community service and won important trophies at work. Inside, I would have still felt so broken and so afraid. Someone in my recovery group once described themselves as "incongruent" --a big shot at work and but feeling like a failure inside.

Before I was a Mother, I had this fear that I was too broken to raise a child. I believed in my hear that kids were so important. I never, ever wanted to hurt a child the way I had been hurt as a kid. I cared about children, but I didn't believe I had the capacity to do right by them. So it seemed safer to just not have my own child. I'd just spend my life gazing at the sidelines as a volunteer soccer coach and Sunday School teacher.

Now I know in my bones that I'm not worthy to raise a child. I am not a good enough human being to be such a powerful influence on a brand new human life. At the exact same time that I distrust myself, I have this supreme confidence that God can still use me--broken as I am. It's exciting to wake up in the morning and see "Wow, this little unborn baby is already making our life better!" The house is cleaner. Mom has better coping skills. The siblings have age-appropriate responsibilities without being overwhelmed. Tess and Abigail are getting more hugs and kisses because Mom is sitting down more during the day, rather than off doing her own projects.

Babies make life better! God is amazing! Praise to the Author of All Life!