I was 15 the first time I realized the true power of rage cleaning. That day, I had returned from a tenth-grade field trip to find my locker partner making out with the boy I was crazy about against the locker we shared.
That night, I did not get on the phone to cry to friends. I did not flop onto my bed and do the whole woe-is-me sob fest—or maybe I did, but only for a few minutes before I noticed my closet door was open by an inch or two. From my bed, I could glimpse a jumble of shoes at the bottom. To a soundtrack of Indigo Girls and Counting Crows, I started with lining up the shoes and within minutes, I’d progressed to emptying my entire wardrobe on the floor of my bedroom. This was more than my usual neat-freak mode: I was now a wrecking ball of rage. For three full hours, I wiped down shelves, purged clothing, and folded everything into impossibly precise little squares. I colour-coded shirts, for God’s sake. At the end, my closet looked like a rack at the Gap, I had three bags of clothing to donate and I was exhausted. But at least I could sleep.
There have been many, many other instances of rage cleaning since that first one.
My dorm room, when a friend handed in an essay I’d written the year before and we both got hauled into the dean’s office. My tiny bachelor apartment, many times, when my first boss turned out to be someone who subscribed to The Devil Wears Prada School of Management. The apartment I shared with my then-fiancé, when we got scammed by our wedding DJ and lost our deposit. (That one featured me—armed with a toothbrush and baking soda—versus the bathroom grout.)
But nothing compares to the rage cleaning I do as a parent. It takes a lot to push me there, but when I get to DEFCON Level 1 of anger—for reasons that range from a sassy-mouthed daughter who is on my last nerve, to a schoolyard bully who just won’t leave one of my kids alone—I figure it’s better to clean than to scream.
I know rage cleaning is not the solution itself—in reality, I usually process the problem and arrive at the solution while feverishly mopping the kitchen floor. But it helps me find a more appropriate, less Godzilla-meets-Tokyo approach or perspective to the situation.
I cannot explain the sheer sense of relief I feel when I’ve sorted 769,342 pieces of LEGO. Or scrubbed the tub of those damn “tile-safe” bath-crayon scribbles. Or stripped all of the beds and washed all of the sheets in the house (sometimes with dramatic mattress flipping included).
To be clear, I’m not Marie Kondo-ing. I’m not a calm, does-this-spark-joy evaluator in these moments. There’s no joy—it’s rage. And this is simply a means to an end.
I’ve heard a million times before that I should journal. That I should write and reflect on my feelings—and I know this is a proven technique for so many people. But I’m a writer for a living, and to me, writing as a form of catharsis is like telling a surgeon to head to the operating room to decompress. No, my catharsis is making my oven look brand new again, or finally finding and matching all of the Tupperware lids, or feverishly polishing my grandma’s silverware.
I can’t tell whether rage cleaning is healthy or not, to be honest. I know it forces me to take time for myself and think my way through any issue I’m having, and that can’t be bad. I like that I get to see the instant results of my labour. Plus, it’s cheaper than therapy, and there’s the added bonus that I don’t even have to leave the house to do it.
Of course I know there are many problems and challenges that do require professional help—rage cleaning only alleviates minor, everyday tension. If the kitchen floor is sparkling but it still hasn’t yielded the relief I crave, then I know I’m in over my head. But when it works, a good anger-scour of something in my house is usually enough to clear my head and help me determine a path forward.
That said, I suspect if you ask my kids what it’s like when I’m in the power-vacuuming zone, they’d probably tell you they’ve learned to just stand back and leave Mommy alone. At least they appreciate my cleaning soundtrack these days—now cue up some Lizzo and pass me a dust rag.
This article was originally published online in February 2020.