Sandra Cohen
Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Cleaning: my home, my mind

the Cohen women, enjoying the clean house

The hum of the vacuum cleaner.  The sound of luxury.

My grandmother used to tell my mom, “Get a cleaning person.  It’s cheaper than therapy.”  For those of you following along at home, you might know I have both:  a wonderful woman from MaidPro for the house, and a referral years ago to a remarkable woman for therapy.  Taken together, they help maintain the neatness I have always craved.  My bathrooms sparkle, while my psyche. . . well, it goes in many directions, but not alone.

I hate being home when my cleaning woman is here. I feel overwhelmed with the guilt of privilege. Who am I to be lounging on my bed or sofa while someone else does my scut work? I pay well, true enough, and tip generously, but still. . . the class issues are so clear.  I am a white, upper-middle-class (Jewish) woman; Lupe is a Latina woman doing work I do not wish to do.  She is kind and sweet, but her deference to me makes me feel embarrassed.  She is a person, as am I; we should be on equal footing.

And there is no shame in being a maid.  It is honest work for an honest wage.  These sorts of jobs – cleaning, caring for the elderly or infirm, child-care — all seem to be underpaid, perhaps because they are done in private.  Their work is taken for granted, even invisible.  Yes, someone needs to teach and care for our 3 years olds, both for their healthy development in preschool and because, without child care, parents can’t work.  And someone has to take on the job of helping seniors with health issues, whether in a nursing home or memory care or in the house as folks “age in place.”  Who do we imagine is wiping bottoms of the young and the old,  or grocery shopping for the those who cannot drive, and, yes, vacuuming the  crumbs of the ill?

So, if I believe in the importance of help at home, why am I so ashamed to witness my helpers?

My grandmother’s juxtaposition of a cleaning lady and a therapist may be an apt one, although many of us, if we are blessed to afford it, opt for both.  I have had lots of therapy, and I will continue to do so.  I need therapy to be able to live.  And yet, there, too, is some shame.

Some people, other people, I say to myself, deserve all that time in therapy. But not me, it seems.  I do not have a history of unspeakable trauma.  I just need help.  I am perfectly functional, I tell myself, and, just as I know how to clean a toilet, I also know enough to get through the day.  So why do I need help, psychological or physical?

Well, because I am sick.  Physically, I tire easily and have chronic headaches.  Emotionally, mentally, I am plagued with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety.  I look fine from the outside, even if a closer look might say otherwise.  I am so near the skids that it frightens me at times. I know how to put on a smile when I go into the world, even if I am feeling desperate inside.  But I also realize that, without support, suicide is a real possibility.

And so, I “indulge” myself.

Lupe, my cleaning wonder-woman, comes every other week:  once a month, she does a “full” clean, of the whole house, and once a month, it is a “half” clean, just the bathrooms and the kitchen.  She mentioned recently that, since my daughter is no longer at home (and hasn’t been for years), we probably don’t need that second, half cleaning.  But I’m not sure.  I know my daughter’s bathroom stays shiny and immaculate, but our bathroom, the one Ben and I share, gets dirty, and the kitchen could use a clean every couple of days (nota bene: I clean it before Shabbat most Fridays).  I want sparkles, and I am apparently willing to pay for them.  Ben isn’t so sure.

And so, too, for me, with therapy.  I go more often than I usually tell people.  I fear their judgement, and even their gentle bewilderment.  I need a  lot of support to make it through my day, my week, and I am slowly but surely learning to ask for it.  When I am doing well, I see my therapist for my regular appointments.  When I am having a harder time, either with terrible depression or, right now, just feeling overwhelmed by hard feelings, feelings of grief and anger and fear, well, now I ask for an extra session a week.  Maybe, in my mind, I “should” be able to cope with my life seeing my therapist once a week.  But I do better with more than that.  Is that truly shameful?  After all, I meet with my pain doctor regularly, but, when my migraines feel out of control, with more pain days than I can endure, I call for an additional appointment.  And, as with a therapist, my pain doc doesn’t cure me.  They both, however, can listen to me and suggest some things that might ease my suffering.

One should not have to be in crisis to ask for help, any help.  Family, friends, medical professionals, rabbis:  all of these are part of my regimen to stay as healthy as I can.

And the crisply folded tissues in the box help as well.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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