For me, cleaning and keeping things tidy is one of the first things I start to struggle with when a depressive episode starts.
Here I want to show not just how I successfully established a sustainable housekeeping routine, but also share how depressive episodes affected me in that regard. I want to share this for two reasons: for people who are going through it to know that they’re not the only ones struggling, and for people who know someone in this situation to know that it’s one of the many tolls depression takes on a person.
Whether it’s unipolar depression or a depressive episode in bipolar disorder, you need to know this: we’re not lazy, we’re ill. It’s true that we can do things to help ourselves, but ultimately we will be impaired to some degree until we have a treatment that actually works for us (be it therapy of some kind, medication, or both). Trust me, if I could’ve just gotten up and cleaned I would have.
It’s worth noting that I’m able to follow the routine I created only because my condition is being treated and managed so I’m not in the middle of an episode. The routine I have allows me to stay on top of things while I’m stable and it also serves as a barometer that helps me notice when my mood is going down. If I was going through a depressive episode it would be much more difficult for me to do it. This is something I use to maintain my well-being. I would still have a routine if I was going through an episode, but my strategy would be different.
How it affected me
When depressed, my living space would become increasingly dirtier and disorganised. Every time I thought about cleaning, the task was bigger than the time before. The more things built up, the more overwhelmed I got at the prospect of tackling it. I would then feel more depressed about not being able to do things. It became a cycle. If this went on for long enough, I would reach a level of complacency telling myself “there’s nothing wrong with living like this”, “I still shower and show up to work clean, so it’s fine”, “it doesn’t affect anyone else”, “it’s been like this for weeks so it must not be bothering me.”
Things usually started as “I don’t have the energy for this today, I’ll do just the minimum”, which turned into “I don’t have the energy for the minimum today, I’ll leave it for another day” and then escalated into straight up not cleaning at all.
These are some examples from my last (and to date, worst) episode:
- I didn’t have the energy to properly clean the bathroom, so I just used some antibacterial wipes. I did that for a few weeks, then I couldn’t even bother with that. I didn’t clean the bathroom at all for months. I’d get a haircut or trim my beard and the hair stayed on the floor. Sink and shower were be covered in limescale.
- I left a small mould patch on the bathroom wall untreated until it spread all the way around the bathroom cabinet.
- I was too tired to hoover one weekend, so I left it for the next. Hoovering every couple of weeks led to hoovering once a month, and eventually not hoovering at all. The floor ended up covered in dust and fluff, hairs, crumbs, and anything else that came through the window or on my shoes.
- I started washing bed sheets every other week instead of weekly, then washed them monthly, then kept the same unwashed sheets on for about six months. The white areas weren’t even white anymore.
- I started keeping a small bag for trash in my room that I’d take to the kitchen bins once full, as I didn’t want to walk into the communal kitchen. I then started using an actual bin bag that I’d take outside on collection day every week. Then, 3-4 big bags would pile up before I got around to taking them outside.
- At one point I had dozens of small flies in my room because of the food waste I kept.
- I kept leaving dishes longer and longer. I’d only wash them once I ran out of dishes to use. Inevitably they’d go mouldy. That’s when I threw them away and switched to plastic cutlery and plastic cups. My diet consisted of pre-made sandwiches, microwave meals, and cold tins of baked beans or chickpeas along with bags of crisps and other stuff that wouldn’t require cooking.
This last episode ended up in a hospital stay. While I was in the hospital, my landlords offered to deep clean my room and bathroom. They sent in two people, both of them cleaning for four hours. This is basically a small studio without a kitchen that takes me an hour to properly clean at most, so that’s how bad it was.
How I established a sustainable routine
When I got home from the hospital, the first thing I did was take everything I owned and put it on the bed and floor. I sorted everything into things I’d keep, things I’d take to a charity shop, and things I’d throw away. I will write a more detailed post about efficient use of space. For the purpose of this housekeeping post, my point is that if everything has a place it is much easier to keep things organised. Once I’m done using something I remind myself to put it back where it belongs.
Having a place for everything and not leaving things lying around when they’re not in use means my space looks tidy. I don’t get visually overwhelmed seeing a pile of clothes on a chair or a desk covered in random stuff that doesn’t need to be there. It also makes it easier to clean as I don’t have to clear out as many things to wipe a surface.
I then established a routine breaking everything down into steps, as well as a low-effort routine that I allow myself to follow under the condition of not making it a habit. Even when I’m not in a depressive episode, I get easily overwhelmed by tasks if I don’t have a clear start and end, and a defined process to follow.
My cleaning routine looks something like this:
- Make bed first thing in the morning
- Clean up after myself immediately
- Put things back where they belong as soon as I’m done with them
- Do dishes at the end of the day
- Leave dishes for the next morning but no later than that
WEEKLY (SATURDAY OR SUNDAY)
- Cleaning room
- Dust window sill
- Remove any objects from shelves, furniture surfaces, and counter
- Dust and wipe surfaces
- Place objects back on surfaces
- Dust skirting boards
- Wipe fridge door
- Hoover floors (including bathroom), corners, and under furniture where possible
- Mop room wooden floor
- Cleaning bathroom
- Clean sink with scourer
- Clean shower (including doors) with scourer
- Clean less accessible spots in the shower with a toothbrush
- Clean toilet with scourer
- Wipe mirror
- Wipe scale
- Mop floor
- Wipe all door handles
- Spray air freshener
- Bed sheets, 60°C
- Towel + bath mat + underwear + misc. homewear, 60°C
- Street clothes, 20°C
WEEKLY (SATURDAY OR SUNDAY)
- Cleaning room + bathroom. Don’t use alternative more than once in a row.
- Wipe furniture surfaces and counter
- Hoover floors (including bathroom)
- Wipe bathroom surfaces with antibacterial wipes
- Spray air freshener
- Wash bed sheets only if they weren’t washed the previous week.
- Replace towel, leave to wash following week.
- Wash street clothes + underwear in one load at 30°C if not enough clean clothes available.
These are less regular tasks I have reminders on my phone for:
- Wash mattress cover every month
- Add a cistern block every month
- Replace toothbrush every three months
- Descale kettle every four months
- Wash pillows every six months
- Defrost and clean fridge every six months
I have this printed in an A4 sheet. I rarely have to use it, but it helps get me started and clean in an efficient way when I’m too overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, or when I’m too unfocused and keep jumping from one task to another without finishing any of them. It was particularly helpful the first few weeks after being discharged, since at that point I hadn’t properly done any house chores for nearly a year.
The low-effort alternatives allows me to keep things clean enough to get by for another week, and it’s something I use only if I have to. I don’t allow myself to use it twice in a row. If I feel the need to keep using low-effort alternatives, I know that my mood is going down and I need to address it.
Some other things that make my life easier are:
- I only have two plates and a bowl so that I don’t have the chance of dirty dishes piling up.
- I have a small box for recyclable trash in my room. I know I won’t feel like going to the kitchen just to put an empty can in the bin, so I let myself fill that box during the day and empty it at the end of the day.
- If I cut my hair or trim my beard, I do it right before I clean and only on days when I know I will hoover.
- For sensory issues:
- I wear ear defenders while hoovering.
- I have cleaning rubber gloves to do dishes.
- I use cleaning products with the least fragrance and make sure they’re smells I tolerate.
- I like using air freshener after cleaning. I have one with the most “neutral” fragrance and I go out of the room for a few minutes while the smell is still strong.
Overall, managing to keep a clean and organised living space helps my mood in two ways:
- It makes me feel productive and accomplished when I’m keeping up with house chores and getting them done.
- It makes my living space more comfortable and inviting. It’s not just a place I have to be in, but a place I enjoy being in.