real life

"It's gross and humiliating: I'm constantly ashamed by the state of my house."

Once upon a time, I thought of "hitting rock-bottom" as a one-time thing. And always "extreme." Things like landing in jail, practically dying, causing a fatal or near-fatal accident. 

Now that I’m older, I understand that for people like me, there are lots of rock bottoms. Little ones.

This weekend, I hit another one of mine. And honestly? It sort of knocked the wind out of me. I quit — productively — writing for five days. I basically gave myself some time to clean up my mess and… think.

When you suffer from depression, there’s this natural tendency to hide how bad it can really be. It’s such a deeply humiliating and shameful feeling when people find out how much I’ve “let myself go,” or how I’ve really been struggling with certain “impossible tasks” like housework.

I feel this is extra layered for single mothers. There are already so many unreasonable expectations of mothers in general that if you’re a single working one, it’s not surprising to find yourself fighting just to keep up with a few essentials. Like, waking up each morning to do the bare minimum and ensure that nobody dies or is needlessly traumatised.

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To hold onto a semblance of sanity, we might talk about it. I’ve written several pieces about my struggle to get clean or stay clean at home. And like a lot of other people with autism, I tend to struggle with things like housework due to the seemingly endless decisions that go along with it. 

What’s the best place for this, what’s the most effective cleaner for that — I can give myself decision fatigue long before I get much done. Which, in time, turns into a physical fatigue.

Nothing about 2020 has made this struggle any easier. I quit paying for housekeeping help and my daughter and I began spending all of our time at home in March. 

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The clutter accumulated. Boxes piled up. Every time I thought I could get stuff back under control, new challenges cropped up.

Whenever I get really overwhelmed with my messy house, I typically remind myself that a) it’s not always messy, and b) it’s not icky messy. And let’s be honest. A lot of us feel better when we think like that.

It never surprises me when other mums talk about the mess in their homes, if they have one, but add a bunch of caveats about how it’s not a literal pigsty. Like, we’re not filthy animals, here.

But even if we were, um, filthy, or, even if we were going through a temporary period where the household chores seriously fell by the wayside, it’s so hard to say that out loud as a woman. There’s so much shame and fear about being seen as a horrible mum.

I hate that. For one thing, shame and fear don’t help us grow. Also, I can easily recall stories from fathers and men about various mishaps they’ve had at home because they let cleaning slide, or were less than great housekeepers, and we don’t judge men for that. 

If anything, we expect them to be clueless around the house. More often than not, they get a pass. A messy dad is not a bad dad. A messy mum? That’s another story.

Lately, I’ve been working through some terrible mum guilt. My daughter went back to school on August 17, and I found myself barely able to walk due to a boil on my inner thigh. Probably one of the most painful experiences of my life, right up there with childbirth.

Once the boil burst, I slathered ointment on my leg, packed it with gauze, and wrapped my thigh in an elastic bandage so I could hobble my daughter to the door and take her first day of kindergarten photo.

I was miserable, but I got through it, and for the rest of the week, we used the car line.

For nearly two weeks, I fell even more behind on household chores than usual because it was so painful to move. I gathered the gumption to take out the rubbish one day, but then I waited several more days to do it again until I was finally able to walk with less pain. 

To make matters worse, my daughter caught a cold and missed the second week of school, so I found myself juggling my healing leg along with her daytime needs. It was hell. 

Just taking a shower was a nightmare in a slippery bathtub, and simply standing with my legs together was next to impossible. I was cranky and impatient, and above all, I was worried that this was now my life.

Fortunately, my leg did heal, and the pain dissipated.

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On the tenth or eleventh day of my leg saga, I finally took out the garbage bags that had accumulated. I had cleaned out the fridge and freezer, so there was more food waste than usual. I was grateful that nothing leaked or smelled too putrid and I thought little about it, beyond the fact that I was glad to have finally gotten it done.

The next morning was Saturday. I woke up and prepared breakfast for my daughter. Okay, I poured cereal and milk. Grateful that my leg was healing well and I could finally move without pain, I decided to clear more clutter in the kitchen. The garbage bags had been in one corner, but I still had some empty plastic grocery bags to clean up from the same spot. Little bits of cardboard.

Maybe you can guess what's coming. But just a warning — it’s disgusting.

When I started picking up the clutter, I realised there were small maggots on my kitchen floor where the garbage bags used to be.

Oh my God.

There weren’t a ton, although even one maggot is definitely too many. But there were enough for me to realise a fly must have laid eggs in a garbage bag and some of those eggs must have hit the floor. 

Flies have a tendency to come into our house if we’ve got the door open to receive packages or groceries. It’s annoying, but it’s never been too problematic. Not like this.

Fear and self-loathing seems to put my brain on auto-pilot. I didn’t want my daughter to see the larvae and panic or get too interested. She’s six — it could go either way. I knew I didn’t want — or need — this to turn into a full-on fly infestation. 

So, I quickly went through all of the clean-up options in my head. There was no time to gag about the grossness. I picked the wriggling things up with paper towels, tied them in a plastic bag, and promptly took it out to the trash. I came back and sprinkled the floor with salt and diatomaceous earth for any larvae I might have missed.

For the rest of the day, I wound up inspecting the whole spot to make sure there weren’t any stragglers. And of course, I felt disgusting.

Apparently, I’m naïve. I thought the whole issue was done when I got rid of the maggots, and when I didn’t see anything else by Monday morning, I thought we were good.

But we were not good.

After bringing my daughter to school on Monday, I finally got to clearing clutter in another corner of the kitchen — cardboard boxes, and more plastic bags. No food waste. Nothing gross. But while I was doing that, I noticed a little brown thing on the floor beneath the table that looked like a grain of rice.

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Oh f**k f**k f**k f**k f**k, I thought as I quickly Googled maggot life cycles. Apparently, these were the pupae. So gross, but on the bright side, these weren’t moving. I wound up finding them scattered across the floor, and even mixed up in the diatomaceous earth and salt mix.

What do you think I did? Well, I spent the day clearing out that clutter, sweeping up pupae, vacuuming, and mopping the kitchen floor.

Why am I so gross? It’s a question I ponder much more than I’d like to admit. It’s not as if this type of thing is a typical occurrence for me, but there have been a few uncomfortable encounters over the past five months in quarantine.

The same sort of maggots cropped up in a nearly empty smoothie cup from Panera a few months ago when I kept walking past the damn thing and failed to throw it away.

When I finally realised the cup was crawling with larvae, I immediately tied the cup up in a bag and threw it in the dumpster. No pupae that time.

On another occasion, I accidentally left a little cup of fruit on a table and didn’t toss it out for a few days —and once I noticed it, the whole thing was covered in gnats.

Sigh. So, so disgusting.

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I debated even writing about it because of the shame. And because of all those inner negative thoughts which say I never should have been a mother, that I’m a gross person, or a million other hateful things. Even thoughts about having my daughter taken away.

Why am I so disgusting? I get so angry with myself about my seemingly endless ability to make my life harder than it has to be. Instead of letting things get so bad, I could have asked for help. And of course, even when I was overwhelmed, I really didn’t have to just toss clutter into corners. 

I could have been sweeping and mopping before I ever had the leg issue. I don’t know if it’s my autism, my depression, my trauma, or just my personality, but there are a lot of simple tasks that I often feel unable to perform. So, it’s an interesting feeling whenever I realise that I can manage them better than I previously believed.

I don’t like my rock bottoms in life, but in a strange way, I have learned to appreciate them. Living in a neurotypical world can be confusing — I doubt I’ll ever quit wondering why I’m so far from “normal.” I will likely always worry a bit that there’s something terribly wrong with me.

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Yet every time I run into one of my new lows, I recognise that maybe I’m not so weird. After all, I’m able to deal with the issue. I might feel inept, but when faced with some problems, I manage just fine.

In this case, I decided to look on the bright side. My kitchen is clean and an impending fly swarm crisis seems to be averted. It was one hell of a new low for me, though, and it took a few days to process what’s happening. I had to admit that I need a break and I need to get my house in order — pandemic or no pandemic.

My daughter is back in school, and I’m still getting acclimated to a little time alone on the weekdays. In the midst of dealing with the usual stuff like writing, motherhood, and mental health battles, I’m also dealing with new things like perimenopause. 

The air conditioner broke down, and I had to call maintenance over for the repair. You all know how it goes. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

And for some of us? Life is just hard.

What I’m learning though, is that it’s much easier to talk through your down seasons than to try to hide them away. Some people might criticise honest talk as “struggle porn,” but I think it’s vital that we normalise some aspects of struggle. Last night, my sister told me that she had to tell her teens that “it’s okay to not be okay.”

That’s such an important message.

I don’t want the overwhelm to keep on growing. I don’t want it to snowball or swallow me. So, I’m working on it. Some days, I make great strides. Other days, just baby steps.

At any rate, I don’t want to live in a mess anymore. I’ve spent most of the year in a garbage house and I’m done. I’ve been waiting for months to find the gumption, energy, and resolve to finally get my house back under control when everything still seems so up in the air with the pandemic. It turns out that this past weekend has been another rock bottom that gave me some resolve.

Instead of feeling so sad or ashamed of my issues, I’m feeling hopeful again. Rock bottoms are opportunities.

You just have to use them for good.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with full permission. 

You can read more from Shannon Ashley on Medium, or follow her on Twitter

Feature Image: Getty.

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