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I Polish Up Real Nice: A Piece on Mental Health Comorbidity

Karen is from Connecticut. She has a degree in education. She loves game shows, animals, the beach, and her family.


I Polish Up Real Nice

I Polish Up Real Nice

An eating disorder monopolized my teens and twenties. It didn’t feel disordered at the time to me at the time though. As others encouraged me to seek help, I was certain they were the ones who were wrong. There is a common misconception that for patients with anorexia it is all about body image and being thin. But I wasn’t preoccupied with my body. I didn’t judge my body in the mirror. I didn’t think I was fat. I often looked at people healthier and heavier than myself, and I would admire their figures. I felt like I was making the healthiest decisions for me when it came to eating behaviors and caloric intake. Anorexia had taken on the role of providing all of the order in my life. I wasn’t about to give that up so easily. The eating patterns and rituals were what anchored me. I was in my teens. Everything had some air of change. I’d be leaving home soon. My friends were becoming different people. The house was cluttered and tense. My brother’s temper and alcohol and drug use were out of control. I couldn’t find serenity in that.

I haven’t suffered with anorexia for over a decade, but it’s still in the background. There are still challenges when it comes to diet. There was not one moment when I came to the realization that my disordered eating was doing damage to my body and I stopped it. I had hospitalizations, residential treatment, DBT therapy, meal plans, Prozac, etc, etc. It wasn’t solely about weight and physical health. The important part for me has always been order and control.

I was an anxious child. I can see where it comes from and why, and I think a lot of it was innate too, part of my personality. My nonsensical fears are part of family lore. I was petrified of the eye doctor because I thought it was going to take out my eyes. I was afraid of the priest and the crucifix. I was afraid of my grandfather’s dentures. I ran away from my dad when he approached me clean shaven and with a new haircut. They look back and laugh. Me, not so much. It seemed so real and justified at the time, and those stories can still elicit feelings. Playing armchair expert, I concur that my anxiety led to a need for control, and that need for control found anorexia to be an effective outlet. It worked until it worked too well.

Food still occupies too much room in my brain, and I still struggle with monkey mind, but I am functioning. I am physically healthy. Addiction specialists agree that alcohol and drug abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors, and disordered eating act in similar ways. They’re often about coping with what the psyche senses as chaos, silencing monkey mind. When you quit unhealthy drinking or drug use habits, or compulsive behaviors it can definitely improve your health and quality of life, but the time directly after quitting can be rocky. Whatever you were trying to hide or heal with those unhealthy habits surfaces, and the energy has to go somewhere. And that’s why my home is so tidy. If the connection doesn’t register immediately I understand, but really, it makes perfect sense.

When I had an eating disorder I micromanaged when and what I would eat. I took note of calories and how different foods made me feel, emotionally and physically. Anything shiny with grease was taboo. Anything more than a hundred calories was a meal. It didn’t feel like I was denying myself anything. It felt like I was saving myself and keeping myself pure. When that preoccupation with food was slowly broken down and more healthy behaviors were allowed to emerge, I needed somewhere for that energy to go. I looked outside of myself, toward my surroundings, my home. It now needed to provide that order needed to tone down my racing thoughts. I could handle that, and I’d be soothed by it.

I don’t know if I’d say I like cleaning, but I do find it soothing. It provides a sense of accomplishment. I can’t settle if the space I am occupying doesn’t give off a calm and ordered vibe, and my expectations are high. My adages include

“A place for everything and everything in its place.”

“Cleanliness is Godliness.”

So how tidy am I? I find myself compelled to clean the house pretty much floor to ceiling everyday. I took the burners off of my stove top because they looked sloppy and just represented another thing to clean. I scorned the dishwasher as ineffective. I had a man come over to shampoo my rugs and he asked if I just moved in, because the surrounding looked so sparse and uncluttered. I don’t leave things out. I don’t like toothbrushes on the sink or cooking utensils on the counter. If you come to my home and take off your jacket by the door I will hang it up immediately, hardly even noticing that I am doing it. If you leave something out, it will disappear. Look for it later on and my response will be “it’s where it should be.” This works because everything has a place and everything should be in its place. Less enlightened individuals just have to keep up pace.

My cleanliness can fit into my life easily on some days, but on others it can cause issues. Anything can be considered an addiction if it interferes with daily life and decreases quality of life. And my cleaning does that at times. For the most part, I’d think I’d like to come home from work and rest, but instead I know that if I don’t clean for an hour or so, I’ll just end up doing it before dinner or before bed, because it is too uncomfortable to imagine it going undone, as if skipping a day or only doing it once or twice a week would leave room for things to go out of control. This mindset is familiar. It resembles my disordered eating behaviors. If I indulged in a treat or didn’t exercise one day the world would be off-kilter and I wouldn’t be able to return to my routines the next day.

For me a daily clean means cleaning the bathroom tub, sink, toilet, floor, mirror, scrubbing the kitchen counters and floors, vacuuming, lint rolling the bedding, dusting furniture. Other formalities of the residence include that all towels must be folded the same way and facing the same way, all jackets must be in the closet immediately upon entering, clean while cooking, and all food items must be facing label out in the refrigerator and cabinets. I tend to get flustered if these things don’t happen. One would advise that I relax, and I would retort that I can only relax when these things are done. It’s that simple, or that difficult. I don’t know. Right now I guess I am a functioning cleanliness addict. My collarbone isn’t showing due to low body weight and my electrolytes are balanced, so I guess I have that going for me. We all sit on the fence of healthy preoccupation versus unhealthy compulsion with something. It may be video games or social media. Some people vape. Others shop too much. If someone out there doesn’t have a weakness then I think they just might not be passionate about something. If you or someone you know is struggling and is ready to seek help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) hotline is always available at 1-800-662-4357.

© 2022 Karen Michelle C