How I Beat The Habit That Almost Ruined My Life

Illustrated by Michaela Early.
When I used to go to my grandmother’s trailer in Michigan, I remember turning my body sideways to get past the tall stacks of things — magazines, toys, hair products, clothes. To open the windows required that I first break through the thick layers of dirt that kept them sealed tight. On those summer visits, my sister and I spent a lot of time outside or squished into the bunk beds that hadn’t yet been buried under my grandmother’s belongings. She would take us to flea markets, where she compulsively pulled items into her basket with barely a glance: sea monkeys, craft necklaces, old books, homemade jellies…

I don’t remember when I first understood that my grandmother was a hoarder. In my naïveté, I wasn’t so much concerned about her collecting as I was genuinely amazed: How cool was it that my grandmother had boxes of unopened toys hidden around her home? The trailer I visited when I was little was was just one of her three properties, the largest of which is my mother’s childhood home. But that house was, and remains, off-limits. My grandmother doesn’t let us come to see her at all anymore. She never offers an explanation, just an unshakeable "no."

In the years when I approached adulthood, when I could finally begin to understand the effect she had on my mother, I began to hate my grandmother. I hated her for turning away my mom’s help, for making my mom cry when she felt helpless. I hated that she ignored phone calls and missed birthdays. I hated that my friends had such sweet grandmothers — grandmothers who visited and doted. And then, when I got my own apartment in college, I hated her because I was starting to become just like her: a hoarder.

Clothes were the hardest part for me. Everything I saw on sale that looked like it might fit me got tossed into my cart, and every paycheck meant a new online order of hundreds of dollars. I worked from early morning until late in the evening, but I never managed to set up a savings account. I bought books I never read, notebooks I never wrote in, and movies I never watched. It always left me with a sick pit in my stomach when I binged on these things, but not buying them was worse. It wasn’t that I wanted them, it was that I needed them.

Along with the hoarding came my grandmother’s hereditary tolerance of filth. In my last apartment, I once pulled out a bulletin board that I had shoved behind the couch. It was so matted with hair that I could peel it off in strips, like fabric. Do you hate hair? I hate hair, and I hate that the thick clump of hair is still seared in my memory. I also hate dust and mold. In principle, I hate clutter, and having too many things. Yet here I was, surrounded by all of it. Drowning in it.

It was by chance that my friend Megan sent me a link to an article praising Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the enormously popular book on — you guessed it — tidying up, as told by Japan’s Queen of Decluttering. “Isn’t this crazy?” Megan asked. A day later, she sent me another link: a critique of the book, where one woman condemned Kondo’s methods as a bunch of malarkey. “She tells you to throw away all of your photos,” Megan said, disbelief in her Gchat. I agreed: crazy, it was crazy.

But two days after that, I bought it.
Advertisement
Illustrated by Michaela Early.
As you may already know if have read an interview with Kondo or seen her on morning TV, she tells you to keep only those things in your life that “spark joy.” She imparts pages of easy-to-follow advice to make parting ways with your possessions easier: clean in the morning, don’t let family members talk you out of things, sort through by category instead of room… Her message is encouraging and yet so matter-of-fact that I felt both comforted and like I was personally disappointing her. I was gross; Marie Kondo was pristine, and I needed to get my shit together.

In truth, I had been navigating through my possessions for a while, trying to taper down what I owned, but nothing had resonated with me quite like Kondo’s book. I wanted to find something that told me exactly what to do, and I followed her instructions to a T. After four trips to Goodwill, my house was clean: I was magically decluttered. Cleaning up my life gave me a no-dust high and, without the looming stacks of high school papers and pizza boxes on the cabinets, my apartment looked bigger.

But as the days passed, a tug pulled me out of my organizational nirvana. I kept thinking of all the reasons why I had kept things, like that feeling that I might need something so desperately my life would be ruined without it, or the fear that I would accidentally throw something away and with it would go a precious memory. How the weight of these worries bogged me down so much I felt like I couldn’t move — so I didn’t. And then I thought of my grandmother, about how she has no desire to change and how, after 40-some years of hoarding, I don’t think she ever will.

Generationally, I’m lucky. I’m growing up in a time where people want to discuss their states of mind, where help is accessible through so many more outlets than ever before. I know that I hoarded as a reaction to my depression, and I know, too, that my desire to organize my living space comes from an increase in the happiness I now experience in my life. I know that obsessive-compulsive disorder can pass through generations, and I know that hoarding is a compulsive behavior. This understanding has made my behaviors easier to work with — has made me easier to work with.

Marie Kondo argues her decluttering method is a be-all, end-all solution, and despite my cult-like embrace of her ideas, that’s the one I reject. I like the way that people reflect themselves in their homes, from their choice of decorations to the dishes in their sinks. Some people are messy and some people are clean, just like some people prefer slick, modern interiors, while others coat their walls with eclectic prints. It doesn’t matter how you get your dream home, or even if you have one at all. It’s about comfort. You are the spaces you keep, so keep them well.
This month, we're asking you to toss out everything you thought you knew about spring cleaning and give every corner of your life a refresh. The inspiration for a happier, clutter-free you is right this way.
Advertisement