Are You a Clean Freak? When Is It Too Much?

Did you hear about the Massachusetts homeowner who returned to his home and realized that someone had broken in, to find that rather than stealing property they cleaned it? The intruder hadn’t taken anything and instead they’d cleaned up. The family found the home more perfectly made up than when they left. In fact, the invader made all the beds, stacked the stuffed animals, and left an origami rose on the toilet paper. They scrubbed the toilets and shower. The only thing that was not cleaned was the kitchen. Police officers are taking this case very seriously and had no leads or suspects at the time of this writing. Is this a clean freak gone wild? If so, is this the result of someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, or is it the result of an addiction?

Many of us feel better when things are in order and in a presentable manner. I tend to be a tidy person and feel most at ease when my home, car and office are in good shape. For example, before I start writing, I need my environment to be free of clutter. Then, my mind can become focused on the task at hand. But when does tidiness become too much? When does cleaning become obsessive, or worse yet, an addiction?

Psychologist Elaine Ryan, at mytherapist.ie, specializes in anxiety disorders. She provided an example of someone who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder focused on cleaning. She wrote about a woman named Shala and described her everyday cleaning routines and rituals. “Upon awakening, she immediately starts cleaning her room. She takes a lint roller and rolls her entire bedroom floor in case any hair has fallen. She then takes a dirty piece of laundry and gets on her hands and knees and wipes the floors of her home to get up any hair of crumbs that may have fallen. She then goes and wipes down the toilet and polishes every door knob in the home. To brush her teeth, she kneels down at the bathtub to brush them because she doesn’t want to dry out the bathroom sink, which is one of her rituals. She goes to work, comes home, and starts cleaning more. She wipes down blinds with her hands, one by one. She then goes on to clean and dust for a couple of hours. Then, she feels as if she can relax and eat. She’s more than exhausted, yet she will do these things each day and on her days off she will diligently clean even more. Shala is already taxed due to a hectic and stressful work day. She doesn’t necessarily want to clean when she gets home, yet she cannot relax until she does. She also requests that her partner keep things exactly the way she wants and perform certain tasks the partner would not normally do, like drying out the sink each time it is used or cleaning the floors with a piece of dirty laundry instead of a dust mop. Her partner begins to feel controlled and carry some resentment.”

An obsessive-compulsive person and a person with an addiction can look the same but have different roots. An obsessive-compulsive behavior is a repetitive, ritualistic behavior that a person performs without rational motivation. An obsession has roots in fear. If they don’t follow the routine, something bad will happen. Shala may fear some catastrophe if she doesn’t clean, or a fear that if she falls short of perfection, no one will love her.

Compulsions may offer relief but do not include the experience of pleasure. Instead, they ward off fear. Addictions normally begin with the expectation that it will be pleasurable. The outcomes of the pleasure are unhealthy and repeated misuse of certain behaviors. Their addiction has roots in escaping an undesirable place to something more tolerable. Perhaps they drink to relax, use drugs to experience euphoria, gamble to experience an adrenaline rush. But once they start, they cannot stop. Their behavior eventually causes negative consequences.

In the case of someone who illegally entered a home and cleaned it, we don’t have sufficient information to assess whether the perpetrator was operating from obsession-compulsion or from addiction. One hypothesis is that it was neither a compulsion nor an addiction, but rather a cleaning crew that entered the wrong home and realized their error before cleaning the kitchen. But that theory doesn’t account for entering a locked home.

Does cleaning, or some other excessive behavior, cause problems in your life? Reflect on the root causes of your behavior and seek help.

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