Jeff Nishball admits to a dirty (and cluttered) little secret…
I like to think of myself as someone who is organized and has control over his environment. That is, I like to think of myself that way. But I have a messy little paradox going on behind the scenes.
If you walked into my Manhattan apartment, you would see the unobstructed black shine of an oak table, glistening kempas wood floors, and a visibly tidy home. I have always lived by the motto that a cluttered home is the sign of a cluttered mind.
But if you looked inside my closets, under my bed, or around my desk you’d discover a secret world of hoarding. This was not only the antithesis of the perception I had of myself, it was making me nuts. I was feeling disoriented and anxious. I thought I controlled my stuff, but now, apparently, my stuff was controlling me.
I needed to exorcise the hoarding demon. I would begin the year by finally owning up to it and de-cluttering my life. Though to be honest, I was really hoping to get out of the whole thing if the Mayans hadn’t been so unreliable.
I suppose I’m not technically a hoarder. Hoarders are on reality shows and buried under five-foot mountains of useless, disorganized crap. I just tend to hold on to things past the point of being useful. I’m a holder-onner.
For years I clung to the pile of old magazines, organized by title and year, and stored inside a green rattan Container Store box—just in case I got a yen to re-read the May 2006 issue of New York Magazine. Another box contained stacks of unread articles carefully clipped from their spines and saved for the day I would have the time (or the need) to read them. That most of them are no longer relevant is irrelevant: like Where to Eat in New York Now 2007.
My desk was surrounded by a sea of Ziploc bags—all neatly arranged and stacked—containing scribbled notes and ideas on scraps of paper, like some sort of hieroglyphics. I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote them or what I was trying to communicate, but I held onto them, hoping someday to decipher their code. More plastic bags housed out-of-date maps from old vacations, crinkled credit card receipts, brochures from businesses no longer in business. Under my bed were plastic containers loaded with things I couldn’t even remember.
Just knowing they were there made my world feel better. Like an ex-smoker with a pack of Marlboro Lights in a back drawer, I kept them just in case. In case of what, I’m not exactly sure.
Recently, however, their presence began to turn ugly—growing in mass and devouring my energy, like the 50s horror movie The Blob. Their existence now made me feel off balance and claustrophobic. I found it difficult to focus or see the world clearly. I was holding on to objects and things of the past, which was bogging me down and keeping me from moving forward.
I still had the winter coat I bought in Chicago twelve years ago. As if I thought I might wake up one day and say to myself, “You know, it would be really nice to wear that outdated twelve-year-old boxy black coat with the faded sleeves and torn pocket.” But, what if I really do want to wear it someday? Ah, that’s my crazy dilemma. An eccentric old Jewish woman lives in my head. I think it might be my grandmother, who died when I was nineteen. She used to buy cans of cat food even though she didn’t have a cat. And sanitary napkins. It had been quite a long time since she required them, but it was a good price and you never know when it might come in handy.
For years I bought new shirts without getting rid of the unworn ones. My closet became an impenetrable wall of cotton, wool, and acrylic blends. Most of the shirts belonged to the bygone days of when I worked in an office requiring me to wear such attire. I now wear mostly casual shirts and sweaters, yet I could never bring myself to get rid of the collection that had taken years to build up. The crazy old lady in my head—who, by the way, possesses a hoarse Yiddish inflection and an irritatingly constant cough—said, “Keep them all. You never know.” But you never know turned into 152 shirts—98 long-sleeved, 54 short—arranged by color and season, and all facing in the same direction. More than once I had bought the same shirt twice, blithely unaware I already owned it.
My bedroom closet became so crammed that pulling out a hanger was like sticking my fingers in a vise. I knew that if I was going to open up some space in my life and have an energetic, creative renaissance—and start living with a sense of ease that only uncluttered closets can give—I would have to begin by sacrificing some shirts. But I couldn’t possibly choose which ones would stay and which would find their fate at the bottom of a black, plastic bag and lugged off to Housing Works for donation. I thought I couldn’t live without any of them, regardless that most hadn’t seen the sun in six or seven years. That bold print shirt could still come in handy for a costume party if I ever wanted to go as a bad wallpaper swatch.
I knew hard decisions would have to be made, and I found myself embroiled in a bizarre Sophie’s Choice-like drama.
“Choose!” The little cleaning Nazi in my head was screaming.
I looked over at my blue Ben Sherman with the brown stripes. I could see it looking up at me, its collar moist with tears. “Nooooo! Not Ben,” I thought. The last time it was seen in public was at a screening of Titanic, but still.
“You can’t can carry off a slim-fit shirt anymore,” the voice mocked.
My hand trembled as I clenched the hanger. The little cleaning fascist controlling my left hand wrenched it from the shaking fingers in my right and threw it into the darkness of the black plastic bag. Four horrific hours and three filled bags later, my closet was liberated from the tyranny of textiles.
I was free. I celebrated by immediately going out and buying a new shirt.
Even with my newfound spaciousness, I was distracted. I obsessed over not having had dinner with my 86-year-old aunt that night in Florida a year ago, the resentment I felt toward my now ex-best friend, whether I made the right decision to leave my editor job last year, and my anger that “Fringe” was ending after only five seasons. I had a hundred more like those, which I could cue up at any moment, like selecting a song off a jukebox. Then it hit me. Not only do I hold onto tangible things with mass and substance, I’m also a psychological hoarder—holding on to old resentments, regrets, anger, failures, betrayals, and even memories of bad meals and useless information from Gawker on Lindsay Lohan.
So I added a new item to my Clearing Away The Clutter 2013 To Do List: Get rid of the emotional baggage taking up space in my head.
Alas, there’s no black plastic bag or charity thrift store for that. That requires quite a bit more thought and effort.
I went back to yoga—a discipline I had dropped some years ago—hoping it would get me feeling more centered and balanced, body and soul. But while in the Triangle Pose, as my head was craning to the side, I just kept thinking about how pissed off I was that I got rid of the black jacket. I moved on to meditation, but I didn’t get very far. As I concentrated on my mantra, repeating it in my head, it kept changing from the calming tone of fud-ooo to something I can’t print here. A friend suggested smile therapy—you just sit there and smile to yourself. No comment on that.
I finally figured out it’s not so easy to get rid of emotional clutter. Perhaps, like the physical stuff I accumulated, this psychological litter also comforted me in some twisted oblique way.
Ultimately, I found the best way to beat it was just to live in the present. Which is quite challenging. Especially, when you can’t stop hoarding issues of the past. But it seems to me that being as present as you can with what’s happening right in the moment is the way to go. On my deathbed, I doubt I’ll be thinking, “Damn, I should have held on to that resentment and guilt longer.” So for now I’m doing my best to let everything go and live more in the present—to be in The Now. Okay, so it’s not an original concept; Eckhart Tolle beat me to it. But it’s new for me.
I’m trying to not fill up the spaces, but allow them to remain open, and to reflect and discover while letting go of all those things I thought were important. Perhaps then allowing room for something more rewarding and fulfilling to enter: tranquility, ease, creativity, adventure, and perhaps even a new winter jacket.
Originally appeared at The Weeklings