Compulsive Cleaning

Posted on
Jun 21, 2011

Kelsey, the blogatrix behind Drifting Focus, recently wrote about her struggles with OCD before she leaves on a trip. She often finds herself packing and re-packing her bags, double-checking to make sure everything is where it should be. It is an honest, candid account of what she has to deal with before traveling, and an inspiring one as well –  as uncomfortable as preparing for a trip is, she doesn’t let it stop her from seeing the world.

While I can’t say that my compulsions are as strong as Kelsey’s, I, too, find that in the days and hours before I’m about to leave for a trip I get, as I like to call it, “a little buggy.” As I say this, please note that I in no way intend to trivialized the difficulties of living with OCD. So please, save that hate email for a post in which I truly deserve it. There are many.

I’m merely saying that to a very small, small degree, I empathize.

My pre-trip compulsion is this: I obsessively clean my home from top to bottom. I dust. I polish. I organize. I place items at right angles, and indiscriminately shred documents, prompting my husband to ask, “Um, are you making sure the house is spotless for anyone who breaks in while we’re away?”

“Yes,” I respond, scrubbing behind the guest toilet that never gets used. I’ll proceed to wash every bit of laundry I can find, including pulling just-washed throw blankets off the couch and tossing them into the machine, thankfully stopping before I get to the pillows (which reminds me – I need to fluff those).

“Baby,” Rand will say, gently, “The house looks great. Please stop.”

“Whatever. Hand me the vacuum and that bottle of bleach. I need to go brush my teeth.”

Excuse me a moment while I clean parts of the stove no one will ever use or see.

Now, some of this behavior falls within the realm of normal, or so I’ve been told. Many people get nervous before trips, and they all do things to alleviate said nervousness. My friend Laura packs her bag twice. My other friend Laura makes checklists. Rand does absolutely nothing because he’s reached a level of zen that few people can hope to experience in their lifetimes, and I clean house like a madwoman.

And yes, I do windows.

I've been known to polish faucets, too.

The logic behind my frantic quest for an immaculate domicile is a simple one: Soon, I’ll be traveling. I’ll be at the mercy of groping TSA agents, Air France employees who’ve gone rogue, and Alaska Airline flight crew members who think banging on bathroom doors while screaming that the plane is landing makes for a fun joke (spoiler: it does not). Soon, I’ll be in situations where my big mouth might get me arrested or deported. But my home is something I can control. I can exert my will over every inch of it: polishing and scrubbing, rearranging and straightening. And if, while traveling, I end up in a Turkish prison, I’ll do so knowing that my bathroom is clean.

It’s an incredibly comforting thought. So much so, that I start to wonder if I should leave my home at all.  On more than one occasion, I’ve taken a break from touching up paint scuffs on the underside of drawers and said to my husband, “Maybe I should just skip this trip. If I stay here, I can finish ironing the bath towels.”

“Um, no,” he replies.

And he’s right. Kelsey noted that she didn’t let her OCD stand in the way of travel, and that in the long run, her trips actually alleviated her symptoms. In that same vein, I realized that if I stayed home to clean house (a statement which, from the sunny peacefulness of a San Francisco hotel room, sounds almost comical), then my cleaning will be a problem. At some point, I have to look at my home and say, “Enough.” I grab my bag, and I leave. Because I have trips to take and a life to live beyond these pristine walls. And when I get back, I’ll tell you all about it from the comfort of my tidy little office and …


Please excuse me. I just have one more thing to take care of.

Leave a Comment

  • Sally

    It is the same as wearing clean underwear in case of a car accident. You clean the house in case you don’t come back. God forbid someone should come to your house after you have died and it is a mess. I suck at housecleaning but I still clean everything before I leave. I rarely sleep the night before a trip, not because I am excited or nervous, but because it takes me that long to clean. I think I got it from my mother.

  • What a great entry, and thanks for mentioning me! I’m glad you found the piece inspiring.

    While I don’t clean before trips (ask Marc, who I just abandoned to an apartment that looks like REI exploded), what I do is suddenly try to accomplish all the other, random crap I had been meaning to do in the previous months or even years. On Saturday I went to photograph a friend’s 18th century picnic in a town 2 hours away. Yesterday I drove 3 hours round trip to go have dinner with a friend. I also decided, THIS MORNING, 4 HOURS BEFORE MY TRIP, to finally pull up the weeds in my garden. Seriously.

    It’s as if all of a sudden, I have to get my affairs in order before I go. God forbid that I leave a couple dishes in the sink for Marc to do! (he is so, so, so patient!) I have no idea where this compulsion comes from, but I suspect it’s probably rather similar to your drive to clean. By the way, you share your cleaning compulsion with Marc, who last year cleaned parts of the apartment I didn’t even know about, all only hours before he had to leave for a cross-country flight!

    • Everywhereist

      Oh, I do that, too – before leaving I start penning overdue thank-you notes, call up old friends, and engage in all manner of silliness that really could wait until I got home.

  • The day before we left for Tokyo last month, I spent about 16 hours cleaning the entire house. When I came home three weeks later and the house was spotless, I felt completely justified. Two days later the house was f*cking mess again. Alas.

  • Christine

    I do the same thing before a trip but I think my main reason for it is to be able to come home from a relaxing trip to a clean house. If I walked into a dirty house right after a trip then all that relaxed energy would just turn into pure stress.

  • I do the same thing!!! Vacuum; the sound of the vacuum always means that we’re about to leave on a trip! My theory is that I do not want to come home to a dirty house. Or, if I should die on the trip, I don’t want the family gossip to be “after she died, we went over to put their affairs in order. I spend HOURS cleaning their crawlspace; it hadn’t been done in YEARS and was so gross!” … yeah. I better make sure no one thinks my crawlspace is gross. It always makes a trip better.

  • Elizabeth

    I clean before traveling too – not because it’s a control thing (and really, I’m a lousy housekeeper) but because I’ve learned the hard way: Coming back from a great trip, stepping through the door and seeing the same mess you left behind is a huge downer and really takes the shine off the whole experience. So although my natural tendency is not to be neat, I’ll put extra effort into the house before we leave. (Oh, and the sheets MUST be changed just before leaving. Sucks to come back and climb into used sheets.)

  • RiderWriter

    Ho ho, I am very glad indeed to read this! Now I have something to show DH when he’s standing by the back door tapping his foot, as I dust the tops of the doorsills. I had no idea pre-departure cleaning was so prevalent! 🙂 I loathe coming home to a dirty house in general, and God forbid the neighbors have to drop in for pet care. Then the cleaning REALLY escalates because I would not want them to know how slobby we actually are (I mean, just because I run my finger over their end tables when they’re gone doesn’t mean they’ll do the same here…).
    Anyway, you are not alone. My family gets quite agitated when they’re ready to go and I’m running around with the vacuum. Too bad the magical cleaning elves do not invite themselves in upon our absence.
    P.S. Nice stove. I’m officially jealous, and yes, yes I would look under the cooktop.

  • ohhh boy! I don’t do any of this stuff! I think it’s probably because I travel for work quite a bit which has gotten me kinda used to the whole thing. I’m away for a couple of nights, and more often than not, I end up having 3 day old bread (what, it’s fyyyyne!) for breakfast when I return!

    I leave the house as if I’ve just gone for work, which I have in a way… just to another country.

    And that attitude has kinda filtered into my vacation travels as well. I pack last minute, I carry veryyyy few things with me, and though I tidy the house of the general mess, I don’t do any compulsive cleaning. (you should know i HATE cleaning house, and have a guy come in weekly to clean up so my house doesn’t look like a pig sty).

  • Hey, Geraldine, wanna come visit me in Vermont? Then, during the day or two before you head home, you can clean my house for me. 😛 Heh.

  • I’m so glad I’m not alone in my before travel OCD. I personally just like a clean house when I come home from a trip. I also do what Kelsey does and finish the to-do list that has been bugging me for months. Although, now that I take trips at least once a month, I’m beginning to care less if the house is clean or if my to-do list is done.

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  • Miranda Shawcrosse

    I have a friend who is a compulsive cleaner. She cleans her windows at least three times a week. The toilet twice a day at least. She can’t rest until she goes through the hole cleaning routine at least once a day. She said if she doesn’t do it she starts to worry and gets very anxious. She has been told she has OCD. She isn’t so fussy that you are afraid to sit down in her houses or anything just in case you make something dirty etc. But after seeing some of the people on the TV programmes who live in dirty homes and the compulsive cleaners go in to clean it up I would rather have the cleaners who keep cleaning than visit a dirty home that has not been cleaned for years so off putting.

    • Jessica Mansield

      I agree with Miranda’s comment I would rather have a person who keeps cleaning myself. I have an aunt who I used to visit she has moved now to another area. Her house was terrible so dirty never been cleaned for years. I was always afraid of getting some illness from the lack of hygiene. She used to say to me cleaning is soul destroying and a waste of time. I think that some people are lazy and don’t want to be bothered.

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