Domicilium perfectum nervosum

“There is no real need to do housework. After a few years it doesn’t get any worse.” — Quentin Crisp

I know people whose houses are so spotless that the board of health could issue a certificate for them to serve food off their floors. Most of these people are compulsive cleaners and seem to partake in a form of distorted thinking usually associated with anorexia nervosa: no matter how immaculate their houses are, they always see dirt. They own a carpet shampooer because they use it more frequently than most people use a vacuum cleaner; they scrub the grout on their tile floors with toothbrushes.

Not everyone who cleans thoroughly and frequently suffers from some kind of mental imbalance — it is possible to be naturally neat and perfectly healthy. I suspect, however, that a large number of neatniks suffer, undiagnosed, from some sort of anxiety disorder, which they try to keep at bay by cleaning. The rest of the world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but the physical conditions within the four walls of their homes are completely under control.

As with eating disorders, the causal factors leading to cleaning disorders are many and complex, but it seems certain that social attitudes play an important role. Aphorisms such as “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” coupled with middle- and upper-class housekeeping expectations, probably account for a large part of this social component. Stir in a little insecurity, some low self-esteem, and a couple issues of Better Homes and Gardens, and you’ve got the ideal conditions for a full-blown case of House Beautiful Syndrome.

I don’t seem to suffer from this disorder, which I view as both a blessing and a curse. On the blessing side, I don’t have a lot of anxiety, although I do experience the pressures of social attitudes and expectations. On the curse side, my house NEVER resembles anything found in a magazine and I don’t feel all that driven to do something about it. I keep the Quentin Crisp quote on my refrigerator as a reminder of the two-edged nature of this state of precarious mental health: while it’s true that clutter and grime reach a certain equilibrium after a few years, I’m fairly certain that point of balance is well beyond the bounds of my own tolerance.


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