Diary of a mad hoarder
The Washington Post
The wake-up crash came when my closet collapsed. The rod, sagging for weeks, finally snapped with a dramatic, defeated WHOMP, spewing a haul of clothing (plus handbags and vintage hats from the shelf above) into the hallway.
In a flash, it dawned on me that I had a problem (cue the “Hoarders” theme). My closet wasn’t defective; I was a pack rat. In that pile, I counted 50-plus coats – faux-fur jackets, velvet capes, military peacoats. Staring around my crowded one-bedroom home at the decorative knickknacks – enough sake cups to outfit a sushi bar, stacks of vintage fashion books – I knew I’d amassed a mass of clutter.
What I’m now calling my “thing awakening” coincided with a societal backlash against excess. Americans are realizing the stuff they just had to have – Manolo pumps! A sushi-roll-sized Japanese camera! A talking coffeemaker! – clog their homes and minds.
“We see pendulum swings when the economy slows and people tighten their belts,” says Erin Rooney Doland, the organizer behind Unclutterer.com and “Unclutter Your Life in One Week” ($22, Simon & Schuster). “But they often realize that even when they lived extravagantly, they didn’t necessarily find happiness.”
In other words, more isn’t more – except, perhaps, more of a burden. My jam-packed home meant more housework (dusting cupcake stands), more wasted time (rearranging the sock drawer every time I bought tights) and more money poorly spent (Look! A toaster that matches my blender!). The items weighed on my mind like they had weighed down my closet. It was time to snuff the stuff. I gave myself two weeks, and here’s what happened.
DAY 1: Fortified with caffeine, I begin to sift through the apartment, opening each drawer, scouring every shelf, even dumping out the pencil holder. Old books, outgrown clothes and knitting supplies I’d never used go into bags to throw out or donate to charity.
Some tosses were easy. The Oktoberfest hat, purchased in a lager-fueled frenzy? Goodnight, and Goodwill. But others, like vintage teacups I’d envisioned at girly get-togethers, were hard to release. Purging means “letting go of who we wish we were,” Rooney Doland says. The reality was, when friends came over, we usually ended up drinking wine from plastic cups. I put the tea set into the “donate” pile for someone else’s fantasy parties.
DAY 3: Operation Clean-Out grinds to a halt. When faced with difficult decisions – that slinky designer dress that cost half my rent but never left the closet – I have a hard time. On repeat in my head: “It’s not that I don’t like it; I just don’t need it.” Rooney Doland says most purgers struggle with emotional stuff. During her own household clean-up years ago, she photographed things that had sentimental value so she could keep the memories but let go of the items.
DAY 4: Real life – work, social plans, watching “Jersey Shore” – takes over, and I abandon my war zone of an apartment. In the mornings, I have to climb over the vacuum cleaner – now living in the bathroom since I began tackling the storage closet – just to brush my teeth.
“It often gets worse before it gets better,” says organizer Mary Carlomagno, author of “Secrets of Simplicity” ($20, Chronicle), which promotes the Zen-like effects of paring down. “Clutter is delayed decisions you’re finally facing.”
DAY 8: Watching A&E’s “Hoarders,” the addictive documentary show about compulsive clutter-bugs, helps kick-start my purge. I take solace in the fact that, unlike many of the show’s subjects, I’ve not found any dead animals in the debris.
Still, something Carlomagno says weighs on me: “It’s easy to organize things. We can all go to the Container Store and buy 50 shoe boxes. But you have to address why you have 50 pairs of shoes.” In other words, it’s not just my closets that need an overhaul – my spendy shopping habits do, too.
DAY 12: Finally, progress! A small truckload of stuff has been carted off to charity and the consignment store, and my newly fixed closet now hefts half its former load. I’m so excited about the extra space I start another round, going through shelves I already cleaned out, asking myself, “Do I really need this birdcage/bamboo bowl/cake stand?” (The answer? Usually no.)
On a post-purge trip to Ikea, I fight the urge to restock. Wouldn’t that metal candelabra look cute on my table? But I’m reminded of one of Carlomagno’s edicts: “Living clutter-free is a challenge. You have to devote time to it every day, like exercise.”
I play tug-of-war in my head, like a dieter facing birthday cake. And then I put the candelabra back.
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