I know these two things don’t seem to be related, but my experience has been that for some people, there’s several links that can be very difficult to manage. Not everyone who was traumatised or abused as a child struggles with mess & chaos as an adult – and vice versa! Plenty of people who’s personal style is more ‘trench warfare’ than ‘glossy magazine’ haven’t been abused. And there’s a natural diversity here that I don’t wish to pathologise! But for those who have experienced childhood trauma this can be a difficult aspect of their lives, one that causes conflict and shame, and can be depressingly resistant to efforts towards change.
I once had a friend, I’m going to call them Nicole, who really struggled in this area. Their living space, and most especially their bedroom, was in a constant state of chaos and uncleanliness. Things were not just messy but in major disarray. Lack of clean clothes, bedsheets unchanged, food leftovers not picked up, mess from pets not cleaned away. Her spaces ranged from untidy to actual health hazards with moulds on walls or tiles surfaces and in food areas, and food scraps attracting rodents and bugs. I remember being initially confused and then repulsed by the state of her home. I couldn’t understand how anyone could live this way. I would help out from time to time when Nicole became really overwhelmed by it all, and between the two of us we would clean everything back to sparkling and she’d vow to do better. It never lasted. The more I helped out, the more I realised that there was more than messiness going on here. I’ve lived with messy people, they’re a pain to pick up after, but if you’re fairly diligent and there’s not too many of them, you can keep up with things. With Nicole it was different, it was more like she was at times actively trashing her space. And yet, she hated it. She wouldn’t invite friends over because she felt so ashamed of her home. When she house-shared, it was a constant source of massive conflict with her house mates who became fed up with promises to change that never came through. She struggled to maintain work when she couldn’t find any of her resources, important documents, or food for breakfast or lunch. When things got very bad her personal hygiene also suffered, without clean clothes it seemed pointless to shower, the bathroom was unpleasant to spend time in so she would also stop brushing her teeth and hair. Profound humiliation set in as she would take long stretches off work on the basis of anxiety, and self harm and suicidiality would be the result of this awful spiral.
It was so distressing to watch. We talked about it and over the years we started to tease together some idea of what was driving it. Nicole isn’t in my life anymore, but I’ll never forget the conversations we had, and my slowly dawning awareness of the links between her mess and her history of child sexual abuse. We coined a phrase – graphic, but appropriate, for the need that the mess sated – it was her moat of corpses. For a child who hadn’t been safe in her own bed at night, surrounding herself with filth and mess made her feel safer. She slept better at night with the comforting notion that anyone sneaking into her room would fall over the trash so she would hear them coming, would be put off by the mouldy food, might decide it was all just too much trouble. Once articulated however, this idea simply made her feel more humiliated and helpless, like confessing as an adult to a fear of the dark or still wetting your pants. (Neither of which are uncommon for people sexually abused as children when they are triggered and stressed) On some deep level, her inner child was still terrified of sleeping in bed, and found the mess a comforting barrier, and the idea of being unclean and unattractive far safer. These needs, difficult to explore or understand as they were, were far stronger than Nicole’s other needs for order and cleanliness and comfort in her own space. The essence of the struggle was a profound sense of not being safe, and a struggle for control between her deeply ashamed adult self, and her terrified and abused child self. (using this language in the sense in which we all have parts, rather than that of multiplicity)
I’ve since come across this dynamic many more times, with friends or loved ones, or people I’ve reached out to in my mental health work. At times issues like this are driving the cluster of behaviours we call ‘hoarding’, although there are many other things that can instead be at play. I’ve noticed a few more links between childhood trauma and chaos, one is that of the child who is raised in chaos and has no models of how to use adult routines and systems. If you’ve ever helped a child to clean up their room when it’s been completely trashed, you’ll know that children struggle to work out how to break such a big task down to small steps. Helpful adults show a child how to tackle tasks like these ones, perhaps like this; start by putting all the laundry and bedding on the bed, then let’s put all the shoes in the shoe box, now the toys back on the toy shelf, now the lego back in the lego box, now we’ll sort the clean washing from the dirty… and helpful adult have set up basically useful systems in their houses – like having a toy shelf and a place for shoes to go, and a routine at evening where everyone brushes their teeth before bed. Chaotic houses are not like this. The adults in these houses are often either distracted (such as with a very sick child in hospital), overwhelmed (with mental illness, grief, or addiction), lacking in these skills themselves, or abusive or neglectful and do not invest energy in the child’s environment and well being. It’s important to note that chaotic households are not always abusive, particularly in the instance of very bonded parents there may be a great deal of love and fun in all the chaos! But without someone to model how to use systems and routines, kids struggle to develop these skills. In houses that at times also felt unsafe and highly stressful, this effect is compounded in that it can be harder to simply tack on a few extra skills once adulthood is reached.
In other situations I’ve seen children who come from highly organised households still have huge struggles in these areas. Sometimes an abusive parent is not chaotic, but rather wears a mask of caring investment in their child. Children of these parents often reject their hypocritical role model – and so also reject the valuable skills around maintaining a home. It takes a lot of processing, maturity, and self esteem to be comfortable in any way resembling someone who has badly hurt us, or whom we despise. Sometimes it is not the parent who is abusive, but in strict households where order and neatness of appearance are prioritised over connection and expression of emotion, children who are traumatised or being abused in another setting can find themselves under tremendous stress at home when their ‘normal’ reactions to those experiences are interpreted as disrespectful and disruptive. Huge power struggles over issues of neatness and hygiene can result, with the underlying issues of poor self-worth, emotional exhaustion, alienation, and intense emotional pain going completely unnoticed. Rebellion against house rules that are perceived to be overly strict, or designed with the intention of ‘looking good for other people no matter what’s really going on’ can become an entrenched behaviour into adulthood. For many people in this situation, arguments about cleanliness with family members continue well into adult life and remain a constant point of conflict. Awareness that developing these skills and resolving the issues around chaos would meet with family approval can completely block any progress in this area when this approval would be distressing. At times the need to be in opposition to people is far stronger than our need to feel successful in our own lives.
There’s a lot of overlaps between the kinds of dynamics I’m describing and those I see in families where someone is struggling with dangerously disordered eating. There’s both the issue at hand, and the challenge of the massive stress it causes in key relationships. Caring about someone who is a trauma survivor can be challenging. Sharing a space with someone who keeps trashing it can be a source of intense distress! The conflict of needs is not just within the person, but within groups of families, friends, housemates, and neighbours. In severe forms, this can be a health hazard. People can get sick from improperly stored food, or where fridge or freezer doors are left open, moulds can trigger allergies and respiratory issues, and the psychological impact of living in a permanent tip can be huge. It may not be possible to have friends to visit. It can be a huge struggle to maintain your own life and routines when there are not only no clean dishes, but even the dirty ones haven’t been put back in the kitchen and you have to go looking for them every morning if you want breakfast. Mail gets lost. Important things are left in the rain. Broken glasses are trodden on at night in bare feet because no one cleaned them up. The back yard is a mass of dog shit, broken toys, and flies. Undesexed pets spawn litters that are sickly and difficult to home. For some people, the shame is catching, and living with a parent, sibling, or housemate who generates this kind of chaos can make people feel very ashamed. A sense of misery and hopelessness descends. It’s a difficult environment to take good care of yourself in, to feel a sense of dignity and self respect in, even to think clearly in. With all of this comes a sense of being held hostage to someone else’s demons. Efforts to fix everything don’t last or are rejected. Cycles of feeling sorry for them, of ignoring it all, of being really angry with them, cleaning it all up, and numb depression never seem to resolve, except with explosive ruptures where households disband. The underlying shame is re-enforced and there’s no way out.
If you are someone who struggles with chaos, take heart! You don’t have to be caught forever in a spiral of shame and rejection. You may be able to find ways to resolve the needs and learn the skills needed to keep a home ticking over, or you may remain messy and chaotic, but either way you can manage this. The very first thing people often need is a way to be able to think about this without hating themselves. You’re not just a horrible person. It’s not that you don’t try hard enough. I know that you have huge blocks in your head that make this incredibly difficult to even think about, much less act on. It’s not your fault.
If you are living with someone like this, also take heart. You can break out of the cycle and find ways not to be drowned by it all. You don’t have to be caught between feeling sympathy for them (and putting up with it), or hating or leaving them. You are allowed to love someone who is flawed and has been wounded, and struggles with chaos as an adult. You’re also allowed to insist on your right to feel safe and not at risk of harm in your home.
Being able to accept that this is an issue can be a radically different approach when everything you’ve always tried has been either fix it/live with it. This approach is about reducing shame and trying to untangle all the different valid needs that people have. Shame often intensifies the stress that drives this behaviour, creating a loop that drives everyone insane.
Containment is a key need. The spiral I described that Nicole would get into started with messy bedroom > chaotic home > work stress > lower personal hygiene > self harm > feeling or acting on suicidal feelings. If she was flat sharing, the messy bedroom wasn’t the end of the world, but the chaotic home stressed her flatmates, and self harm or suicidal impulses made them scared, angry, and tended to blow up simmering stress into major rejection and restructures. If the spiral can be interrupted, and the chaos can be contained to some level, the catastrophic results don’t come into play. There’s many different ways this can happen. Perhaps 1/2 day a week, everyone cleans up the house together. The rest of the time it might be trashed, but this is a regular enough team effort that it is never too unmanageable to live with. Perhaps rules around safety are agreed upon and the home is allowed to be incredibly messy provided there’s no fire or health hazard. Perhaps the person with the chaos lives alone, or in a separate space, which can be trashed without distressing their partner or family. Perhaps some more money is needed to help set up systems – shelves for boxes, wardrobes for clothes, a fridge with a door handle. Poverty and chaos are often tangled together and they can re-enforce each other. Considering that each often generates disgust and contempt from other people, those struggling with both these issues are in for a very challenging time.
Perhaps different home set ups are explored – often when these dynamics are in play it’s like there’s only two options – trashed, or magazine perfect. Homes come in so many different flavours! Sometimes the magazine look is a huge trigger, but a hippy home full of lamps and rugs, or a thousand knick knacks on shelves, or a collection of indoor plants becomes a space that feels safe and able to be tended and looked after. Sometimes rooms need to be set up differently! If bed feels unsafe, maybe you need to sell the bed, sleep on the couch with the dog for a year, set up that sewing room you’ve always wanted. Maybe you need to move away from our modern trend towards open plan living, and set your bedroom up as a labyrinth, with shelves in front of the door, a box to step over, a lego bucket as the world’s most lethal moat, a lock on the windows. When you’re not feeling overwhelmed by shame, and that not having this problem any more is the only way you’ll be acceptable to friends and family, suddenly you can tap into your creativity and find other ways to manage it.
It’s important to protect other people from our demons, and in some cases where chaos is a trigger for your friend or partner, it can be very difficult! Sometimes our particular demons do not play well together. It’s not the end of everything, you can create enough safe space for your relationships to be happy despite these challenges. They don’t have to dominate your life, threaten your relationships and self respect, and bring social workers into your home. There’s some great resources online such as Unfuck Your Habitat. Part of this is about skills, but a lot of it is about the blocks that can make those skills so hard to learn as an adult. There’s room in life for blocks, we all have them! You can find ways to manage the stress and limit the damage. Good luck!