Although I’ve never been a “neat freak,” I appreciate it when my house is mostly clean and organized. I am embarrassed to admit this, but my house is not clean right now. At all. Sure, it’s liveable, and yes, I can find everything, but it’s messy, making my eye twitch as I look at it all.
If you knew Emily, then you know cleaning was not her strong suit. At all. So, you’d think that her death would have made it easier for me to maintain a clean household… but it hasn’t.
I could probably justify the mess to some degree by sharing the fact that I work around 60 hours each week between my full-time job and freelance gigs. I could also blame some of it on the fact that I am still using my living room as a makeshift bedroom because I am still avoiding the bedroom because it’s just filled with her clothes, makeup, and memories. But, the reality is that I’ve simply lacked any and all motivation to do what I need to do, and, in a weird sort of way, having a messy house almost gives the illusion that Emily is still here.
Emily’s Cleaning Buddy
I remember the first time I saw Emily’s car. Boy, was it a sight. From the outside, it appeared to be filled to the brim with everything you can imagine, from clothing to textbooks to trash. At the time, I assumed it was something temporary, like she had just moved or had gone somewhere for a week and hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out her car. But, the more I got to know Emily, I learned a simple truth: Emily just didn’t clean things.
As our friendship evolved, I became Emily’s cleaning buddy. Anytime she’d get a notice from her apartment about inspections, anytime she planned to drive to Knoxville for a weekend, or anytime her parents planned to be in Nashville, I’d get panicked texts or phone calls. And, nearly every single time, I’d go help her clean up her apartment or clean out her car as best as I could.
I’ll admit, it was never easy or fun. I’d usually find things growing in her fridge or in coffee mugs throughout the apartment. I frequently found items that had obviously been sitting in the same place on the floor for months, with no effort to pick them up. I’d uncover things in her car that she forgot she even owned, or see that she had three opened containers of the same thing (like cookie butter) in different rooms because she couldn’t find the original one.
Sometimes I’d leave after spending several hours throwing out trash and deep cleaning and wonder, “Why am I doing this?” Other times I’d have to stand outside for a minute between running bags of trash to the dumpster just so Emily didn’t hear or see me throw up. Each time, though, it mostly broke my heart a bit to see how she lived because, deep down, I knew it wasn’t really her fault.
It Wasn’t Always Her Fault
I think a lot of people would see someone like Emily, take one look at her car or her apartment and think, “Man, that girl is lazy.” But, as is the case with many people who live in disorganized homes, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
I knew fairly early on in our friendship that Emily lived with several mental health conditions. She most openly talked about her battle with anorexia, but for a large amount of the years I knew her, that was far from the most problematic symptoms she experienced. Instead, I really think her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) paired with her depression were the real culprits when it came to her issues with cleaning.
Every time I helped Emily clean, I couldn’t help but look at her with curious fascination. It was a great way to see exactly how her mind worked and watch the battles she dealt with constantly play out.
One time, I cleaned out two entire rooms and hauled all of the trash to the dumpster in the time it took her to simply clear off her desk. She literally could not move on from this stack of papers because, in her mind, she had to sort them and place them in file folders immediately if she wanted to clean them up. She couldn’t simply put them all in a drawer or leave them neatly stacked on top of the desk. It was like she could only follow a certain path, and trying to do otherwise made her panic.
Another time, I ended up going over and cleaning her kitchen while she was still at work. We were dating at this point, and she had been living with me for months. However, we had decided to stay the night at her apartment one night when we didn’t have kids because it was closer to the city. I realized that next morning that we not only didn’t have anything to eat at her place, but the kitchen hadn’t been touched for at least two months. Emily attempted to clean in there, only to decide within a few minutes that she was going to die from some sort of contamination and that she’d be better off to simply never go into the apartment again than try to clean it. So, I waited until Friday when I didn’t have much to do at work and I spent several hours over there throwing everything in the fridge away and wiping down as much as I could.
I remember when she showed up after work that day, because she was panicking that I was going to break up with her over the fridge. She kept saying, “Why do you love me? I’m disgusting and broken! You deserve so much better!” But, as I told her, she wasn’t any of those things. She simply had a mental health condition that made tasks like cleaning very complicated. And, because I’m me, I also threw in a joke and then shared with her in great detail how gross the liquified hot dogs in her fridge were. We laughed, hugged, and moved on.
That’s one thing that I wish I’d gotten across to her before she died — even her flaws weren’t fatal. In fact, they usually weren’t even her fault at all. And I was more than happy to deal with a woman who would never clean out the fridge because I appreciated all the other parts of that same woman. Also, I knew that with time, she’d work through some of these issues. She’d already started doing some therapy specifically focused on OCD, and although it had only been a few months, I’d already seen some improvement and change.
Pieces of Her Messes Everywhere
Each time I’ve cleaned part of the apartment since Emily died, I’ve ended up finding things that made me cry. I moved some things around in the living room a couple weeks after she passed and spilled her purse over, only to find where she’d kept our admission tickets for the Shedd and something from our trip to St. Louis. When I cleaned out her car before taking it to her parents, I found a postcard I’d sent her back in 2020 sitting right in the center console, almost like she kept it there to look at. When I cleaned up the kids’ room, I found some things she’d left in there when she used it to do a therapy session one afternoon a few weeks before she died.
It doesn’t matter how long it’s been or where I go in this house, I uncover her everywhere.
I know that I eventually want to maintain a clean home again because I know it is one thing that does help my mental health. But boy, is it hard to keep the house spotless when you often struggle to even get out of bed and spend 10+ hours per day working. But, every time I get mad at myself or start to judge myself for everything I see around the house, I remember the things Emily said and felt when I would help her clean and remember my responses. So, because of Emily, I’m trying to give myself some grace. It will eventually all be clean, but until then I know she’s not judging me whatsoever because it would be just as bad if she were still here.