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Illness and Housekeeping

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By Nancy Fortner

Note: Nancy is a long-time fibromyalgia patient who lives in California. She has led many self-help programs and has been a moderator in our program

People with chronic illness often have problems with housecleaning and the control of clutter. Once a home reaches a certain stage of disarray, it can seem hopeless. Living this way contributes to emotional distress and social isolation, as people feel embarrassed about having guests.

All these things once applied to me, but I have learned how to keep a clean and orderly house, and it has made a big difference to my life and to how I feel about myself.

My Problems

My ability to do housework had gradually decreased over the years as my health declined. In response, I tried to enlist help from my family and set up a schedule so everyone would do some of the chores around the house.

I didn't get much cooperation, so I hired a house cleaner to come in once a week. Even with that, clutter still kept building up and eventually the cleaning person found an excuse to quit.

Neither my husband nor myself understood why I couldn't keep the house clean and picked up. I blamed myself for being lazy. Our house became so messy that I was embarrassed to have people over.

I stopped inviting the neighbors in. Pretty soon the only people who saw the inside of our house were our daughters and their husbands.

Steps to a Better Life

There was no one simple answer to making my home a clean, organized and welcoming place. Rather, it took a combination of a lot of things to go from chaos to comfort. If I found a secret, it was to identify small practical steps I could take and then to do them one at a time.

A first step was getting medical help for my various ailments: sleep apnea, hypothyroidism, arthritis, asthma, allergies, and fibromyalgia. Doing what I could to improve my health made it easier to tackle the housekeeping problem. Treating my sleep apnea with a CPAP made me less sleepy during the day.

Getting on thyroid medication helped my fatigue, mental confusion, and depression. Addressing my arthritis helped me to avoid further injury to my joints. Treating my asthma and allergies helped my overall energy. Education helped me to deal better with my fibromyalgia.

At about the same time, I began seeing a counselor who specialized in helping people with chronic health problems. She told me that most people with chronic illnesses mistakenly think that they are lazy. With her help, I came to realize that I would do the housework if only I felt well enough.

It took nearly a year, but I finally realized that when I am tired, I should rest. I hadn't done that before. I would just soldier on with a project until it was completed or I collapsed.

I have carried the idea of resting one step further since joining this self-help program: I rest before I get tired. I meditate twice daily, and I also lie down to rest for fifteen minutes with my eyes closed once or twice a day.

With my counselor's encouragement, I worked out better systems for dealing with clutter. For example, I sort the mail as soon as it arrives, instead of letting it pile up. I throw away or recycle what I do not want. I put the bills in a safe place, and I put the mail I want to look over later in some bins placed on shelves by my chair.

I didn't try to reform everything at once, but rather I changed things gradually. For example, I noticed that our bathroom vanity top was so filled with bottles, jars and other things that I could barely use the sink. In a moment of clarity, I realized that I didn't use all these things every day; in fact, I didn't use some of them at all.

I went through everything, throwing most of them away and storing under the sink the few things I use regularly. It was tough at first, but I was able to keep the vanity top clear using the strategy of not putting anything down on it.

For about a year the vanity top was the only reliably clear area in our home. But, one area at a time, I started applying this method elsewhere. Little by little, I cleared and organized different parts of our house.

When I had a big project like cleaning a closet, I didn't try to get it done in one day. Instead, I would assign myself one shelf or one rack of clothes to go through on a particular day.

Sometimes it worked best if I simply told myself to do 15 minutes worth of work and stop at the end of that time. The next day I did another 15 minutes, until eventually the whole closet was clean and organized.

Also, I congratulated myself for my efforts and for what I had accomplished, even if I didn't do as much as a healthy person.

I came to see that, like other chronically ill people, I am always making a huge effort, so I always have something for which I can congratulate myself. And focusing on what I had done was much better for me psychologically than blaming myself for what was yet undone.

With my new understanding of progress through small steps, I had success involving my family by asking them to use a similar strategy. I found that it was much easier for them also to handle one small part of a task at a time or to work on a project for only 15 minutes.

Even if they didn't do a job the same way I would, they still accomplished something. And they were much more cooperative about neatness after seeing a system that worked.

It took me several years to move from chaos to a neat and organized home. One reason it took so long was because I was not just cleaning house. I was re-training myself in my approach to housework.

Although I had many setbacks, I didn't give up. I just focused on the immediate tasks I had set for myself each day, and I praised myself for each effort I made--even if it was not successful.

I established simple routines to help me, like sorting laundry into three hampers and laying out each day's clothes in advance. When my husband and I finish a meal, we each take our plate, a serving dish, and our silverware to the sink, and we encourage guests to do the same.

I found convenient and logical places to store things, and I trained myself to put things back when I was through using them. I got rid of things we didn't need. I kept projects simple, and I cleaned up after myself as I went along.

On some low-energy days it seemed like all I accomplished was keeping things in their proper places. But that is an important part of housekeeping. And I praised myself for the effort I was making.


About a year ago, my husband and I faced a big challenge: moving to a smaller home. In preparation for the move, we divested ourselves of over half of our possessions.

That process was made easier because I had already been doing a lot of thinking about what was important to me, and they were things like family and friends, not possessions.

I gradually came to realize that all the things we owned were not enriching our lives. Instead, they were making housekeeping virtually impossible, and they were keeping us from moving to smaller and more practical quarters.

A first step for me was making lists of possessions that I was sure I wanted to keep. If I wasn't using it and I didn't love it, it didn't make the list. I spent about a year pondering the value of my various possessions.

To make the move, I ruthlessly pruned away what I did not need or want. I did not move things by myself. I got other people to come in and take things away.

I called in relatives, charities, collectibles dealers, auction houses, and junk haulers to take things away. We did not get much money back for the things we got rid of, but the important point is that we were free of them.

In our new home, we  hired a cleaning service and also a gardening service. We had to face the reality that since I was ill and my husband was working long hours running a small business, we needed the help. So we pinched our budget elsewhere.

Looked at from a certain standpoint, household help is a medical necessity. With continued practice of  self-help strategies, my health has improved, and for the past few years I have been able to dispense with professional cleaning help.   Now I clean our house myself with some help from my husband.

In Summary

I would summarize the changes I have made as: keeping my expectations realistic, delegating some tasks, establishing routines, picking up after myself, pacing myself, resting before I get tired, and praising myself for the effort I am making.

All of these involve discipline applied a little at a time. I found that discipline is not an unwelcome burden, but rather a way of taking care of myself.

The result of my efforts is a house that is a clean and welcoming place for me and my husband. And I feel comfortable having company drop in at any time!

Author's Note: For step-by-step instructions for creating a clean and orderly home, see: This free website offers daily e-mails with housekeeping tips, cleaning schedules, and inspiring testimonies. This website is particularly valuable if your home is in chaos and you are so overwhelmed that you don't know where to start.