I didn't know that a phobia of untidiness existed until I was diagnosed with it

Three months into my eldest daughter’s life, I had a panic attack.

As I tried (and repeatedly failed) to get her to sleep, I started to feel like her screams were a metaphor for our environment: loud, messy, and chaotic. 

Piles of dirty laundry were scattered on nearly every surface. The carpet hadn’t been vacuumed in weeks. The dust on the furniture was so thick you could draw shapes and figures into it with a finger, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d changed the bedsheets.

After that particular anxiety spiral, I began seeing a therapist, imagining I would talk to her about the struggles of new motherhood, or of moving overseas as my family had recently done. What I couldn’t have predicted was that she’d end up diagnosing me with ataxophobia – a fear of untidiness.

It is often linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, although some people can have ataxophobia without having other aspects of OCD, and you can have other manifestations of OCD without having ataxophobia. For some, myself included, the phobia can also be a facet of a generalised anxiety disorder.

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t bothered by mess. As a child, I took an interest in my mother’s diligent cleaning. She kept an immaculate home and I learned early on that this was an important thing to do. 

However, my fascination with domestic tasks became more of an obsession as I reached my early teens. I was especially concerned with dust and the belief that it could ‘make spiders grow’. 

My family told me this as a child, I suppose in the hope that it might encourage me to keep on top of cleaning my room — or, maybe it was just a joke I took too literally. 

It was perhaps the whole spider thing that further cultivated my relationship with untidiness and anxiety. People love the old adage about how a clear space will bring you a clear mind. 

The problem for me was that an unclear space brought me debilitating anxiety. It would prompt me to do things like empty out and reorganise my entire wardrobe because of one misaligned T-shirt. If I noticed a lingering bit of fluff after vacuuming, I’d have to start again.

While my partner might shove all of the kids’ wooden food figurines – the kind designed with velcro so children can chop into them – into the storage basket at the end of the day, I still have to make sure each bit of food is re-attached to its other half first.

Deep down, I know that my anxiety is fuelled by hypothetical repercussions that I fear may impact my life. 

If my house was to resemble a tip, would I fail at a professional goal that week? What would someone think of me if they noticed that the kitchen floor hadn’t been mopped? How much dust is too much dust before your loved ones abandon you for someone more able to keep their life in order? 

For a long time, I could just about manage my ataxophobia. 

After becoming a mum, however, I was faced with the utter loss of personal time with which to do so.

When I am home, I balance self-employment with two small children and a puppy. My partner works elsewhere through most of the week, so he cannot realistically contribute to housework tasks until the weekend. I know that come Saturday, he’ll be keen to do so but I struggle to deal with the mess in the meantime. 

I’ve had to put in quite a bit of work to reduce these anxieties. Therapy was a wonderful starting point. It gave me the language I never knew I needed to describe this part of my anxiety and in doing so, helped me realise that my ataxophobia was actually quite disruptive to my day-to-day life. 

Ensuring I get at least some me-time in the week is also essential, as this improves my overall mood and stress levels. This could be as simple as having a quiet bath without my children, going for a stroll in town, or reading a book in peace when the little ones have gone to bed. 

Trying to spend as much time as I can outdoors with my daughters is also really helpful. Not only do they love being in nature, but staying outside means we’re less likely to make a mess indoors. Thankfully, we haven’t had to sacrifice this through lockdown because we live in the countryside, where there are plenty of secluded forests and moorland to explore. 

In order to be more present and less anxious around my daughters as I navigate motherhood (and spend less time cleaning up after them and a little more time playing), I’ve had to confront my fears surrounding untidiness head-on. In the past, I might have been too embarrassed to talk about ataxophobia – something I dismissed as a ‘silly quirk’ – but now I’m more open about it with those closest to me.

Doing so means they can remind me that it’ll all be okay. My kids aren’t going to fall ill because I haven’t dusted. I’m not going to lose my job because no one has scrubbed the sink in a few weeks. My friends aren’t going to decide they suddenly loathe me because none of the beds in our home are made – all fears I’ve had in the past.

In fact, maybe a bit of mess is a good thing; a sign that life is being lived and enjoyed.

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