There are two challenges that I face in keeping my home organized and neat. 1) I am a proto-hoarder and 2) If I can’t see things, I forget that they exist. I tend to “organize” by creating piles of related items, but, unfortunately, that’s not actually organization. And when I put those piles away, it’s out of sight, out of mind—if I needed to do something with that letter I just stuffed in a drawer, the chance that I’ll remember to do it drops dramatically once I can’t see it anymore.
Before we begin, I’d like to make the point (to maybe absolve myself just the tiniest bit), that I am a very clean person. Things might get messy, but they are not dirty.
I don’t like to throw things away. This isn’t a problem for expired food, or plastic wrappers, cat poop, or other classic hoarding-type objects, but anything that I can assign even the slightest meaning to usually makes me pause and want to hang on. If something was given to me by someone else, then it’s even tougher for me to let it go. I tend to conflate the person with the object, and think that I’ll somehow be hurting them, or our relationship, by letting the object go.
For instance, two years ago on my birthday, my brother gave me a metal folding table emblazoned with the American Idol logo. He received it as TV critic swag, and probably mostly gave it to me as a joke, because I’m no fan of the show. At least, I think it was a joke…? Although I quickly realized I had no use for it, I couldn’t bear to give or throw it away, because what would that be saying about how I feel about my brother? Logically, nothing, I know, but emotionally I felt like it was a betrayal. “He gave that to me! He brought it all the way down here from his house! He even wrapped it! It must have been important!”
The funny thing is, my brother is incredibly minimalist and organized, and was even as a kid. I recall that whenever he cleaned his room, he would bring me something I’d given him—a construction paper card I’d made at school, a tiny stuffed animal keychain I got out of a machine—and ask me if I minded if he threw it away. I usually said no, but a part of me felt hurt that he didn’t want to keep that awesome drawing of a horse with three legs that I’d slaved over for him (he…doesn’t like horses). So I’m 100% sure he wouldn’t give a rat’s left testicle what I do with that tray.
I’ve wished so many times in my life that I’d gotten whatever gene or brain chemical he had that turned him into such an organization guru, but it’s clear at this point that wishing is never going to make it happen. This will probably always be something I have to work at.
Another piece of the puzzle is that I have an inexplicable tendency to anthropomorphize objects. This tendency correlates with the severity of my anxiety: when it is severe, everything around me has feelings. I rarely tell people about this issue because it’s so very odd and embarrassing. But sometimes I can look at an empty bottle of shampoo, assign feelings and a personality to it, and decide that it’s sad that it will go into the trash or recycle bin all alone, and sometimes will specifically throw away something else to “keep it company.”
Good god, writing that out loud makes it seem even weirder than it’s ever felt in my head (which is pretty damn weird). Of course, the more an object looks like an animal or a person, the harder it is to convince myself that it doesn’t actually have feelings and therefore can’t be hurt. (When I was a kid, I used to rotate the thirty or so stuffed animals I kept on my bed, to be sure they all knew I loved them equally.)
Of course I feel better when things are organized and clean, and I think to some extent having a mess around me probably feeds my anxiety.
In general, I can keep my space under control, with the odd pile here or there. Except. Sometimes, when cleaning has to happen quickly, it results in the above-mentioned piles being tossed into the nearest dark space, which in my condo is one of my two walk-in closets. They’re medium-sized, plenty for a single person, but I use them as limbo for things that I’m not ready to part with. And I don’t put those things in there neatly.
The last time I glanced into the closet in the guest bedroom (which I refer to as my library, because I’m sophisticated), I saw: some old clothes hanging neatly, a seven-foot long rolled carpet remnant that I used as a rug before I bought actual rugs propped against the far shelf and preventing the door from opening all the way, a cat carrier, a Christmas wreath (draped attractively over half a hanger holding a dress that I don’t fit into), five or six reusable Publix bags filled with paperwork I need to file, books I need to put away, and old bills to shred, three cardboard printer paper boxes filled with other random bits, two tangled strands of Christmas lights, a half-open Tupperware bin of Christmas decorations, a cardboard cat condo that my coworkers and I built for my kittens the year I adopted them, and the corner of a suitcase that I haven’t used in years. My cats both come running when they hear the distinctive sound of that closet’s door opening, because the space is pretty much the ultimate dangerous cat gym. Stuff to climb on, up, around, under, and into.
It’s madness, and just looking into it makes me lose all confidence in my ability to clean it up. My fear is multifaceted: that I won’t be able to complete the job, that I’ll feel sad when I have to get rid of things, and that making decisions about what to say goodbye to will be frustratingly difficult.
A few years ago, I got fed up with a similar situation in the same closet, and invited my best friend over to help me organize. She’s another natural-born organizer and decorator, and was actually eager to do the job (hey, I’m not complaining). So I provided wine and she provided the expertise, and we had a fun four hours straightening, folding, and organizing. I didn’t love the process, but it was a lot easier with support. The closet looked amazing after she left…but of course that didn’t last too long. Slowly, despite my best intentions, it filled up again like a Florida ditch in the summer.
I’ve made a few halfhearted attempts at fixing the situation, but never gotten motivated enough to make more than a dent. So now I’m forcing myself to look at it all, let a lot of it go, and make the choice to spend time creating a calm space for myself instead of sprawling on my couch and reading three books in a weekend. Two closets, one week, and me: can I do it?