That’s how it begins.
With grocery bags.
Grocery bags, and the unexpected buzz of the doorbell one afternoon, at my apartment/“writing studio” here in Jackson Heights, Queens. At that rasping blurt, my heart seizes in foreboding. It always does. Isn’t one of the features of contemporary urban apartment life that the ringing of the doorbell without prior warning is a sound ripe with menace?
“Who is it?” I cry, rising uncertainly from my desk chair. The reply makes my heart dive through the floor.
“It’s me!” cries my girlfriend, Cosima. “Let me in!”
I have the shock of being caught.
“What’s up?” I ask, when I reach the door and open it a crack. This is the first time in five years that Cosima has been at my threshold, though her apartment is just around the block. Her brow and upper lip are beaded with sweat. Laden grocery bags strain from both hands.
“I forgot my keys at home,” she pants, irritable and short-winded. “Let me in, these bags are heavy.”
I struggle to keep a wild edge out of my voice. “I can’t,” I reply abruptly. “Why don’t you go to your mother’s?” Her mother lives two flights down from me.
“My mother isn’t at home,” Cosima snaps. “Why can’t I come in?” she cries, her voice rising.
“Because I don’t want you to see what’s in here!” I tell her savagely, through gritted teeth. “You know that—okay?”
I can see a look of horror flash in her eyes. She steps back. She’s had a glimpse past me.
No, I don’t have a crack pipe or a chat-room dungeon habit or a dead body. But my condition would provoke alarm, even disgust, in most people. Make that the condition of my apartment. I’m a pack rat. A clutterbug. I have something of a hoarding issue.
“Jesus Christ,” Cosima says. A stark pause. “Give me your keys,” she says tightly.
I go and find them, my keys to her place, and bring them to the door. I offer to help her carry her groceries downstairs. “That’s all right, don’t bother,” she answers, laboring off toward the elevator. I watch her go.
“I’m sorry,” I call after her.
I shut the door, numb. I go back to my desk chair and sink down with my heart still pounding. I feel shamed and exposed. Some line has been crossed, a hidden life revealed. For a few minutes I get up again and go about lamely gathering and throwing out some of the litter of newspapers, magazines, and junk mail adrift on the floor by the entryway. But then I get overwhelmed and I go back to my laptop, back to resume half-working and half-surfing— my customary mode, the activity in which I’ve been interrupted. Except that a sick worm is gnawing inside me. A definition of troubled or addictive behavior I once read bubbles into my head, not for the first time, here behind my barred door: It’s behavior that interferes with your intimate relationships and obligations.
* * *
No, Cosima has not been across my threshold in five years, even though this place was hers before she passed it on to me. Because I haven’t wanted anyone in here. Not her. Not friends. Not the super, at first because of general concerns about him sniffing around for the over-aggressive landlord; and then, despite the place needing some usual repairs and attentions, out of paranoia that things had oozed into such a state of neglect, the landlord would immediately seek penalties. This hostility is typical for someone like me. It’s about shame, but also about the hypersensitive intimacy of the things around me—however trivial and derelict they seem.
I lie: the super did come several years ago to repair the grout around the bathtub. It’s long since crumbled again. And the exterminator enters, once a month: a person with a Dickensian grotty aura about him that feels oddly comradely. And speaking of God enjoying a laugh, I actually had to let in a film crew one day last year. My TV producer twin brother and I were making a video teaser for a possible reality show, featuring the two of us wandering my multicultural neighborhood, and his three-man crew needed somewhere to assemble their equipment. It was tense, on my part. The crew director is someone I’ve known slightly over the years. Glancing around, he said, with that quiet genial empathy that makes you grind your teeth, “Don’t worry, I understand—my mother used to be like this.”
Like this . . .
Cosima’s lively elderly mom, Nadya, who lives downstairs from me and is the lone person I will grudgingly allow to stay overnight (when she’s overrun by guests), puts “like this” like this:
As she herself saw a therapist for several years for this same problem, I forgive the tone of her appraisal.
But as I’m forever fiercely reminding her—as I would you, if you were ever in here—kindly do not touch anything. If you want to, please ask first. But I’d rather you didn’t ask, because I’d rather you did not touch anything.
There’s a fair amount not to touch.
* * *
Pacing this lair of mine now, I make an aimless miserable survey, shaken by the encounter at my door. I actually groan at what I see (I’m given to that).
I occupy a medium-sized one-bedroom apartment. Its dim little entryway “greets” the unwelcome visitor with a dark waist-high wedged-in bookshelf, its top piled up with years-old magazines, junk mail, a few bills, some teetering empty boxes, an empty wicker basket, and a couple of long-expired calendars (from Madrid, from Brussels) which I just can’t bring myself to relinquish. Down beside, ready to trip me or you, sits a box of my girlfriend’s books, destined for her place for over a year now.
I drift into my small as-it-were “dining area.” The dining table hosts a permanent slovenly debris, of books, mainly, plus assorted stationery, old pencil-heckled text printouts, plastic bags like an invasion of blowsy desiccated jellyfish, and a set of half-broken opera glasses. Right now this debris also boasts a dazzling white team shirt of Brazil’s Corinthians soccer club, refolded in its torn grubby wrapper, bearing the signature of its rotund, recently retired superstar Ronaldo. A Brazilian friend gave it to me when Cosima and I were down in São Paulo recently. I wore it to the gala reception for visiting French grand chefs, grinning to beat the band and guzzling Champagne. I pick it up, to put it somewhere more dignified, but then, at a loss, just put it back. The four chairs at the table are occupied, by books, magazines, various bags. The space from here to the side wall, one half of the dining area, is unnavigable because of heaped boxes, shopping bags.
Beyond, in the main space of my apartment, my “writing studio,” the theme continues. No, I don’t use “goat paths” (a grim entry in the hoarder’s glossary I’ll later learn) to squeeze through. But should I want to lie down widthwise, I would be blocked by more jumbled boxes and bags, and books, and pieces of luggage. The table surfaces are shale fields of miscellaneous paper clutter.
In the bedroom: the floor is thick with yet more boxes and bags, dirty laundry, more luggage. The bed, to be lain on, requires clearance of T-shirts, unwashed jeans, papers, folders. Books. A Cardio Glide exercise machine stands near the bed, hung with several sweaters, pairs of dirty pants.
The galley kitchen and the bathroom aren’t so bad, though arrayed with defunct gadgets (hair trimmers, electric kettles, Brita pitchers). Actually, the fridge is awful—a morgue locker of stains and ancient grubby jars and bottles.
The four closets overall are stuffed to the gills, in good part with the unworn, the broken. Crummy mini-caves of an anti-Ali Baba.
* * *
Number of visible cardboard boxes in my place, empty or full: 45. Number of shopping bags with handles, large and small, in visible use: 22.
Also on the premises: 11 suitcases total, more than half of them partly torn; and four laptop computers, three of them as useful as pet rocks, all of them with hard drives clogged with clutter. Also: two (or three? four?) ancient typewriters. And one baby grand piano (Cosima’s), unplayed for years, used for storage on top and underneath.
And everywhere, still more plastic grocery bags. A big clumsy upright vacuum cleaner stands in the midst of things in its tangle of cord and hose, like a piece of abandoned highway equipment. It was a gift from Cosima’s mother. Last used: two months ago.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” I repeat at Cosima’s table that evening. Apology is a domestic skill I’ve honed very ably; it’s something I have a flair for, I’m proud of. It’s one of my modes of loving. We all have our talents.
Cosima’s big apartment is vivacious and airy, comfortably well-kept, with carpets that she’s haggled over in Istanbul and Aleppo, and jazzy-kitschy furniture shipped back cheap from a trip to Mumbai. The upholstery is now showing happy wear and tear from our many dinner parties. Here is where we do our “living.” Mornings I drift along to my pigsty while she works in her home office. In the evening I return for supper.
Cosima is a foodie, a formidable one. She travels the world writing about three-star restaurants and superstar chefs for glossy magazines. She authors cookbooks prodigiously splashed with international flavors and cultures. As a result, though I’m an “eccentric” bohemian writer and sometime performer, I live a pretty fabulous double life as Cosima’s table and travel companion. I am her “plus one” at René Redzepi’s Noma and Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athénée in Paris. I get to sample pinxtos (tapas) and multi-Michelin-starred treats in San Sebastián, bouillabaisse in Marseille, degustation menus in London, dim sum in Hong Kong, feasts of kebap and raki beside the twilit Bosphorus in Istanbul, where she owns an apartment.
The other half of the year, when we’re not gadding about, Cosima cooks for us at her place. Thai lamb curry, or Valencian paella in its outsized pan? Often nightly fare to me, especially when she’s testing recipes.
I lead a version of what they call “the good life.” And I don’t have to work or pay for it. “You have the best setup in the world,” people tell me. “You lucky bastard . . .”
And I come home with all sorts of fanciful cargo from our travels. That’s what accounts for the merrier line of clutter swamping my place: little mementos and artifacts from my gourmet globe-trotting with Cosima.
* * *
So I’m expecting dinner this evening (if not exactly as usual) with the foodstuffs Cosima was lugging in those ill-starred grocery bags. She’d mentioned something last night about pasta with the anchovy essence we snuck back from the Amalfi coast.
But arriving with a double offering of red carnations (they have a great durability-to-affordability ratio), I am informed that she isn’t hungry. We sit facing each other in somber silence, she grim in a sea-blue dress that brings up the blue in her gray eyes behind her glasses with their dashing leopard-spot frames, me with a plate of rye crisps and cheese, and the very humblest brandy from her special trove of dinner-party liquors. She has a small pour of very good Armagnac from it. I float a light little joke about this. I like my light little jokes. Normally she likes them too.
But not tonight.
“That was unforgivable this afternoon,” she informs me. Meaning being turned away from my door, and the reasons for that. Followed by:
“You, we . . . can’t go on like this.”
My stomach tightens, then retightens. “I’m truly sorry,” I murmur. And more forcefully, “I will sort things out.”
“You’ve been saying that about virtually everything for ten years now.”
I draw a deep breath. My shrink makes a similar retort, over the shorter span I’ve been seeing her. “I will clean up,” I lie.
“But it’s more than that—that revolting mess which appalled my soul today!” (She can talk like this.) “Every night I cook for us, everything on our trips I arrange, all the real-life work in our relationship I do. You don’t even earn a living!”
I bow my head, fighting the urge to squirm. Yes, all true. And I’d kept from her the gory detail that two months ago I borrowed money from both my brothers, my twin and my younger one, both of whom I’ve only had a rapprochement with—growing but fragile—over the last year or so. This on top of the monies others had loaned me.
“I know,” I murmur.
Her fork bangs on the table. “I’m sick of taking care of you!” she erupts. “You’re old enough to be a grandfather—and you live like a teenager! Okay, that’s it,” she announces. “You have to clean up. And I don’t mean just your house. I mean your act.”
“Gee, is this what they call a life intervention?” I quip bleakly under my breath.
“Just what do you bring to this relationship?” she keeps on, in deadly fashion. “Tell me.”
It’s an old tack of hers, and I squirm uncontrollably. It always gets under my skin, this sudden demand for a naked reckoning up of what I take as our “understanding,” our intimate fond recognition that she reminds me of my father, and even my mother too— my parents combined. And I remind her of her doting, adoring grandmother.
Instead of shrugging her off as I normally would, my domestic tactic as holder of the much weaker hand in all this, I’m about to say, goaded and raw, “I dunno—I give you lots of loving,” followed by: “I put up with you.”
But what if she were to answer: “That’s not enough”? I stare at her. I feel the onset of panic. She speaks.
“I’m calling Dave the Declutterer.”
“What? No!” I retort—off balance both in relief she isn’t announcing the death sentence for us, and desperate again at the suggestion of intrusion.
Dave is a professional personal organizer we happen to know socially.
“Yes! Why not?”
“If Dave the Declutterer tries to cross my threshold,” I inform her, bunching my fists, flaring with primitive (adolescent?) rage, “I will attack him physically. I will take care of cleaning myself!”
“I will do it,” I tell her. I blow out a long, harrowed breath. “Do you realize how bad this is?” she says, shaking her head, doubting.
“Yes I do,” I tell her. “I realize I have a really bad problem.”
I spend a very ugly night on the living-room couch. She wants to send me to my place, as she does when she’s truly aggrieved; but I manage to get her to back off, at least on that. It would be too much on the desolation scale for one day.
But I know I have not only a problem, I have a cascading set of them. And I have to fix them. And I am in despair, yet again, because I have no idea how to do this.
* * *
In the Inferno, Dante consigned persons who hoard to the fourth circle of hell.
The fourth circle would get a lot more crowded if you updated it to America today. Or to England, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Japan. And beyond the consumerist developed world as well.
In America between 6 and 12 million—perhaps even as many as 15 million—people, men and women equally, are estimated to suffer from diagnosable hoarding or have severe clutter problems. Fifty cities in seventeen states have chapters of Clutterers Anonymous; the woes of clutter rivet the boggled interest of millions. Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive have been reality TV phenoms—not to mention Oprah’s visits to the topic starting in 2007. There’s a National Association of Professional Organizers with some 4,000 members in the business of helping sort things out. These things, these hoarded objects, famously range from gum wrappers to old cars to cats and dogs—and anything in between and around. Such as my tourist maps, brochures, and café napkins. Or my cherished accumulation of plastic grocery bags.
The condition is not mere bad habits. It churns deep in the mind’s mysteries and the brain’s chemistries. In 1908, Freud famously linked the hoarding of money to the anal stage of childhood development. Toilet training, he argued, is a potentially traumatic experience that can reverberate through life if done badly. By this theory, adults who collect or accumulate things are unconsciously trying to gain back “possessions” they had to yield to the potty many years before. But such “anal” types are also characterized by excessive orderliness; opposites, in fact, of messy characters such as myself.
There’s been progress since Freud—but no real breakthroughs. What exactly makes people hoarders and pack rats is still not fully understood; but it’s been thought for some time to involve an anxiety pathology. Paradoxically it’s been associated with elements of both OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), wherein the extreme, relentlessly accumulated clutter causes distress, but can’t be parted with, and OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder), where the sufferer (your so-called “anal” type) thinks the old worn-out stuff around him or her is fine and dandy, and won’t part with a scrap of it. There are some common traits, too, with variants of autism and the disorganized woes of attention deficit disorder. Half of hoarders and severe clutterers are also thought to suffer from depression. In other words, a fine symptomatic mess.
Increasingly, experts have felt that hoarding deserves its own entry in the DSM, the all-powerful Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
(And indeed, the manual’s latest edition, the DSM-5—published in 2013, two years after my girlfriend’s appearance at my door— does just that. Renamed “hoarding disorder” instead of “compulsive hoarding,” it’s now categorized as one of a group of distinct conditions “related” to OCD and is no longer seen as technically an anxiety problem. [OCD itself has shed its longtime anxiety disorder tag.] What’s more, the new diagnosis for hoarding puts difficulty discarding things, regardless of value, as the condition’s lead symptom, displacing over-acquisition and accumulation. Excess stuff is still a key characteristic, of course. But first emphasis shifts to the struggle against loss—the unwillingness and inability to let go.)
* * *
I went hectically researching on my splotchy-screened laptop, following the confrontation at Cosima’s table. And almost straightaway I came across the work of Drs. Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, a pair of New England psychologists considered leading lights in the dark, recently emerging field of hoarding and clutter. Their book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things would become my bible of sorts. The first reading jarred me. All at once the clutter of conditions I suffered from took on some sense and shape.
Certain symptoms of OCD? Check—I was not a hand-washer, thank you, but I realized how ritualized, how stressfully and demandingly arranged my jumbled apartment weirdly was. Not to mention my checking—and rechecking and rechecking again—that the gas burners were off each time I left the house.
And ADD-like symptoms? Check again. People who hoard, write Frost and Steketee, “are often highly distractible . . . [Their] symptoms make it difficult for them to concentrate on a task without being diverted by other things.”
That was me in spades—along with procrastination, disorganization, and indecisiveness.
A line from Stuff, about emotional attachment to things, struck particularly deep: “The item becomes part of the hoarder’s identity—getting rid of it feels like losing part of one’s self.”
I recognized that, piercingly.
Immersing myself in Stuff, I kept ticking off more diagnostic boxes. The condition usually grows worse with age; hoarders tend to be older rather than younger. Their clutter interferes with normal socializing, prevents intended use of furnishings (read: my bed, chairs, tables) and spaces (read: my dining area, for instance), features many items still in their original wrapping (my scattered caches of postcards, still poignantly in their original packets).
Finally, emotional trauma. It was a common trigger of hoarding behavior. I ticked that box grimly.
Excerpted from "Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act" by Barry Yourgrau. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2015 by Barry Yourgrau. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.