How Doing Dishes Saved My Life

by Laura Didyk

To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. —Thich Nhat Hanh

Some people take a yoga class and it changes their lives. Me? I did my dishes. It is one of the few resolutions I’ve ever kept and, ultimately, it’s the one that saved me.

When I made the resolution, I was smoking at least a pack and a half a day, suffering from hypersomnia (the inability to stay asleep), and alternating between severe depression and even more severe anxiety.

My apartment was a mess: the dishes in the kitchen sink dated back at least three weeks, had piled up, and were starting to collect in stacks on the counter; old food populated the refrigerator—when I opened it, which wasn’t often, the whole kitchen smelled. I hadn’t done laundry in more than a month, so clothes were everywhere. Coffee and doughnuts and canned soup were my staples. I was still managing to hold down a job, but even that was becoming tenuous.

My life hadn’t always been like this. I’m not sure I could have called myself “happy,” but I always had hope, was moving toward something brighter, improving in increments along the way. I used to meditate regularly. I’d danced onstage, had poems and stories published, earned an advanced degree, and taught English and creative writing to college students. With my athletic background, I’d taken to Ashtanga Yoga like it was the most natural thing. I found a lot of physical joy in the practice and got into excellent shape. The physical benefits gave me confidence, which was valuable, but it never occurred to me that Ashtanga Yoga was anything more than getting strong and impressing a tough teacher. I never learned how to take my yoga off the mat and into my life.

After a series of events, my life took a turn for the worse, and despite all my time spent muscling my way through an Ashtanga series, I had absolutely no inner resources to tap into, no inner strength, no inner yoga. Emotional pain became my new lifestyle.

* * *

The morning of the resolution day, after calling in sick to work for the third time in three weeks, I sat at my kitchen table, smoked cigarettes, and cried. A few days before, a good friend of mine had asked me as I wept into the phone: “What triggered this?” By “this,” he meant the crying, the mood, the panic.

“Waking up,” I told him, and we both laughed, just for a minute.

I looked around at my apartment that morning, down at my shaking hand, and knew in a deep way that my emotional world had gone from bad to much, much worse. Something had to give, but I had no idea what or where to start. I wanted my apartment to be clean. I wanted to feel better. I wanted someone to come to my rescue—my mother, a man, God, anyone.

Eventually, out of total desperation, I called a woman I knew, someone who had gone through her own personal hell and had returned from the depths stronger and more beautiful. Surely she would have some answer for me. She was someone who believed in God, after all.

Her advice was not what I expected nor wanted to hear. I’d wanted her to tell me she was on her way over and she was going to clean up my life for me. I’d wanted her to tell me that if I just prayed hard enough, God would magically intervene. What she said instead was:

“Pick one thing in your apartment that you’re going to do today.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Tell me one thing that you’re going to deal with or clean by midnight tonight.” I looked over at the sink, its jumbled and smelly contents.

“I guess my dishes,” I said. I was dismayed at the proposition of having to do anything, a little angry that this was her idea of a solution. Before we hung up the phone, she made me promise that not only was I going to do my dishes that day, but I was going to do them every day for the next week, no matter how I was feeling. If I felt like getting in my bed and hiding under the covers, I could do that, but only after I did my dishes.

"No matter how you feel," she repeated, "do your dishes." She was firm about it.

Because I had nothing else to go on, I did what she said. When I turned on the faucet, lifted the first soup-encrusted pot, and submerged my hands in the warm soapy water, I felt a small but perceptible shift, as if one of the many tiny tears in my heart had mended itself just by me getting out of my chair and lifting a dirty dish. As I stood at my sink, every night for seven days in a row, I listened to music and sang along; I talked to friends, holding the cordless phone between my ear and my shoulder as I scrubbed; I cried as I washed, dried, and put away. Aside from smoking and crying and more or less showing up for my job, it was the closest thing I’d had to a routine in years.

By the third or fourth day, I’d stopped thinking about this as a weeklong project, and it became my respite at the end of each day—my coffee mug, my breakfast dishes, pots from dinner, me at the sink with warm water and soap. Because I had clean dishes, I started cooking for myself again—real food. By the end of the second week of my new routine, not only was my kitchen spotless but I was making my bed each morning. By the end of the week after that, I was organizing my files and cleaning off my desk, and then, miracle of all miracles, lugging my bags of laundry down the two flights of steep stairs and into my car to go to the Laundromat. I was no longer crying all the time. At six months, I started cooking more elaborate meals. I also quit smoking, started taking yoga and Pilates classes, and started losing 15 of the 30 pounds I’d gained over the past year. While the change was drastic, noticeable, and hard to ignore, it felt natural. Unforced. After lifting that first dirty dish, the rest was almost easy.

I always thought a rise in self-esteem would come from being able to do the Ashtanga primary series the way I used to, or from a boyfriend, or by getting my book published. I thought a spiritual awakening would happen when kundalini energy finally awakened at the base of my spine and released itself during a particularly intense yoga session. There’s more than one way to have a spiritual awakening, it turns out. In my case, it happened slowly, when I least expected it, and in the least likely of places—at my kitchen sink. All I needed to regain my self-respect and reconnect with who I really am was a little dish soap, a sponge, and a few weeks’ worth of dirty dishes.

Showing up at the sink every night proved that I could keep my word with the person in my life who mattered most—me.

Laura Didyk, MFA, is an essayist, poet, and a former athlete with a lifelong passion for nutritional health and optimal living. She has had her work published in literary magazines throughout the country, and has been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

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