The mess he made: A life-long slob decides it's time to get organized

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Sunday, June 13, 2010

My parents recall that my teenage room was such a disaster, the piles of clothes and old newspapers so high, that our dog Ozzie considered it equivalent to the back yard and used it accordingly. Ozzie was clever enough to open closed doors, so my parents installed a chain lock on the outside. The chain naturally prompted questions from visitors, the most tactful being: "Why are you locking your son away?"

Nearly 20 years later, my high school girlfriend cannot shake the memory of being surrounded by my piles. "I remember your room smelling so bad I would seriously breathe out of my mouth until I could somewhat get used to it," she told me when I tracked her down on Facebook. "I can't describe it, but I'm sure if I did one of those tests with a blindfold, I could pick it out even to this day. Maybe a mixture of old sneakers and dirty clothes and rotting food all mixed together."

My parents once moved all of my stuff to the front lawn, hoping the embarrassment would reform me. Ingenious. Didn't work.

My problems accelerated after I left for college. My freshman roommate, who eventually became one of my closest friends, only recently told me that he had requested, but was denied, a roommate change after he was unable to safely walk from one end of our room to the other without slipping on a pile of newspapers, magazines, books or unopened mail.

Living alone made matters worse. When I was in graduate school, burglars stole a laptop from my apartment. The detectives, two women who reminded me of Cagney and Lacey, took only a few seconds to offer their first investigative finding: "Wow, your place really got ransacked." I explained that nothing in the apartment had been touched, including stacks of several years' worth of newspapers, and that I hadn't cleaned up because I had wanted to preserve fingerprint evidence.

There was silence. Then one of the detectives said, "We're calling your mother."

I said, "She knows."

You may be surprised to learn that I am married. I should confess that my wife, Megan, was not briefed on any of these tales when we first met in Boston, and I made sure she didn't learn of my special qualities until I had charmed her extensively. "I felt you kind of deceived me when we first met," she told me recently. "You had your car professionally cleaned, a friend picked out your clothes, and you even hired a maid to clean your apartment before I came over the first time."

For reasons I still can't totally explain, she not only agreed to move with me to Maryland a few years later but also said yes, without a twitch, when I proposed.

Still, she wondered. "I remember going through your books before we moved," she said, "and finding two or three copies of the same book. Who does that?"

Megan's question led me to confront myself: Am I, as she puts it, the laziest, most nauseating slob in modern U.S. history? Or is something else going on -- something more complicated?

Am I a hoarder?

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