Facing the mess: my depression and the dishes


I never liked cliché’s. I especially never liked “time flies when you’re having fun!”, a phrase that conjures up a gaudy image; a sea of so many grinning faces, having the time of their lives, the days speeding by, not a care in the world. The other side of it is, of course, sad lonely faces, uncountable days of no relief stretched out before them. I never liked this phrase because, to me, since a criminally young age, time has been escaping me, faster than I’d like, and never slowing down when I was having no fun at all.

For me, time flies when I’m depressed. I sleep most of the day away. I let important emails gather dust, squandering my potential, the opportunities disappearing as quickly as they came. I stay in my pyjamas, afternoon and early evening impossible to tell apart without looking at a clock. The dishes pile higher and higher. The night always arrives so quickly, by which time I might as well just go back to sleep. Try again tomorrow. All of a sudden, a week has gone by. Time I’ll never get back.

I have suffered from bouts of depression, characterised specifically by intense feelings of loneliness, sadness and misunderstanding, since I was really young. I used to think I was just wired differently to other people. Mental health wasn’t something I was aware of until I taught myself about it years later, so I could only attribute my darker, more worrying thoughts to what my primary school teacher had called an “overactive imagination”. I knew something was wrong and I wanted there to be a reason for it. I'd just been given one. I was quite happy having a box to fit in, even if I knew it came along with connotations of being an attention seeker.

My thoughts were obsessive. I would meticulously plan out running away and killing myself in my diary, light-headed and dizzy with so many tears. When I was around fourteen years old, the thoughts just stopped coming. I put it all down to my over-active imagination, even puberty, maybe, and managed to mostly forget about what had silently plagued me for so many years. Soon enough, my diary entries were considerably normal; obsessing over a boy I was madly in love with since the first time I'd met him at the local park, and complaining about double Maths.

My mum had a framed cliché in the kitchen. An A4 print that read something like, “a clean house is a happy house!” and I hated it, because I hated the chore that was assigned to me: washing the dishes. In the way only a teenager could, I felt hard done by, as if I’d been given the world’s most awful job. The funny thing is, I always hated it until I’d rolled up my sleeves and given in. I actually enjoyed the ritual: the scrubbing of plates, the soap and bubbles, the clinking of knives and forks against the wire dish rack.

I thought of nothing but the dishes in front of me and the crackling of the radio whilst I scoured and dried. It always went by so quickly in the end. Yet, the following evening, as we sat around the dining room table and cleared our plates, I’d dread having to do it again, trying to come up with excuses, resisting one of the most peaceful things I’d known. I still don’t know exactly why, but I spent my entire teenage life hating the thought of doing the dishes.

Being overwhelmed by a sink full of dirty dishes took a long time to leave me. After moving out of my childhood home and into a flat of my own, dishes were no longer something my mum wanted me to do, but something I had to do. This only made it worse.

I have never been able to explain my contradictory attitude towards washing up, except that perhaps they symbolise getting my shit together, a simple act that defies hiding from responsibility, the first step towards being productive. Despite putting it off, I always did them, except for when I felt hints of the darkness creeping back in – a state that seemed to make me physically incapable of turning the taps on – but I was lucky for a while. It never seemed to stick around longer than a day, and when it was gone, I’d drag myself back over to the sink, armed with rubber gloves for pinching the stray bits of spaghetti out of the plughole, humming along to the radio.

Not long after moving out and enrolling at University, the darkness swept back in with a vengeance. It took a GP around four minutes to confirm what I self-diagnosed: I was depressed. Very. In a stupor, embarrassed and disturbed, I simply nodded along whilst he spoke at me. I didn’t realise I was crying until he handed me a tissue. He asked me if I'd be open to speaking to somebody about it, "y'know, like a therapist?" I said no. Then he was printing out a prescription for anti-depressants.

I didn’t realise I bought into the stigma surrounding mental health until seven full exhausting days had passed and I still hadn’t allowed myself to take a single one. I searched the internet for success stories and gave in to my packet of Citalopram. They made me even more lethargic than usual and my sex drive was non-existent but I was alive and I started to see the beauty in things again. I'm so grateful for those anonymous strangers on the internet, urging me to just give medication a try.

I’ve written about depression before, and there’s more information out there than there has ever been and so many brave stories being told that I needn’t give you the gory details about my own. At the height of it, though, one thing that I couldn’t stomach, ever, was doing the dishes.

I was in a relationship at the time, but he worked a lot, and when he wasn’t home they would simply pile higher and higher, submerged in dirty water, getting scarier and scarier until I avoided the kitchen altogether, even if I was hungry. When my partner came home and cleaned up the mess - graciously and without words - I felt like I could breathe again, but a clean kitchen never lasts very long. It became my greatest fear, the impossible task, a clear symbol of my inability to take care of myself.

When the depression began to dissipate for the second time and the darkness had started to fade – which it, always, always does, though this time I had taken steps to recovery, in the form of counselling – I knew what I wanted to do.

I made myself a cup of tea and two slices of peanut butter on toast. When the time came to put my dishes in the sink, rather than just letting them lie there, I washed them immediately. I was home alone, but I felt like if there was a crowd watching, they'd be proud of me. I took a used pan off the stove and washed that, too. Unheard of. I even left the kitchen door open behind me. I had accepted help, I had started to get better, and I had destroyed the impenetrable wall.

Cleanliness is good for you. It allows space to think, to re-organise, to plan ahead. I have found myself falling in love with filling the sink with warm water and fairy liquid, opening the windows, singing badly and stacking bowls, mugs, pots and pans. Even on dark days, it brings clarity, and provides literal evidence that you have taken control of your surroundings, however big or small a task it may seem. When the darkness does return, it has less power. You can walk into your kitchen, turn on the radio and focus entirely on your job. I never liked cliché’s, but perhaps this is one I can get behind: it always seems impossible until it is done.

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