Over the past decade as a writer specializing in sex, I've dished about my erotic escapades, from threesomes to kinky parties to a date gone wrong with a Top Chef. I've posed with a freshly spanked bottom for a sex blogger calendar, masturbated on HBO's "Real Sex" and edited books like "Best Bondage Erotica 2011." Writing about my intimate life has never felt awkward. I didn't grow up with shame around sex and didn't carry any of it into adulthood. Divulging those stories, as well as fictionalizing fantasies about bukkake or webcam exhibitionism, has been a way to understand and come to terms with my desires. Because I've been so open, though, some people think I have no skeletons in my closet. And I do -- or rather, I would if the two-bedroom Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment I've lived in for over 11 years had any closets.
Instead of closets, though, I have stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. I have mountains of clothes, from Yumi Kim silk dresses to winter coats to dozens of pairs of fishnets, which live anywhere they can find a home: over doors, chairs and my couch, strewn across the floor, or crammed haphazardly into a dresser drawer. Don't get me started on the towering stacks of books that periodically fall over onto me, or the years' worth of magazine subscriptions, scrap paper, contracts and outdated VHS cassettes.
I've never seen the show "Hoarders," but I always comforted myself with the notion that I wasn't as bad as the people featured on it. I don’t have dead animals or hundreds of cans of tomato sauce I bought on sale. But while I can easily make that distinction, most anyone who walked into my apartment would be horrified, and rightly so. For a long time, I thought I was just "messy." Then my mess evolved from something contained to my bedroom to a monster occupying every corner of my home. Food that should be discarded winds up in the freezer, beloved jewelry gets stepped on and broken, and I trip over my 25-pound Kettle Bell more often than I use it to work out. Like a high-functioning alcoholic, I have reached a point where I can no longer live in the hazy glow of denial. When I found that mice had eaten through not just my clothing, but also my cash (apparently they'll eat anything) I realized I had a problem -- a big one. I am a hoarder.
Five years ago, when my last roommate moved out, I let my hoarding freak flag fly … everywhere. Why not share the wealth? There was no one else to see it -- I made sure of that. Whereas I used to bring home people I was dating, I've only had two guests in the last three years, one a date and one an interviewer, who only saw the neatest of the rooms and even then had to wait for me to tuck aside a pile of clothes so that she could fit herself into a chair. I had a long-distance relationship with a guy in San Francisco, and when he visited New York, I paid for a hotel room rather than let him get a hint of how I live.
Last year, I finally decided to hire a personal organizer. It was a big step, mentally and financially; for $5,000, she and her assistants spent a week sorting, tossing and clearing things out. When I returned home, after crashing elsewhere, there were 15 bags of garbage, not counting the magazines and newspapers for recycling. For the first time in years, I could see the floor.
I was thrilled, but also a little overwhelmed. Everything seemed to have its place, but where was mine? I didn’t know. The wide expanse of floor space, the smooth desk, seemed foreign, reminding me of the apartment’s emptiness when I first moved in. Gradually, so gradually that I barely noticed, my stuff started creeping back where it didn't belong, until it again reached an unmanageable level.
I'd tried to hire an organizer a few years before, which was a giant failure. I was nervous but ready to make a dent in my disarray. I was quickly disabused of the notion that she could help me; she only dealt with mild clutter, and my mess was too much for her. I cried when she left, utterly ashamed that I was beyond the pale for someone who did this for a living.
Several friends have eagerly offered to help, their eyes lighting up when I describe my plight. They are the anti-me, people for whom the process of sorting and cataloging and discarding belongings makes them come alive, yet I couldn’t bear to have even those closest to me see the nitty-gritty daily reality of the extent of my problem. I was sure our friendships would be forever tainted.
I don't consider myself materialistic; it's not that I go on random shopping sprees so much as I have a very low threshold for what I "must" have. If I hear about a book I want to read, I'll usually order it online rather than put in a library request. Yet once I get whatever item I'm hankering for, I don't always put it to use (cut to the SodaStream I got as a birthday present last year, or the stereo I won in a contest, both sitting unused in my kitchen). The acquisition, whether it's free or purchased, is what gives me a rush, not the use of said object.
My hoarding is also a portable activity; on any given day, you can find me carrying two giant tote bags, in addition to my laptop and an oversize purse. New acquaintances almost always comment on my bags, and people have recognized me when I'm out and about because of them. Carrying one bag feels almost dangerous. "Do you need everything in there?" someone will invariably ask, missing the point entirely. It's not that I need every single item, but their existence, and my knowledge of exactly where they are located, soothes me. It means I am prepared, even if it'll take me 10 minutes to find my inhaler or tweezers or Us Weekly.
I admit most of my things I don't actually need, in the strictest sense of the word, but if you were to hold each up in front of me -- as my organizer, who I am still working with, sometimes does -- I'll tell you I want to keep whatever it is. Give me the choice, and I’ll choose what feels familiar. As lonely as I may sometimes get, I have these objects to prop me up -- sometimes literally. You never know what you might need … and that goes for the weekly Wall Street Journal crossword puzzles I keep in the hopes of someday getting to them.
Ever since I quit my six-liter-a-day Diet Coke habit, I've been convinced that we only make major life changes when we want to, not when other people want us to. The toughest part of this situation is acknowledging that, on some level, I enjoy clutter. My dream home isn't some spartan utopia but one filled with items, treasures, keepsakes, with a place for everything (though not necessarily everything in its place).
There is something about belongings that I value highly, and it has nothing to do with their net worth. The Coco de Mer teacup with "Pussy Lover" in italics I treasure just as much as the giant Hello Kitty pillow I sleep with. The most expensive item in my house is a MacBook Pro. What I'm hoarding most of all are the memories intertwined with each item. The turquoise dress with the zipper I wore for an important first date? The K Records Lois 7-inch? It would feel like a crime to get rid of them. By getting rid of my stuff, I fear I'm getting rid of some essential part of what makes me me.
The rational part of me know that's ridiculous. I was given a powerful reminder that you can't take it with you when I attended my friend's wake recently. We leave behind the legacy of our actions, our feelings, our words and perhaps our spirit, but our belongings are essentially worthless. I don't want my stuff to be what people remember about me, something my loved ones have to sort through after I'm not here. For that matter, I don't want it to be something that prevents me from living now -- from having friends or lovers over, from having kids because I’m afraid they'd injure themselves amid my mess.
But I find it painful to reckon with this part of myself. I have no problem revealing that I'm into rape fantasies, but admitting that when I enter my apartment, bugs scurry away from me -- that is much harder to own up to. At least once a month, I vow to devote myself to cleaning, to purging, to letting go, but it's amazingly easy for other "urgent" projects to take priority. I want to change. I will change. For now, my home is my dirty, cluttered sanctuary. And I'm sorry, but you're not invited.