gif of lady looking overwhelmed with her clutter
Maya Ish-Shalom
Maya Ish-Shalom
Me Time

My Clutter, Myself

Can a pack rat get to the root of her habit, toss her stuff and take charge of her life? A professional organizer with a counseling license offers answers.

“Geniuses thrive on clutter,” says the sign tacked to the bulletin board above my desk. Although I’ll admit I’m probably not a genius, I am willing, at 63, to call myself a pack rat.

What I won’t call myself is a hoarder. Because, unlike a hoarder, I can get rid of stuff. Really. Sure, I might mourn the loss of certain things, like the five crates of books I was forced to leave outside my new apartment when it became obvious there was no place to put them. But beyond normal Catholic guilt and that whole “waste not, want not” thing, there’s been no trauma behind my tendency to collect stuff.

I do have difficulty getting rid of things, especially those that are useful or in good condition. And when I do, I only feel good about it if I know they’re going to a good home. In my mind, it’s almost as if those things are alive and capable of feeling abandoned, not simply inanimate objects. If I put things outside and no one bites, I feel bad for them. I feel less bad if they get ruined by rain or, as has happened, destroyed by a falling stack of boxes. If there’s any hope of I can revive it, stuff tends to stick around, like the deceased Healthmaster blender that’s been in my hallway for two months now.

Nevertheless, I do recognize that I need to sort through, pare down and organize. Just like many women my age, I’ve accumulated a lot of things over the years, and it’s starting to become a problem. So writing this story is just the impetus I need to finally confront the cause behind my clutter.

Could it have been my upbringing? My childhood home was orderly and clean. Not plastic-slipcovers-on-the-sofa clean, but Dad was organized and came from a home where dishes were never left in the sink and two sheets of paper on the dining room table qualified as clutter. Mom, on the other hand, was an impulse shopper and couldn’t let go of certain possessions. Maybe it helps to have a neat freak as a significant other?

As I delved further into the possible motivations behind my clutter, I discovered I suffer from chronic disorganization, a behavioral pattern that is associated with a variety of causes or factors. The drive to collect or hoard is not necessarily caused by issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or a fear of scarcity from say, not having enough in childhood. My parents scrimped and saved, yes, but there was no lack of stuff. And even back then my room was always a mess. I wonder if I keep things around now just to make my life feel abundant?

“There are several reasons people become attached to possessions,” says professional organizer and licensed counselor Dina R. Smith, owner of Organized Life Works and founding member of Ebony & Orderly, an Atlanta-based group of professional organizers of color. Smith assesses each of her clients on a case-by-case basis to get at the origins of their disorganization and assess which approach to use to help them.

“African Americans are significant consumers of goods, and many of us have an obsession with clothes, shoes, purses and cars,” she says. “These are all external materialistic representations of wealth and an emulation of what we define as success.” Smith theorizes that shopping is the retail therapy some of us use to soothe our feelings of loss about what has historically been taken from us. “Much of our story comes from being stripped of everything through the Middle Passage,” she says.

Perhaps so. But I realize that as I acquire possessions, guilt, the fear that I may need them one day and the desire to avoid wasteful repurchasing prevents me from ever letting them go. I’ve tried and failed at the “toss, sort, donate, trash” method; the “one-in, one-out” rule; the 15-minute speed organizing method; the “make it a habit in 21 days” method and the “invite someone over and speed clean” method. All the books I’ve bought on beating clutter are now, well, just part of my clutter. Why keep them? Because I’m hoping they’ll inspire me to get rid of the clutter.

Apparently there are four characteristics that distinguish me from people who are just situationally messy (i.e., only have clutter for limited periods of time due to certain life disruptions). First, I have a lot of stuff. Second, I have difficulty letting go of it. Third, I’m interested in many things and some of the clutter is a result of half-finished projects. (I hereby submit to the court exhibits A through Z — all the articles I’ve collected from magazines I want to write for and am saving as ideas for a novel.) And number four, I’m easily distracted and need to see projects in process to remember to take action. (Yep, in my house, it’s out of sight, totally out of mind.)

My work as a writer doesn’t help. I’ve been a book reviewer, music critic, beauty editor and product reviewer. And although I’ve managed to get rid of plenty of cassettes, vinyl albums and VHS tapes, mostly due to my outmoded devices finally dying, I’m still surrounded by stacks on stacks of CDs, books and event swag bags bulging with stuff that’s mostly useless but too cute to part with.

I do like some of the personality traits attributed to clutter-collecting folk like me. We’re typically non-linear thinkers and exceptionally creative with many varied interests. I have so many ideas that I often feel annoyed by outside interruptions, you know, like cleaning, organizing and trying to find things lost in the mess.

Nevertheless, I’m moving forward on the road to redemption. Proof: During breaks from this assignment, I cleared out the pantry and tossed a boatload of expired supplements. I call it the “I’m mortified by how many spices, spatulas and saucepans I own” method.

Next, I’ll tackle my office. Just don’t ask me to get rid of that sign.

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gif of lady looking overwhelmed with her clutter
Maya Ish-Shalom