I’ve been on a cleaning frenzy lately. I recently implemented a new chore list which guides me through most of the motions. Makes keeping things up routine and automatic. Mostly anyway. Sometimes I have to be more intentional.
For example, going by the list, each Friday’s big chore is always miscellaneous. There are four examples given of what this could be and a bunch of blank boxes whose presence indicates that you should have something additional to put in them. Things that you do every once in a while to keep up the house but don’t need to be done each and every week.
So I’ve kept my eyes peeled, looking for additional tasks that could go into these boxes.
And that new vigilance led me to notice that the face of our showerhead looked suspiciously marred. With hard water deposits mostly. In the past, I wouldn’t have even registered this. But now that the entire house is getting detailed attention and I’m cleaning toilets and tubs once a week on the regular, well, stuff like that sticks out.
I vaguely recalled someone cleaning a showerhead with vinegar in a YouTube video I’d watched several weeks earlier, when I was looking at a bunch to suss out what the “proper” technique was for scrubbing a tub. By averaging six or seven neat freaks’ takes.
I took to Google to see if this memory were a false one (dream fragment, urban legend, etc.) or if I were on to something. And sure enough, soaking your showerhead in white vinegar wasn’t just something my brain was making up but a suggested way to clean it. Two methods were available: Either you could remove your showerhead and soak it in a pot. Or if you couldn’t get your showerhead off (or didn’t want to be tasked with putting it back later), you could secure a plastic baggie full of vinegar to the showerhead and soak it right there.
Either way, you were looking at using plain white vinegar and letting it soak anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight.
A Clean, But Leaky, Showerhead
I opted for cleaning it in place with a vinegar-filled plastic baggie. It was difficult at first, finding something that could bear the weight of a liquid-filled bag. The article I’d found had suggested bread ties or string, but I was finding those wouldn’t hold that much weight and not at the height I needed it to. Instead, I had to use three small spring clamps. It took a bit of trial and error to find the best way to strategically position them. By the end of it, my arms ached quite a bit from reaching so far overhead (since I’m not terribly tall). And in the process, I did spill some vinegar on me, making me smell faintly like a human pickle for most of the day, even after vigorously scrubbing my arms.
But I eventually managed to get it up there and secure.
Five hours later, I removed the baggie. Ran the hot water. Scrubbed the surface of the showerhead with an old toothbrush. Polished it with a microfiber cloth.
It was beautiful. Looked like new.
There was only one problem, however: It leaked. Something it had never done.
Puzzling, really. The best I could figure was that the water deposits had been left alone for long enough that they’d eaten into the seal. And when I’d cleaned away the grime, I’d also likely cleaned away part of the seal that had been held together simply by grime.
I was crushed. The reality hit me harder than it should have, considering it was just a showerhead. If I’d cleaned it regularly, this never would have happened. And even though I’d been trying to do something good by cleaning it up, it had backfired. I’d been trying to restore something to new and instead destroyed it. Okay, it had been kind of ugly in its present, dirty state, but it was at least functional. And I’d screwed that up.
I sulked about this for a few minutes, made a mental note to look at new showerheads when I stopped being surly about what had happened. Went about the rest of my life, with that minor irritation, a whisper of self-criticism pulsing in the background of my psyche: “Smooth move, Ex-Lax.”
Then the Leak Went Away
But then a funny thing happened. After a few days and multiple showers, something within the appliance readjusted, all on its own. Shifted. The tiny gap closed. And the leak spontaneously resolved.
And as it did, it reminded me of something else altogether: Every time I’d tried to do tough emotional work on myself or a relationship I was in, to clean up a mess within my life that had been allowed to settle, to fester for far too long.
Just like the dirty showerhead, that hard emotional work had been something that had been put off indefinitely, as other areas of my life were inevitably in such disarray that I couldn’t even notice the mess. No time to address the finer details when your entire life is an emergency.
I mean, people don’t normally polish their knick-knacks while they’re standing in a burning building.
But as I got a handle on other things, and moved slowly out of crisis mode, I noticed the mess. And went to work.
Fixing Myself Temporarily Broke Parts of My Life
Just like the showerhead, fixing things often seemed to make my life worse — at least in the short term. I’m a recovering people pleaser, and the early days when I first started learning about setting boundaries and assertiveness were pretty rough. The whole process of advocating for myself felt entirely alien when I started doing it. I often felt like I was shouting at people or being demanding (even though I got feedback from trusted friends that I was not, that I was doing just fine, and still came off rather gentle).
And not only that, but I did piss a few people off when I started standing up for myself. Like virtually every other people pleaser I’ve encountered in my travels, I was predictably surrounded by multiple selfish actors. And like most other people pleasers, I couldn’t tell the selfish actors (folks who were there solely for what they could get out of me, treating me like a kind of Pez dispenser of fulfillment of their personal needs) from people who genuinely cared about and enjoyed being with me because they liked me.
That’s because people tend to all look alike so long as you’re saying yes to everything they want from you, so long as you’re giving them everything they ask for. It’s usually only by disappointing someone or saying no to them that you get a peek into their true nature. The depth of their emotional maturity. Their level of graciousness (or lack thereof). Because most people can handle a reasonable no, especially when it comes to something that’s important to someone they care about. Sure, they might get disappointed. But they’ll also understand your need to protect yourself and take care of yourself, even if the process isn’t always convenient for them. Conversely, selfish people typically lose their shit in those same instances.
And as I started to say no to people who had been in my life for a very long time, people who may have never heard me say no to them before, a funny thing happened: They sorted themselves into obvious buckets. Some people were incredibly supportive of the change. “It’s about time,” they said. “Good for you.”
Other people threw large fits, insulted me, kicked up a fuss. I lost a few friends. And other friendships had to be renegotiated (some closer ones turning into acquaintances, etc.).
Everything shifted. And when it did, it didn’t feel immediately like overall progress. Instead, it felt like the faucet was shinier but leaking.
Here I was, trying to clean up my life, but in the process, was I breaking it? I spent many nights questioning the changes I was making. Sure, the new ways of relating had strengthened some relationships, but they’d really challenged others.
Things Often Feel Broken on Their Way to Being Fixed
But I stayed the course. And just like the showerhead, the system rebalanced with time. Everything was fine. Better than ever, really. I hadn’t broken anything. Sure, I’d lost a few former presences in my life but not anyone that had really contributed anything important. I hadn’t lost givers, but takers.
So while the loss had felt scary at the time, it was actually a gain, like cleaning grime from a dirty showerhead. Everything was shiny, new, and quite improved.
And a hell of a lot better for my health.
I’ve found that to be the most difficult thing about progress: It doesn’t always feel like clear improvement at the time. It’s easy to doubt yourself on the way to an incremental goal. Things often get worse on their way to getting better and feel broken on their way to being fixed.
For more reframes and tools to maintain healthy relationships of all kinds, please see Dealing with Difficult Metamours, a guide to troubleshooting challenging polyamorous dynamics as well as guidance on how to not create them in the first place.