I’ve experienced bouts of severe depression for as long as I can remember.
At times, being severely depressed meant going out every night, getting as drunk as possible, and hunting for something (or someone) to distract me from the internal void.
Other times, it involved staying in my pajamas and spending days, sometimes weeks, binge-watching shows on Netflix from my bed.
But regardless of whether I was in a period of active destruction or passive hibernation, one part of my depression remained constant: My home always looked like a tornado had torn through it.
If you’ve ever been depressed, you’re likely all too familiar with depression’s powerful ability to zap you of all energy and motivation. Merely the thought of showering feels like it would take a marathon’s worth of effort. So it’s not surprising that the home of a severely depressed person isn’t typically in stellar shape. Mine was certainly no exception.
For years, my environment was a perfect reflection of my mental state: chaotic, uninspired, disorganized, and full of shameful secrets. I’d dread the moment anyone asked to come over because I knew that’d mean one of two things: A seemingly insurmountable cleaning challenge, or canceling plans on someone I care about. The latter won out 99 percent of the time.
I grew up with the idea that depression was not a legitimate illness as much as it was a weakness. It could be remedied if I’d only try harder. I was so ashamed that I couldn’t pull myself out of it, I’d do all I could to hide it. I’d fake smiles, fake interests, fake laughter, and go on and on to friends and family about how happy and confident I felt. In reality, I was secretly feeling hopeless and at times, suicidal.
Unfortunately, the facade I worked daily to keep up would come crashing down if anyone walked into my apartment. They’d see the dirty dishes overflowing in the sink, the clothes strewn about, the abundance of empty wine bottles, and the mounds of junk accumulating in every corner. So, I avoided it. I’d break plans, make excuses, and paint myself as a deeply private person who simply preferred people don’t come over, despite the fact that there was nothing I needed more than for people to come over.
After years of this performance that likely wasn’t convincing anyone of my stability, I heard a phrase in passing that I’d later find was the catalyst to a major life change:
Cleanliness is a form of self-respect.
Those words began to shift my perspective, making me realize that I’d neglected my environment for so long in part because I felt utterly depleted. But mostly, I didn’t see the point of prioritizing it. I had overdue bills mounting up, I was struggling to make it to my job most days, and my relationships were seriously suffering from my lack of care and attention. So, cleaning my apartment didn’t seem like it belonged at the top of my to-dos.
But the meaning of that simple phrase stuck with me. Cleanliness is a form of self-respect. And it began to ring truer and truer in my mind’s eye. As I looked around my apartment, I started to see the mess for what it really was: a lack of self-respect.
While fixing relationships seemed too challenging and finding fulfillment at my job seemed impossible, spending a little time caring for my apartment each day began to feel like something tangible I could do to promote my well-being. So, that’s what I did.
I started small, knowing that if I took on too much at once, the paralysis of depression would take over. So, I committed to doing just one nice thing for my apartment each day. First, I gathered all my clothes and put them in one pile, and that was it for day one. The next day, I cleaned the dishes. And I kept going like this, doing a little more each day. I actually found that with each new day of getting stuff done, I had a bit more motivation to take on the next.
Over time, this motivation accumulated into the energy necessary to maintain a clean enough home that I no longer felt ashamed of it. And I discovered that I didn’t feel quite as ashamed of myself, either.
I had no idea just how much the chaos of my home was impacting my well-being. For the first time in years, I could wake up and not immediately be confronted by my depression in the form of empty wine bottles and old takeout boxes. Instead, I saw an orderly space. This reflected a sense of my strength and capability.
This small relief I experienced was just enough to inspire me to keep going. Once my apartment was clean, I started putting more thought into its decor. I hung pictures that made me smile, changed my bedspread from something drab to something bright and colorful, and took the blackout shades off of my windows to let the sun in for the first time in years.
It was liberating. And, as it turns out, this simple shift is backed by science. A study published in thePersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people who describe their homes as cluttered or unfinished experience an increase in depressed mood over the course of the day. On the other hand, people who described their homes as orderly — you guessed it — felt their depression decrease.
Of the countless struggles folks with this condition face, organizing your home is one of the most tangible things you can address. Science even suggests that once you do, you’ll feel stronger and healthier.
I completely understand that turning a chaotic disaster into a home that you feel good about can feel like an impossible feat, especially when you’re in the throes of depression. But remember that it’s not a race! Like I said, I started simply by putting all of my clothes in one pile. So, start small and do only what you can. The motivation will follow.
Kelly is a full-time freelance writer based in Austin, TX. A happy hybrid of geek and hippie, when she’s not nestled into her couch crankin’ out crafty prose with her miscreant Chihuahua, you can find her frolicking outside to keep her sanity in check.