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What Cleaning the Toilet Means to Me in Depression Recovery


I cleaned the toilet today.

There was a time when it wasn’t a big deal. Now it is. Now it signals the state of my mental health and indicates where my energy is. Now it embodies how I’m feeling about myself on a given day.

It has been a long time since I cleaned the toilet.

In 2016. I had a nervous breakdown. Nervous breakdowns don’t happen overnight or in isolation. It is a slow deterioration of mental health. For me, a gradual increase in depression, anxiety and disordered eating, until I was barely functional.

My housekeeping ability evaporated with my mental health. I just didn’t care — about me, the house or the future. I had no energy. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t do anything. I have no idea if the toilets were cleaned at all. My husband was helplessly watching me deteriorate and gradually picking up all the pieces as I dropped them, so I imagine he did all the cleaning. 

Over the past three years my mental state has varied in health. After completely breaking apart, I have just been slowly — ever so slowly — getting better. It’s not a straight line – sometimes I go backwards – but if I look back at the overall trajectory, I can see I am a long way from where I was three years ago.

How many times have I cleaned the toilet in the past three or four years? I confess, not many. I go through small periods of cleaning for a day or two, but cleaning requires energy and a sense of purpose. So with the scarcity of housework in recent years, the habit of cleaning was lost. My energy is still frequently low, and when I was working last year, I had nothing left to give outside of work (even though I was working only 20 hours per week). 

Today however, I am excited. I still don’t have a lot of energy — it waxes and wanes on a regular basis — but I feel purposeful. More hopeful. My stay in the eating disorder clinic earlier this year changed me. A lot. Even when I completely screw up my eating, I don’t return to compensatory behaviors. I have ideas for the future. I can picture a future.

I still experience high levels of anxiety, unintentionally numbing it away with one thing or another. My mood is for the most part extremely good — I’ve found a really good dose of medication for now.

Yesterday I had a long chat with my psychologist about my procrastination issues and realized how significant cleaning the toilet is. I detest mess. I hate dirt. It makes me feel uncomfortable in my own home. I feel uneasy when I know things need to be done. But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do anything. Everything else made me feel guilty because the housework wasn’t done. Housework was something I’d stare at and put off — endlessly. Housework represents normality. Functionality. Purpose. A sharing of the load with my husband. A sense of being independent again in a way I haven’t felt for a long time. Housework represents recovery.

So today, after a long lie in, I got up, made the bed, cleaned the kitchen, then scrubbed not one, but two toilets and the bathroom sinks. It didn’t take long — toilets never do — but I felt successful. I felt a lessening of the endless guilt weighing me down. I felt a move towards a future I can still barely glimpse (I mean really – how many of us can actually glimpse the future anyway?). I felt another small rip as the eating disorder is torn further away. My mood is lighter. It is such a small thing — basic, simple tasks I taught my young boys when they were 10 years old. It is normality returning to my life. I look at my clean toilets and think, “I’m in recovery.”

Getty Images photo via Rasulovs