TWICE a month, Audra Penchansky's cleaning lady comes to her house. And twice a month, Penchansky embarks on an intense, last-minute pickup before the housekeeper's arrival. "There's a part of me that just doesn't want her to think I'm a slob," Penchansky says. "She's a stranger, but it still matters for some reason."
Think of it as another disorder to add to the list: the pre-cleaning compulsion. It's an extension of your everyday obsessive-compulsive behavior, characterized by a preoccupation with how the cleaning lady will judge the unbridled chaos of your household as well as a catastrophic fear that certain objects of embarrassment -- undergarments or otherwise -- will be subject to outside scrutiny. It's an ailment that only grows more severe this time of year, when holiday parties and the pending arrival of house guests trigger more visits by the housekeeper -- and more bouts of the pre-cleaning flu.
For Penchansky, the mother of two young boys, putting away toys, papers and the other detritus of daily life does serve a practical purpose: It readies the house for a deeper cleaning. But clearly there's more at stake.
"Getting someone in here to clean was a hard decision for me to come to in the first place," says the Santa Monica College career counselor. "I just felt guilty about the whole idea. I not only pick up before she comes, I'll also start folding any laundry that's in the dryer or vacuuming."
Chris Gialanella's once-mild concern about appearing clean is now trending more toward "Monk"-esque obsession, he says. The cause? The Marina del Rey-based business executive and his wife have gotten to know their cleaning person better over the years, and they're increasingly ashamed about any signs of messiness.
"Before, I'd just wipe down the counters and straighten up before she came," Gialanella says. Now his concerns have spread to their laundry, their linens . . . .
"The more we get to know her," he says, "the more the details of our life feel personal and embarrassing."
For many people, the catalog of mortifying moments is long and painful: coming home to find perfumes and lotions artfully arranged on a polished bureau -- and a bottle of K-Y tucked into the tableau -- or discovering that those magazines you forgot to stash (and we're not talking National Geographic) have been meticulously stacked in chronological order. Paycheck stubs, panties, prescriptions -- these are the things that may reveal too much.
Then there are the fixations of the post-cleaners. Roubina Sookassian, a Glendale accountant, has been an avowed before-and-after tidier for years. She picks up before her twice-monthly cleaning lady visits, and then she dives into post-cleaning sessions that are even more involved: checking under the cushions of sofas and chairs, taking a rag to every inch of baseboard in her 3,000-square-feet house and, finally, completing a full shower-rim reconnaissance.
"You need to get into the shower and turn around to make sure all the walls are really clean," she says. "I've had quite a few housekeepers over the years, and I've come to accept that I'll probably never find someone whose standards are as demanding as mine."
Kerri McCullough knows all about the white-glove test. The dental-practice broker comes from a long line of meticulous housekeepers, and she spends at least an hour cleaning every weekday, followed by additional hours on weekends. When she moved from a 990-square-foot condo in Orange County to a tract home almost three times larger in Temecula, however, McCullough decided to outsource some of the scrubbing.
She conscripted a weekly cleaning team of two who now tackle all those shower tiles, toilets and kitchen counters, but that doesn't mean McCullough's Swiffer days are past.
"I basically pay people to clean a clean house," she says. "I still do the toilets, the sink and the shower every day of the week, including the day Imelda comes. My husband thinks it's crazy. I should probably be on meds."
Is recovery possible? If the first step is admitting she has a problem, McCullough is on her way.
"I know I'm a freak," she says. "But cleaning the house is how I relax. Call it crazy."