I closed the drawer. Its contents were now as neat as a shop display case. I made a cup of tea and surveyed my newly decluttered living space, feeling the familiar mixture of buzz and calm. But as the tea cooled, older feelings reared their heads. Feelings I’d been running from since my teens: sadness and anxiety. I realised no amount of neatly ordered stationery was going to control the whirling worries in my head, or keep my loved ones safe. Take it from someone who knows: if we have any hope of saving our sanity at this time, we have to embrace the current mess of our lives.
A recurring scene throughout my teens and 20s was one of me sitting alone in my bedroom among a sea of scattered possessions. I would pull out every drawer and storage box, assessing each scrap of paper, garment and trinket, which was then either discarded or rehomed. This ‘pottering’, as I called it, became such a big part of my life that eventually I started helping other people declutter professionally. It was several years before I realised that decluttering and organising wasn’t an innocent hobby. What was really going on was that I was grasping for a sense of control as my mind unravelled.
I had experienced several bouts of depression since my late teens, and by my late 20s I was still in a bad state, despite being medicated with antidepressants and in therapy. Decluttering had become a frequent habit but I saw it as nothing more than a harmless method of anxiety management.
At the same time I journalled as if my life depended on it, trying to categorise my thoughts into a neat order, as I would the contents of a cupboard. Sometimes a new insight into my neuroses would arrive, leaving me feeling temporarily in control, but it was never very long before my mental life would fall into chaos again.
Gradually, I saw I was fighting a losing battle. My desire to control both my mind and my environment was only making the situation worse. The harder I tried to calm the pit of snakes that was my mind, the angrier it would become. Tentatively, painfully, I started to let go. By embracing the mess, I started to edge closer to the peace I wanted so badly.
As this happened, my relationship with decluttering became much healthier. I still feel calm after putting a space in order, but I now deal with my mental health in far more effective ways, such as meditation and therapy.
The rise of Marie Kondo has made tidying up a lifestyle choice, and many will be turning to her new book Joy at Work to help bring order to the recent chaos their home workspaces have fallen into. But good mental health, I’ve learned, is a lifelong practice, not a fixed destination, and there’s no shortcut. I still frequently crave peace of mind. Surely that’s all any of us want? The trick is to not give in to that desire; to acknowledge it, yes, but then let it pass on as all thoughts do. For those of us stuck at home with children under our feet and work not getting done, perhaps a better way to approach this challenging time would be to fully accept the chaos.
My mind will never be neat and tidy. It’s how I’m wired. But I have learnt that accepting the mess of life is a radical act in a world where everyone wants to be viewed as perfect. Now more than ever, we are learning what we can and cannot control. Be safe, be careful and relax into the shambles.
Are you embracing mess? Tell us how in the comments section below.