When I was a senior in college, my dad’s hoarding began to hit its peak. I was embarrassed to invite even my closest friends over, including the ones who had messy homes and spare rooms filled with junk of their own. They didn’t have piles of untouched, dusty paperwork from eight years ago all over their kitchen tables. They didn’t have multiple old, useless computer monitors crowding the doorway to their bedrooms. While our one-bedroom apartment was about as crowded with stuff as it could be (my dad’s room transformed into the living room), it didn’t quite qualify as Hoarders-level.
I’m not an organized, neat person by nature, but my dad’s hoarding tendencies frustrated and challenged me when we lived together. I have ADHD, so it really helps me to have a system in place. When certain things go in specific places, I don’t have to worry if I have my debit card on me because it’s always in the same spot, and so on. I couldn’t control my dad’s decisions about what to keep, but I could at least control my own space. I worked hard to keep my room as free of hoarding as possible, and to build habits that would prevent me from getting to that point.
Hoarding runs in my family on both sides; I also noticed it when I visited a cousin in Texas a few years ago, and saw all the stacks of books and photos in her spare room. A few years before Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up came out in 2014, I began a DIY process of my own: Whenever I received something new—anything from a free brochure at the library to a Christmas gift—I asked myself whether keeping it would bring me joy. If the answer was no, I found kind and compassionate ways not to keep it.
Marie Kondo’s decluttering techniques have been a life-changing trend for people worldwide, and in her new Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, she helps people through the process in their own homes.
The show is as emotional and vulnerable as the tidying-up process is in real life. It took me months to get around to the decluttering process for the first time, but after I was raped at a college dorm party in 2012, I decided I needed to get to work. I came home for winter break and went through all of my possessions by category, making a particular pile for things that I associated with my rapist, who was someone I’d known in high school.
Decluttering can be a really harrowing process, and Kondo’s show has an episode that focuses on a widow working through her late husband’s belongings. I grieved similarly when my dad and I went through my mom’s things after she died, moving stuff we wanted to keep into our new home and also ensuring that other family members and friends got to take pieces of her memory, too. I still remember sitting with my two childhood best friends on the floor of my old living room, sorting through my mom’s library to figure out which of her books I should take with me.
Now I live with my fiancée in our own apartment, and I have a Marie Kondo-esque process for deciding whether I’m going to keep things. It isn’t entirely joy-based; some of my decisions are based on necessity or the knowledge that I should hold onto an item because it will give someone else happiness in the future. I’m also conscious of how my purchases and decisions impact the environment, so I opt for plastic-free packaging, online-only receipts, and electronic account statements and bill pay. I try to print out as little papers for my work as possible, unless I’m editing the manuscript of a book (because I just can’t work through 200+ pages in Microsoft Word).
I also take a very joy-based approach to acquiring new items so that I don’t just buy any discounted shirt when Black Friday sales tempt me. I only get new things if I really need them—like when I finally outgrew a 10-year-old beige winter coat from middle school—or if they truly bring me joy—like the Betsey Johnson phone purse I bring with me everywhere. This method gives me a wardrobe and jewelry collection that really feels like me, and it makes choosing an outfit so much easier. I’m not compelled to “refresh” my wardrobe with new stuff every season, even though the fashion industry wants me to.
My clutter prevention system helps me keep my hoarding tendencies in check.
Experts are uncertain whether hoarding is genetic, a learned behavior, or some combination of the two. But 30 to 40 percent of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) do it, like my dad. If I default back to not having a system for what to keep, I find that I start to hoard things I definitely don’t need. A few years ago, I had a folder of every receipt I’d ever gotten in the last five years, including for ridiculous things like M&Ms. Whenever I bring new things into our apartment, I take time to sort through them and decide whether to keep, donate, recycle, or give away. And if I’m keeping, I’ll find a spot for the items and store them there.
Tidying up can be an exhausting process, but finding your way around a maze of your own stuff—piles and piles of things that may even look somewhat organized but are actually impossible to navigate—is even more exhausting. I’m not perfect and I’m still learning; I’ve got an entire ottoman full of family photos and letters that I need to declutter. Maybe watching Tidying Up will be the exact inspiration I need to spark my motivation.