During my middle school years, I used to keep a container of vanilla icing and a teaspoon in one of my dresser drawers that I would snack from at night.
In my twenties, sometimes I’d swing by Bed, Bath, and Beyond after work to buy new towels instead of washing the ones I had that were dirty. The dirty ones were piled into a Hefty bag used as a makeshift hamper – minimalism taken to the extreme – and it was shoved deep into my bedroom closet. That closet, by the way, had a wooden rack that had fallen down from the weight of my impressive collection of attire, and for two years the wooden bar rested on top of the towel-filled Hefty bag, skirts, cardigans, and shimmery formal gowns in mass disarray, like colored sprinkles thrown on an ice cream sundae in a crazy hoarder’s house.
“Listen,” I said to a boyfriend of mine once who was staying with me. “I don’t care if you read the deepest, darkest revelations in my journal. But whatever you do, do not open that closet.”
He nodded. He looked terrified.
I spent the entire day at work praying that his fear would kick his curiosity’s ass and that he really wouldn’t open the closet. It was nothing to do with what he’d find – frankly, unless he started excavating, he wouldn’t find much – but I was genuinely scared that something could land on top of him and I’d return home to an unconscious boyfriend. I was pretty sure a concussion would be grounds for a break up.
I have to assume he took a peek.
I can only imagine the reaction.
Yes, for decades, I was a slob. Evolutionary speaking, my habits make no sense. I do not come from a lineage of mess. My mother is the neatest person I know. The way she folds her sweaters is a sight to behold. They are perfectly lined up. They are arranged by hue – and it turns out there are a lot of shades of beige. My sister Swifters her wooden floors as often as other people drink coffee. I was raised to be clean.
And yet, until about three years ago, I lived a slob's life.
I'd try on outfits, trying to decide what to wear to work the next day, and as I took each one off, I'd toss it on top of my dresser instead of hanging the clothing I hadn't chosen to wear back up in my closet. The heap of clothing on my dresser sometimes rose so high that it covered the large mirror on the wall. I got to know where in the pile the particular black tank that I needed was, and I could reach into the correct layer, often pulling free the item I needed without the pile toppling over like a game of Jenga gone wrong. When the pile did topple, I'd throw everything back on top of the dresser, often thinking, "Oh, there's that silk dress I spent a fortune on," seeing it was now creased and crinkled and would need to go to the dry cleaner before I'd even worn it a single time.
If you opened the medicine cabinet, chances were that any over-the-counter pill that could make you fall asleep would crash onto your head. I'd shove them all back in, and sometimes I just chose not to open the cabinet and I'd be up all night.
My old place had a great counter in my bedroom under a huge mirror with lights and I would sit there and straighten my hair and put on my makeup. The counter would get dusty and when my elbow would rest on it, I'd come away stained with bronzer, but I only dusted it once a month or so, and even then, I'd rarely lift everything on the counter up. I'd just dust around things.
Tupperware in the kitchen cabinet would tumble out when I'd try to get a plastic lid. Plastic bags would fall to the floor when I would open the cabinet that held cleaning supplies. Bottles of beer from when I had a party two years ago sat in the back of my fridge.
The office, a small room off the dining area, was a pretty space with a chaise lounger, a corner desk, and a compact wall unit that held a television I never watched and pictures of family and friends.
Not every apartment in that complex had a separate room for an office or a den, but I did, and I paid extra for that space. And what I did, after carefully furnishing it, was toss cardboard boxes from Amazon and Nordstrom that had been shipped to my home into the room, always thinking I'd throw the box out tomorrow, and soon so many boxes filled the room that I couldn't open the door.
I'm being completely serious. The door would not open.
About the only things that stayed organized were my shoes and the spice rack in my kitchen.
I had no idea what was on the floor of the hallway closet, because I could no longer see the floor of my hallway closet. Shopping bags and coats that had fallen hid everything. Broken plastic hangers still hung from the rack.
The vacuum I had purchased stopped working. I shoved the broken appliance into the corner of my office not covered in boxes. I told myself I'd throw the vacuum out tomorrow too.
I said that for two years.
You would never know the slob I was at home if you saw me outside of the house. I always took care to dress beautifully. I was perfectly accessorized, and I showered and shaved every day. In fact -- medicine cabinet aside -- the bathroom was the only room I kept clean, frequently getting on all fours to scrub the tile floor.
I didn't like being a slob.
I didn't like that someone coming over necessitated hours of cleaning instead of fifteen minutes of just straightening up, which a normal person could do.
I didn't like that I would tell people who stayed over to bring their own towels.
Every now and then, I would go on a cleaning jag, but it would involve surface things like putting books back on the shelves and dusting the dining room table. I'd clean the counters in my kitchen, but I didn't even know that the layered glass shelves in the refrigerator could be removed and that they should be cleaned. My mother eventually came over and showed me how to do it, and as she scrubbed some brown, gloppy stain from one of them, she looked at me like she had failed spectacularly at something fairly important.
I had subscriptions to Vanity Fair and Vogue, and I'd never throw the old ones away. I'd just toss them into drawers where they piled so high that I could hardly open the drawer anymore. One September issue of Vogue was the size of a phone book and took up half of that drawer.
Then one night I had a very vivid dream, one of a few recurring dreams I have. It's the only recurring dream that's not anxiety-based; the others are about forgetting to call in for a substitute when I'm out sick or not being able to find the room where I'm supposed to take an Evolution and a Extinction final in college or having desperately to contact someone and I can't make my fingers text a message. This particular dream involved me walking into a home I was sure I'd lived in before – I hadn't, but try telling your subconscious to focus more on reality while in a dream state – and the home was big and clean and was several levels, and I woke up one February dawn after that dream and I decided at that moment that I wanted to move.
I never went back on that decision. I just moved forward.
I knew of townhouses I'd always loved on the North Shore, which is where I'd grown up and always been most comfortable. I pulled some strings and found out that the next one that became available would be mine, and then I got the call that I could move in the coming July.
It was time to pack, but more, it was time to simplify and change. I would remove everything I no longer used or wore from my possession. I would discover what was in the bottom of that hallway closet. I would dust every book before I packed it. I would donate piles and piles of clothing to women's shelters. I would finally get to see how many black tank tops I owned. (Answer: 23)
I started early, figuring I should begin with throwing away the layers of mess. I went out a bought heavy-duty garbage bags, the black ones people put leaves into after raking the lawn. In one day, I had eight bags of junk to throw out, and I actually backed my car up and loaded the bags into the car and drove to a dumpster where I struggled to throw them in. If you visited a local landfill, even today, items that had lived in my home for years for absolutely no reason at all would confront you.
By the way, those eight initial bags were only from two closets and the office. I still had to go through drawers and my bedroom. Finally, I called my Super and asked if I could get huge garbage bins that his guys would haul away for me. I filled three in one day. I still had magazines that showed Jennifer Aniston facing off against Angelina Jolie – that's how long I had held on to things that never mattered, even initially.
I had to take Benadryl because of all of the dust that would rise into the air as I dug into the abyss of mess. The drowsy effect of the drug had an effect that made me less emotionally detached to things, less inclined to keep stuff that didn't matter.
Everything I put into boxes that I decided to keep was dusted before it was packed. I organized files and put the documents into folders. I washed every dish before I bubble-wrapped it. In my dreams at night I would hear the sound of bubble-wrap being popped.
On the day I moved into my new home, I unpacked almost everything. I stayed up through the night, carefully putting every item in its proper place. My mother was with me during the afternoon and neatly organized my Tupperware. When my sister came over two days later and opened that cabinet, she turned to me and asked, "Did mommy set this up for you?" As the years have passed since, that cabinet is exactly the same as it was the day I moved in. I love being able to find something I am looking for at the moment that I need it.
I organized my medicine cabinets like I'd just been diagnosed with OCD. I have three closets that are set up by category – one for shirts, one for dresses, one for skirts and sweaters. My shoes are presented like artwork.
I clean constantly. I vacuum at least twice a week. I began the summer by hiring professional carpet cleaners to come in and do a thorough job.
I have a linen closet stacked with carefully folded towels and sheets. I do laundry every single week and fold and put the clothes away immediately. I clean out my refrigerator before I go food shopping, remembering that I had that old beer in my old fridge until the day before I moved.
I bought throw pillows and plush blankets. I had a chair made in a fabric that looks like a furry white and black cow. I bought lampshades with crystals dangling off the ends. I had the walls of my office and my living room painted with a color called Silver Spring, highlighting the comfortable modern style I've realized I have.
It's better living this way. I think I lost years by living in a mess for so long. I find a comfort in the organization I surround myself in now. When I was at a guy's house and saw he had piles of canisters of protein powder shoved into a corner of his kitchen counter, I went out and bought him sterling canisters to store the powders in instead, buying removable labels to place on each. My
tendency to keep things neat extended outside of my own space.
I'm heading back to work when September begins. I know where my leather work tote is, and I cleaned it out at the end of June to make it ready for the new school year. I think I know what I want to wear on the first day, and I know exactly where that dress is. I know that if I decide to wear it with a certain necklace, that the necklace isn't knotted up in four other necklaces.
When my stepfather comes over, he marvels at how neat and clean everything is, telling me I live in a perfect dollhouse.
And while I don't like them and I never will, I'm ready for a surprise pop-in visitor, one who won’t have to bring his own clean towels with him from home.