How to Clean Your House When Your Brain is a Mess, part I

This is part one of a three-part series.
Part I | Part II | Part III

Also known as, “Hi! I’m Cassandra, and I Live in a Filthy House.”

That isn’t entirely true.  As it stands, my kitchen is clean, which happens roughly three times per year.  But my office is a clutter minefield, and there is an entire room in my house filled with stuff waiting to be put away.  Suffice it to say that I could normally be a contestant on a junior Hoarders.

Credit to flickr user judsond. Used with permission.

All right, show of hands: who else has scrambled to hide the–possibly moldy–dishes when surprise guests drop in?  Parents with mental illnesses, how many Legos have imbedded themselves in your feet in the middle of the night? You’re not alone, and there’s a logical explanation why.

Primarily found in people on the autism spectrum or with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), executive dysfunction is the inability to set and meet goals, self-monitor, and resist wandering off while in the middle of a project. In persons with bipolar I specifically, the wiring in their frontal lobes is so tangled that they suffer these difficulties even during stable periods. It goes without saying that their capacity to execute plans drops sharply during manic states.

It looks like clutter in the mind really does lead to clutter in the house!  Here are a few ways to tackle your piles head on:

Start small!  Most people get excited about starting a routine and try to implement everything at once, like New Year’s resolutions.  Invariably they fail because the habits they need aren’t in place.  In addition, baby steps don’t tend to work well for people with bipolar; they get overwhelmed quickly and have delusions of grandeur about conquering the routine.

Lovely Dishes
Credited to flickr user avrene. Used with permission.

Rather than assigning one room per week at first, try dedicating yourself to one thing at a time. For example, I’ve constantly struggled with my dirty dishes. I tried doing them every three days, then two, then one. Gross? Sure. But it’s what I have to do to ease myself in. Most times I still fail!

Recommended Link: FlyLady – Marla Cilley, also known as the FlyLady, has garnered a lot of praise for sending specific instructions and encouragement via email. She takes a lot of the work out of building a routine for yourself, and one of the biggest proponents of “baby steps” around. If you can handle the volume of emails without being overwhelmed, this site may work for you.

Don’t kick yourself if you make a routine and then stop following it. Just start again tomorrow, or adapt the one you have. Sometimes I’ve made routines that worked well for weeks, and then stopped when I grew bored with them. You have a lot on your plate, so you’ve learned to be flexible. Your cleaning has to be, too. Track where your time goes and then figure out where you can squeeze in a ten minute burst of laundry duty.

Recommended Link: Unf*ck Your Habitat – Billed as an alternative to FlyLady, UFYH lives by the 20 minutes of cleaning/10 minute break method (20/10). They also allow readers to post pictures of their progress. But be careful: the blog mistresses “terrifies” people into cleaning via swear words. On the plus side, the site have a positively reviewed (profanity-filled) app for the iPad and iPhone.

Best of luck whipping your home into shape! But please remember that it’s a process–one we’re not wired for. In part II, we’ll be covering other ways you can build your own time-management scaffolding.

How Privilege Affects Mental Healthcare

Like many people who celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m taking a hard look at what I should be grateful for. When I was young, my family was largely feast or famine. We survived multiple job losses, costly illnesses, and bankruptcies. In my teens, all seven of us lived in a trailer no bigger than 750 sq. ft. And I was always hungry.

Now, I am steeped in obscene amounts of privilege. I am white, and I hold two college degrees. Among other things, this means I have an easier time getting and taking medication. My nursing and Latin classes specifically enable me to understand medical terminology and the effects of medications on my body and brain. I am a very insistent advocate for my health.

I am also married to a partner with a steady, middle-class job, which means my anxiety about ending up homeless or going hungry now is largely irrational. We’ve only been married for five years, but he not only held my hand when I committed myself, but he puts up with my mood episodes today. We could still get divorced, as have so many others with bipolar. But we haven’t yet. We are very awkward when people ask about our married life, because we usually exist in a different bubble than they do.

Insurance Card
Credit to flickr photographer mtsofan. Used with permission.

My partner’s job has insurance. I can—and will—write a post on this benefit alone, because without it, I wouldn’t be writing this today. I’d be dead. My hospitalization four years ago cost $6638.61—and was completely covered. I was flabbergasted. We were newlyweds at the time, and would have been put into debt. Due to growing up having Medicaid or sometimes nothing at all, the feeling is still surreal.

Speaking of jobs, I am lucky enough to be self-employed while writing my book, which means I can have as many panic attacks as I need to have without getting fired.

I’ve been in therapy for years. I’ve also changed psychiatrists five times until I found one I liked. This process of doctor-finding is actually quite common, but we could afford the doctor’s visits, the pills, and the frequent blood draws to check for liver or thyroid damage, which means I was willing to invest in my health. And my nightly cocktail of medication—found through years of trial and error—actually works. There are side effects, of course, but as I understand it, they could be significantly worse.

And finally, I was able to keep my infant despite someone threatening to report me to Child Protective Services during my psychotic break.

Is my mental illness severe? Of course. But I am lucky, to an unrealistic extent. If I wasn’t covered by my partner’s insurance, I would have had go to work immediately after my breakdown to cover costs. If I hadn’t married him when I did, I would be living with my parents, homeless, or dead—and likely one of the latter. There are so many ifs, which terrifies me.

Mental stability—which should be a basic human right—is achieved only by those who can afford it.

Homeless and cold.
Credit to flickr photographer Ed Yourdon. Used with permission.

A disproportionate amount of the homeless are returning veterans, the mentally ill, or both. Would that more shelters could provide a secure environment and treatment for any atypical brain chemistries or traumas that they may have! I would happily part with my tax dollars to ensure that more people with schizophrenia have a chance to sleep in a warm bed rather than under a bridge. Ideally, they’d also have help moving on to more permanent housing and work.

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas warm my heart, but not just because I’m looking forward to spending time with friends and family. The generous outpouring of help around this time is mind-boggling. But I feel I have a responsibility to use my privilege year-round to help others who are less fortunate. First, I’ll keep in mind how much I have.

What struggles have you survived? And what privileges may have helped you through them?

How to Get Your Much-Needed Forty Winks

As everyone knows, hitting the sack is crucial for mental health. Sleep deprivation—a form of German torture in World War II—worsens depression and directly contributes to manic episodes. After a few days of working double-shifts, even neurotypical people start to hallucinate.

It is for these reasons that the recommendation for daily sleep is an eight hour period, give or take. All right, parents of newborns, say it with me: “Hahahaha! Yeah, right!”

Whew. Now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, let’s discuss how we can get as much sleep as we can so our mental health isn’t compromised.

In short, do what works best for you. A crib in the room, a crib out of the room, or a playpen somewhere nearby—all of these choices are good ones. I know one mother who slept in a recliner for several years. Just make sure to cover your newborn with a light blanket, and introduce heavier ones more cautiously. Before bed, you can gently massage your child, and then feed them as much as they’ll take. If you have a partner, set a time to discuss who covers which blocks of baby care.

When my son, Ryan, was an infant, I co-slept with him to make nighttime breastfeeding easier—despite his having a beautiful, untouched crib in the next room. I was lucky that he enjoyed feeding while reclined, so I didn’t have to leave my bed, and was even able to doze. These snatches of sleep helped me regain my sanity during his first two years.

Studies demonstrate a causal link between bed-sharing and the prevention of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Children who slept with their mothers also appear to have a higher self-esteem, possibly because the infant’s signs of distress were more quickly addressed due to the parent’s proximity.

If you’re interested in trying co-sleeping, please take safety precautions. According to research, most fatalities are due to alcohol, cigarette smoke, soft mattresses, or heavy bedding. Older children may also endanger a newborn that they cannot sense while asleep.

Speaking of older children… Kids thrive in a structured environment, so they will usually go down easier—and sleep better—with an established routine. These three things may help:

  • A place to call their own. If you can afford a permanent shelter, lay them down in the same bed every night. If not, give them a portable comfort object, like a favorite blanket or toy.
  • A set bedtime. Ryan, now a preschooler, goes to bed at 8:30pm.
  • One last hurrah. Books, playing, and baths are all wonderful choices. I sing one or two songs while tucking Ryan in. If you’re shy about singing, don’t be! Your babies will love your voice until they turn thirteen.

I hate to offer this advice, because my inconsistent behavior has made this process extremely difficult for me. Like cooking regular meals, enforcing a bedtime requires me to be on the ball night after night—a topic which will be covered in a future post. But despite the snags, maintaining at least this much structure has been the best action I have taken for Ryan.

When he gets his rest, I get mine—and then my whole family benefits.

What lengths have you gone to get your shut-eye? Any advice for surviving the first year with an infant?

Not to be taken in lieu of a treatment plan crafted with medical professionals.