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Housework and Migraine: Doing It My Way

Reading time | 5 mins

There are certain times of the year when the impact of living with a chronic condition hits you really hard. Over the past few months, I’ve seen a number of different ‘spring cleaning’ checklists online and they automatically instil a sense of guilt and shame into me. I shouldn’t feel like I have to have the perfect home when I’m doing well just managing the basics, right? And yet, it is difficult to let go of society and other people’s expectations. 

Cleaning anxiety

My home has been a constant source of stress throughout my time living with chronic migraines. When I’m not well enough to do the housework, tidying, cooking, or any of the jobs at home, they don’t get done and the problem gets worse until it feels impossible to deal with.

I’ve had people suggest that I should simply get a cleaner. But since I can’t work because of my migraines I can’t afford one, and even if I could it just wouldn’t be practical. I’d feel like the house would never even be tidy enough for the cleaner to come in and clean it in the first place.

Adapting the ‘KonMari’ method for chronic migraine

1.     Pace yourself

At the start of this year, amid all of the New Year resolutions that everyone was making, I decided to try and do something about my home. Other than just a quick tidy-up, I knew I wanted to do something that would have longer lasting benefits.

So after watching a TV show about organising ‘guru’ Marie Kondo, I decided to try her method. I talked it through with a close friend who was also reading Marie’s books, and straight away, I realised that the things she was suggesting would have to be done differently if you were somebody who was living with a chronic condition.

When following this method, the first thing you have to do is to take all of your clothes and pile them up in one big mountain. Once you get the visual impact of just how many clothes you have, you can then go through each item one by one, and keep only the items that ‘spark joy’.

Just the idea of this had me breaking out in a cold sweat.

The effort required to pull all my clothes out of my wardrobe and pile them up would almost certainly cause a migraine. Not to mention the process of putting them all back! All I’d be left with is a mountain of clothes on my bed and a pain in my head for the next three days.

I realised that pacing myself was going to be crucial if I were to make any progress. I tackled my clothes by category and over the next few weeks I managed to achieve good results.

Who knows whether I would have kept the same items if I had followed the exact same method as Marie Kondo suggested, but this change in pace meant I was able to get through all of it, even though this was in a slightly slower, different way.

2.     The struggle is real – accepting your quirks

Something important struck me when I was going through my underwear (excuse me for talking about my intimates!). Although I got rid of knickers that didn’t fit well anymore - they were borderline painful to wear - I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of all of them. This might not sound like a problem, until you take into account that I counted over 150 pairs!

When regaling my friend – who was also busy with this process – with this story they couldn’t understand why I needed to keep such a ridiculous amount of underwear.

It was then that I stopped laughing at my enormous stash of pants and reflected on why I have so many…

I used to find keeping on top of washing impossible during my worst patches. When I used to give every ounce I had to my job, it was a lot easier to just pop into a shop and buy new ones, than it was to wash and dry them at home.

So this stockpile doesn’t really ‘spark joy’, but it does bring me comfort that I can go for many, many days of not having to do washing, before I run out of underwear.

And it’s those kinds of considerations that someone living with a chronic illness, like me, has to make when going through a decluttering process.

3.     Prioritising is key!

Judging by the amount of physical energy and mental focus needed to achieve improvements in one part of my home, it quickly became clear that it would take years to sort through everything. Even when I’m not working anymore.

So instead of working through my house in the order that the original method set out, I decided to prioritise the things that might impact my stress-levels and mental wellbeing. And here are my top priorities:

  • Clear out your clothes. Folding them neatly will also make more space for when you do get round to doing your laundry.
  • Organise your shoes and bags. Having these easily accessible makes the sometimes impossible task of getting out of the house a bit more achievable.
  • Sort out your bed linen and towels. This makes the process of changing these much smoother and less stressful.
  • Remove any unwanted toiletries from the bathroom. This will make the space feel much calmer and means you will be able to find things more easily.

Instead of feeling wretched about the things that I haven’t been able to do, I’m feeling a little bit better about the small things I can do every day.

4.     Take pride in the little things

Another thing I have found is that the necessities of living with a condition like chronic migraine can ‘spark joy’ in their own way too.

Organising medicines and the weekly ritual of filling a pill pouch can in itself feel good – even if it’s just the colour of the pouch that makes you smile. Also, because I drink such a variety of teas I spent some extra time making a little drawer unit to keep them in. Every time I go to make a cup it ‘brings me joy’. This also helps to motivate me to keep drinking which I feel is essential to preventing my migraines.

The takeaway

The way of approaching housework might have to be different when you have a chronic illness, but hopefully making the smaller changes permanently, will add up to a better home to live in. So while my house might still look like many people's nightmare, for me it feels much improved. Most importantly, it’s improved in little ways that are making a big difference to me. I still struggle to manage the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning, the tidying, and I still flinch when I see these ‘spring clean’ checklists, but I feel like I am working towards making all those things easier in the long run.

UK/MED/19/0153 July 2019