Meredith, a 32-year-old environmental attorney working from home in Downtown L.A., had completely lost control of her laundry pile. Subject to a stay-at-home order since around mid-March, she’d avoided washing her clothes for weeks. “Every weekend I told myself I’d do it, but it never happened,” she tells me. “The pile kept getting bigger, and I became more and more overwhelmed with how many loads I’d have to do to get through it.”
Eventually, though, she ran out of clean clothes to wear. Yet rather than begin the arduous process of loading her laundry into the machines in her apartment’s basement, she found a workaround. “I ordered two 5-packs of plain mens’ undershirts, one black and one white, from Amazon — ugh,” she says. “In the moment, I felt a mix of shame and relief. Like, I knew how ridiculous it was that I wasn’t just doing laundry, but it felt so much easier.”
George, a 26-year-old software engineer in New Mexico on lockdown with his ex, has figured out a similar shortcut to avoid the chore that most breaks his spirit: the dishes. “Neither of us can bear to do them, so we’ve been using the same two plates for all our meals for about five weeks,” he says. “There’s a pile of dishes clean enough not to mold but not clean enough to put away, and we’re pretty much just cleaning the plates we used most recently.”
For many Americans approaching their second month of quarantine, housework has become an all-consuming drain. For the first week or two, spirits seemed higher: Social media thrummed with photos of freshly baked sourdough and users posted happily about their rearranged spice racks and deep-cleaned bathrooms. But as the weeks under lockdown drag on, this mood of domestic bliss has shifted, and now jokes are proliferating about how the dishes seem endless and cooking is no longer fun.
Of course, as anyone who worked from home pre-pandemic knows, there’s just so much more housework to do when you’re at home 24/7. We’re all creating several orders of magnitude more dishes than when we were at offices or school during the day, treading lint and other crap over the carpet as we pace from room to room, and griming up our bathrooms as we wash our hands 40 times a day and pee out our allegedly relaxing teas.
In response, some of us are gritting our teeth and doing the extra housework with grim perseverance, but others are so exhausted that they’re devising ways to get around it. Ashley, a 27-year-old juggling (and losing) multiple gig economy jobs in Chicago, has started skipping meals just to avoid cooking. “I pretty much just snack all day on tortilla chips if I have them, and if I don’t, I won’t eat until about 9 p.m. when I’ll make some plain rice to get it over with,” she explains. “The more time goes on, the more it just feels impossible to move myself if I don’t absolutely have to. It feels easier to not eat, or to just eat a bag of chips in bed.”
George is feeling a similar lack of motivation, which is triggering a shame spiral. “I feel the pressure and guilt of not cleaning up,” he says, “but it’s hard to turn that into caring enough to actually do it.”
As Ask a Fuck-Up columnist Brandy Jensen recently observed, we’re all living like depressives now, experiencing the hallmark “monotony, isolation, odd sleeping habits [and] the feeling that dishes are asexually reproducing in your sink” — and it’s this sameness that can have such a demotivating effect. “Sundays used to be my days to clean, cook and do laundry,” Meredith explains, “but now that the distinction between weekdays and weekends feels like it’s disappeared, it’s hard to find the motivation to do anything when I know I’ll be home and can just ‘do it tomorrow.’”
But we’re not just living like depressives, many more of us are joining their ranks. Whether it’s the loss of serotonin-boosters like hanging out with friends, the lack of relaxed outdoor movement, the existential terror triggered by a terrifying new virus or historic levels of unemployment (or all of the above), thousands of people have been thrown into a state of existential hopelessness that was previously the exclusive purview of the clinically depressed.
No wonder, then, that mental health experts predict that the number of people living with depression will swell and that more and more people are experiencing the demotivation and fatigue that characterize the illness. “Cleaning feels like a thing we do for the future, but we’re in an even more eternal present than usual,” George tells me. “It doesn’t really seem like there is a future to have to be ready for.”
And as every depressive knows, domestic duties become an all-consuming burden, rather than a minor annoyance, when you’re miserable. Housework is a Sisyphean task in the best of times: You clean some things, and they immediately get dirty again, so you clean them once more; then you realize you have to do this forever, until you die. That doesn’t seem like such an unfair cruelty when you have serotonin coursing through your nerve cells and some semblance of hope for the future, but when you’re feeling existentially lost, you start to understand the appeal of living like a floor mattress gamer.
Which is exactly how J, a non-binary 34-year-old in San Francisco who has a mounting laundry pile to rival Meredith’s, feels. Having to continue to wash plates and launder clothes while the world burns strikes them as a kind of Camusean absurdity. “Doing basic tasks feels overwhelming and pointless,” they tell me. “I started to feel shame for not taking care of it and that caused me to avoid it, which just made it worse.”
Which is why J is opting, for the time being, to simply walk around the house naked rather than tackle their mounting pile of dirty clothing. “I’ve only left my apartment a handful of times in the past 48 days,” they explain. “I didn’t do laundry for over a month and was honestly walking around starkers to avoid it.”
“Because the world is in crisis, things seem to have lost meaning for me,” J adds. “So I think I’ll just be walking around naked for a while longer.”