Being an Obsessive Neat Freak Is Ruining My Sleep

Not another nightmare about dirty dishes and rings around the tub.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: pikrep

Life is messy, and so is love — but that doesn’t mean I have to be. In fact, I might be the world’s most fastidious, anally retentive neat freak since The Odd Couple’s Felix Unger.

That said, I don’t think I’ve quite ventured into OCD territory. You’re more likely to find me obsessively organizing and tidying up than compulsively mopping the floor and sanitizing surfaces. I’m not a germaphobe either, so the pandemic hasn’t substantially altered my everyday tidying-up rituals.

But the considerable challenges of being a neat freak persist. When I’m awake, I’m constantly straightening up, lest disarray interfere with my thought process. When I sleep, I dream about the cleaning chores morning will bring.

At least these days I get to do my obsessing in one place. Living and sleeping on multiple continents and in multiple beds as I did between 2006 and 2019 sometimes made being obsessed with tidiness especially difficult. Staying in one Airbnb after another meant being at the mercy of someone else’s cleaning ethic. Still, I always put up a good fight.

As soon as anyone enters wherever I happen to be calling home at the moment, they’ll notice the tell-tale signs: perfectly made bed, Dewey Decimal-caliber organization, a place for everything, and everything in its place.

“I wish you were my son,” the head of housekeeping at Seasons Hotel in Melbourne once announced as she entered my room to clean it for the first time. “You made up that bed even better than I probably will.”

I run partly to clear my head, to keep it uncluttered, and I clean for the same reason, too. I feel better, behave better, sleep better, write better when both my mind and my surroundings are free of clutter.

The long-stay resident manager at the Anantara Bangkok Sathorn, where I lived on-off between 2011 and 2014, had a similar reaction the first time she entered my suite there. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an apartment here that was this clean before,” she announced as she removed her shoes. I made Housekeeping’s job ridiculously easy.

Cleaning is in my blood

My mother — who taught me everything I know about cleaning — used to tell a story about the time she visited me in New York City and stayed with me for a few nights in my studio apartment on 34th Street. I had an ionizer that I kept on the floor by my bed, right next to the cactus. I’m still not 100 percent sure what it did, but I figured it would do it best if I kept it perfectly aligned with the borders of the hardwood floorboards.

“I kept moving it out of the way, so that nobody tripped on it,” my mom would say, trying not to laugh just yet. “I’d go to the bathroom, and by the time I came out, it would be back where it was before, exactly where it was before, as if Jeremy took out a ruler and lined it up perfectly.” Everybody would laugh, and I’d sink into my seat.

I lined up towels and washcloths perfectly, kept hair out of the sink, perfected my aim to prevent pee spillage on the toilet and floor, and rented places with shower stalls so I wouldn’t have to worry about scrubbing dirt rings out of the tub.

Mom may have trained me to be this way, but it’s not all her fault. I’m a minimalist by nature, and it’s influenced my approach to cleaning. I run partly to unclutter my head, and I clean for the same reason. I feel better, behave better, sleep better, write better when both my mind and my surroundings are mess-free.

Remember the “White Box” episode of Absolutely Fabulous, the one in which Edina goes around clearing surfaces in the house in order to impress her interior-designer friend who has embraced minimalism in the most over-the-top way? That’s me!

In general, I minimize my time in the bathroom because I’m most likely to freak out there. A wash room can make or break any house, apartment, or hotel room. I once moved out of the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles after two nights because its shabby chic extended to the bathroom. Nope.

Years after the Sunset Marquis debacle, I interviewed the actor Kristin Scott Thomas in Bangkok (in her suite at Hotel Muse, which I’m pretty sure had the most amazing bathroom ever), and when I told her about my bathroom thing, she nodded in agreement. She understood exactly what I meant. I kept thinking of the scenes in The English Patient with her, Ralph Fiennes, and the bathtub, wondering how clean it was.

But then, I didn’t tell her how far my bathroom obsession goes. I spent a month in the summer of 2011 living in an apartment in Bangkok that was almost perfect. It had a nice balcony off to the side of a fully functioning kitchen, a spacious living room and bedroom (the latter two had large, flat-screen TVs in them), and two full bathrooms.

It would have been the perfect pad, except for one thing: a spot of rusted-over mildew on the floor near the door of the shower stall in one bathroom. I couldn’t get rid of it with a sponge, so I covered it up with a floor towel. Still, I knew it was there, and I thought about it whether I was in the bathroom or not, regarding it in my mind as some unwanted visitor that might rise up from under the towel and come after me. When it started popping up in nightmares, I knew I had to move out.

Papa don’t make no mess

Why is the room where we wash ourselves clean always the grossest one in the house? Thankfully, during the several years I spent living in hotels and serviced apartments in Australia and Southeast Asia, I didn’t have to make any effort to clean them. Hello, Housekeeping!

Once I started living in Airbnbs with no maid service, though, I went out of my way to keep them superficially clean without having to actually clean them: I lined up towels and washcloths perfectly, kept hair out of the sink, perfected my aim to prevent pee spillage on the toilet and floor, and rented places with shower stalls so I wouldn’t have to worry about scrubbing dirt rings out of the tub.

Today, after years spent roaming the earth, I’m back in New York City and living in a one-bedroom rental where the bathroom won’t clean itself, so I have to. If I slack on my tidiness and go to bed without doing the dishes or go too long trying to ignore the dark ring forming in the tub, they torture me in my sleep. My sweet dreams are interrupted by a nightmare where I’m scrubbing a pot or a tub that refuses to get clean.

Uh-oh, time to wake up. If I want to get a good night’s sleep, it’s so much easier when the kitchen sink is empty, the counter beside it is clear and clean, and the bathtub is practically sparkling.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store