I’m startled awake as my 30th alarm drones monotonously in my ear.
I’m drenched in a cold sweat, cursing as I realize it’s 12:50 and my class starts at 1:00 p.m. I swing my legs over the edge of my bed and scurry through my room, grasping for my final clean pair of jeans and a sweater that’s been worn three other times this week. I can’t see the floor of my room, but I’ve learned to navigate the war zone, memorized the clearings that I can step on without tripping over landmines of laundry or discarded Amazon boxes or takeout containers. I sprint down the stairs and clamber into my car, equally as messy, and speed down to class; I make it at 12:59 on the dot.
All of this to say, I’m the messiest person I know.
It’s an unexpected idiosyncrasy of mine, and I’m shocked when people tell me that I seem sooo put together. When they tell me this, I manage a strangled laugh, because I’m about as composed as a four-car collision or an oil spill or a blazing forest being put out by water guns. But I’ve become well-trained in the art of deception, and I revel in my expert ability to keep the uncontrolled chaos just below the surface.
When the messiness seeps through the cracks, begging to be seen and heard and felt, I do not panic; instead, I turn it into a punchline. I wear it shamelessly on my sleeve, roll my eyes and say, “I know, I’m such a mess!” I internalize it, trying to make it an endearing personality trait, like when a doe-eyed child talks too much or when a clumsy pet scampers into a wall one-too-many times. I think if I brandish it like a comedic weapon, take this ghastly flaw and furiously shine it, the carefully curated lacquer will make it sparkle, make it lovable somehow.
But my ownership of the mess doesn’t make it any more sexy or captivating. Up close, it is grotesque and all-encompassing, permeating every corner of my life. My speech is messy, punctuated by stammers and sloppily-strung-together tangents. My writing is messy, wrought with technical errors and screaming-red truths that border on unprovoked oversharing. My room is messy, as is my car and closet and mind. If it’s possible to be a hot mess, then I am on fire, always half-heartedly snuffing out the flames but never really putting out the blaze. Living like this demands a bizarre form of introspection, and lately, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decipher what the mess means.
I tell you without really saying it, because I lack the courage, and I think the mess likes to speak for me anyway. When I say, “I’m sorry about my room,” what I mean is that I’m tired. That the days bleed into weeks and months and a task as simple as laundry would drain every iota of my energy. That my living space has become a battleground and I’ve settled for a truce. That I’ve opted for subordinate forms of self-punishment, that I don’t deserve a clean room or a safe space, that it’d be just another thing for me to inevitably destroy. That I’m fraught with failures: I forgot to eat today, I forgot to text you back, I forgot how to put out the million little fires, how to be anything other than this.
Maybe I don’t tell you any of this because sorry is easier, anyway. It fits like a well-loved sweater, a default word rolling off of my tongue with miraculous ease as if it’s not leaving bruises in the back of my throat. All the sorries buzz around like gnats, trapped behind heavy, chapped lips. They scream, “I’m sorry I’m such a mess and I’m sorry that all I have to show for it is this bloody, mangled sorry I’m biting down on.” I’m sorry that sorry doesn’t clean up messes.
When I set aside the time to clean up my room, or my car, or my inbox, I hate myself for it, wondering when I let it get like this. I sift through the clothes on my floor, aging them with principles of superposition like deeply embedded fossils. I become an accidental archaeologist, realizing the shirt at the bottom of the pile is stained with September’s sadness and the jeans draped over the back of my desk chair are perfumed with the exhaustion of exams. The coffee cup marks on my desk culminate like rings in a tree trunk, and I realize this mess is old. I realize it might’ve been here before me, roots planted too stubbornly in the ground for me to ever move.
I give myself cheap cop-outs, blaming it on school or stress or grief. Because what is grief if not a mess you can never quite quell? A coffee cup cemented to your nightstand, a pile of laundry slowly towering on the floor despite you never adding to it, something you can’t bring yourself to confront or clean up. In those moments, I decide the easiest thing to do is let the mess win and lay in it instead, let it swallow me whole because it’s earned its rightful place there and has grown too prideful to ever go away. Most nights, I do.
Other nights, I clean up. It takes two cups of coffee, three loads of laundry, four garbage bags and countless breaks strewn in between. I curl up atop half-folded clothes and let the ache wash over me, cruel and demanding, and it takes everything in me to continue. But I do. I laboriously chip away at the mess until it disappears entirely until the bed gets made and the room smells of Febreze and fresh starts. I resent myself the entire time, like a beguiled mother cleaning up after a reckless toddler. I pretend it isn’t my mess, that the girl who let it spiral is just a lazy liability I’m forced to take care of. But the satisfaction of it all is tinged with shame, because I remember that I am her and that means the mess hasn’t gone away, not really. Maybe it never will, and maybe it’s less about the mess and more about the resolve required to clean it up.
These days, I’ve been trying to redefine the relationship I have with cleaning. I mold it into something that’s more meditative than miserable, something I do for myself rather than to spite myself. I do it because I love the girl who let it get this bad. I was there on the sleepless nights, felt the dull ache in her chest that persisted for weeks on end, and I understand why a mess was easier to maintain. She deserves compassion, too, even on her worst days. Even when she can’t muster the will to see the world through anything other than jaded, glassy eyes, even when she destroys everything she touches. Even then, she deserves to rest her debilitated bones on warm linens, to have a space that is rid of the reminders of her failures. When I say I’m cleaning my room tonight, what I mean is, I’m extending her the same tenderness she’s always extended me. I’m thanking her for trying.
In the same breath, I thank my friends for being brave enough to love the mess. For stepping over the piles and making room in the clutter, nestling side by side in the chaos with me. For toeing over the garbage bag on the floor that’s yet to be tossed out, for not letting their faces wring in disgust, for caring what I have to say even when it’s clear I don’t have it in me to care about much else. For promising me it’s not that bad and for telling me when it is. When I tell them, “Thank you for ignoring the mess,” what I mean is, thank you for staying.
And with every Clorox wipe and calamitous night spent cleaning, I thank myself for being there when the fire died down. For sticking around until all the ash had settled over the discarded piles and crusted-over plates, frozen in time like Pompeii. For mustering the courage to wade knee-deep through such an unsightly scene, to breathe new life into something as good as dead. For making an altar of the desecrated debris, relentless in my attempts to restore the sanctity of my own space.
What I mean is, I thank myself for deciding to try again, over and over.
MiC Columnist Yasmine Slimani can be reached at email@example.com.