“Why would you keep a dead cellphone?” my boyfriend asks, exasperated, as we jointly clean my room after multiple promises by me to do so, none of which I’ve kept.
I have no good answers for him, because our approaches to our stuff are so different, it’s like speaking a foreign language. How can I convey that it’s the phone I once used to interview Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, one of my favorite bands, and therefore has sentimental value? Or that I don’t ask myself why I would keep a given item, but instead, why I’d get rid of it. That goes for stray earrings that have lost their partners, dresses that don’t fit but might someday, printed out e-mails from exes, kettleballs, two years of magazines, free pens, lip balms, mini chocolates, a tea diffuser, granola bars, nail polish, journals, stuffed animals, blankets, Post-its, stamps, and that whiteboard I haven’t gotten around to hanging up. You name it, I have it (and have probably held on to it for seven years). Often, it feels like we’re in a three-way relationship with my stuff, and not the good kind of three-way.
My boyfriend learned I was a hoarder three years ago, after our first few dates. I told him that I would go to his place in New Jersey, but my Brooklyn apartment was off limits. He was the first person I ever dated who was okay with that arrangement. I had exes who were offended that I wouldn’t show them where I lived; they didn’t realize I was afraid they’d break up with me if they saw my bare mattress on the ground, buried under piles of books, papers, computer equipment and sex toys. (I’m a sex columnist who often receives products to test out, so I have more of these goodies than the typical hoarder.) In my eight years of living alone, I’d turned my two-bedroom home into a fortress fortified with piles so deep I had to slam my body against the door to get inside. When my last roommate moved out, instead of creating the home office I’d dreamed of, I let the empty room be swallowed by stuff — and I liked it that way.
He took it in stride, along with all my other quirks. He can make me laugh so hard I have to pee, whips up homemade pasta and looks like a giant teddy bear, so I accepted his more minimal approach to possessions.
Then we decided to move into together.
Just to be clear — I didn’t go out of my way to accumulate items. I didn’t have to; they found me. I kept everything — theater playbills, cards from my grandmother, old bras and makeup, lone shoes, a giant martini glass I won playing bingo. I even had a fax machine, though I don’t have a land line. I didn’t mind having to wade through mini mountains to get to the bathroom, because who was I hurting? Even when a momentary desire to “get organized” would strike, I couldn’t fathom where to start, so I just made do. As long as I had my glasses, keys and laptop, I was fine.
But when I decided to move in with my obsessively neat boyfriend, I knew I’d have to make some compromises. As I started to pack, unearthing everything from souvenirs to my law school zine to decade-old sex toys covered in dust, I found out exactly who I was hurting: me. My normally mild asthma kicked into high gear, making me wheeze around the clock. Eventually, with the help of a trash removal service, I got my old place cleared out, and vowed to myself and my boyfriend: never again.
But “never” happened far sooner than I expected, or wanted, much to my dismay. Hoarding is not a hobby; I don’t wake up in the morning and think, I’m going to do some hoarding today. It’s a mindset, a way of life, one that I believe I was born with. So though I’d promised to change, I didn’t suddenly become a different person when we moved into a new place together.
We agreed that given my hoarding and his minimalism, separate bedrooms were a must. I assumed that would solve our problems; he’d have his Zen space, I’d have my hoarder version of inner peace, and we’d navigate our shared spaces. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. My stuff has gotten in the way in both the literal and figurative senses more times than I can count.
Whereas I’ll keep an old pair of glasses, not because I plan to use them again, but because I remember wearing them when I traveled to Dubai, he has no such sentimentality and has little patience with mine. When objects begin to accumulate on my bedroom floor, he asks, “Do you want to go back to the way you lived before?” The answer is no; I never want to hit that rock bottom where I couldn’t breathe, where I felt like my stuffed owned me. But I’ve yet to find a happy medium. Even when I can admit that I own too many things for my living space, when faced with each individual item, parting with them pains me.
Since moving in together two years ago, our biggest fights have centered on what to keep and what to toss. I own more than a thousand books and acquire them faster than I can donate them. Those 36 boxes of books, which our movers blamed for weighing down the moving truck, now sit in our basement, a recurring source of drama. I regularly get scolded for not going through them. Even though they’re out of sight, they are never out of his mind.
“You don’t even know which books they are. I could get rid of them, and you would have no idea,” he told me recently. But that’s not true. Not a week goes by that I don’t wish I had those books easily accessible to quote from a beloved passage. I just haven’t gotten around to unpacking them.
I also have trouble parting with clothes, no matter how ragged. “You have so many panties,” he exclaimed when he saw that my 100-plus pairs of underwear took up three dresser drawers. “Do you wear them all?”
“I try to,” I told him. Secretly, while he was at work, I examined my collection of intimates and realized that “try to” wasn’t actually true — plenty of pairs only get worn when everything else is dirty. Yet I’m reluctant to part with the stragglers. It feels wrong to get rid of something you can’t regift or donate.
When I try to explain this, my guy just looks at me like I’m crazy. “They’re panties,” he says. “They’re not made to last forever. You can always get more.” What he doesn’t understand is that I don’t want more, per se, of anything in particular; I want the things I already own. I’ve worked to earn the money to buy them, or have invested enough emotion into the ones given to me, that to say goodbye feels like I’m giving up a part of myself. I’ll do it, but only if I absolutely have to.
Our hoarding arguments rarely threaten our relationship, but they do feel more momentous than fights about forgetting to call when I’m late or eating the leftovers he wanted to take to work. I feel threatened when it feels like I’m being “forced” to throw things out, which makes me lash out. The fact that these arguments recur means we haven’t truly dealt with the underlying issue to our mutual satisfaction. Even though I don’t want to give up my stuff, I know if we have the baby I’m hoping we will in the next year, I’ll have to make more of an effort.
Sometimes I have to laugh at how absurdly different our values are. A few weeks ago, I came across our stash of holiday cards, which had been displayed prominently in our living room, in the recycling bin. I promptly removed them from the bin, leaving them on the stairs to remind myself to put them away. When he discovered my repossession of what he considered garbage, he was horrified. “What are you going to do with all those cards?” he said.
“Save them. People sent them to us personally. They have family photos. Of course I want to keep them,” I responded.
“But we’ll get new ones next year.”
“But they won’t be the same as these.”
We have many such circular conversations, which often wind up at an impasse. He’s never tried to outright discard my things when I’m out of the house, though he threatens to each time I travel without him. Having so many objects in our home genuinely bothers him, probably in equal measure to the comfort I get from it. When he softens his stance and lets me keep something, like the Mac Color Classic I bought as a 17-year-old college freshman — the one whose power cords are long lost, the one I haven’t turned on in over a decade — I know he is overcoming every decluttering urge he has to give me something I want, no matter how illogical it seems.
I never want him to feel like I value my stuff over him; that’s not how I see it, and I hate being forced to choose. If he gave me an ultimatum — an extreme clutter makeover where I’d have to pare my life down to 100 things, a common minimalist goal — or lose him as my partner, I’d like to think I’d choose him. I probably would, but losing my stuff would break my heart in its own way.
Still, I’m trying to let go, of my stuff and my stubbornness, more often, mostly because I know how important it is to him. He loves me unconditionally, but he truly would hate it if I had to barrel my way into my bedroom. Merging a hoarder mentality with a minimalist one has meant we’ve both had to sacrifice, which I hope will strengthen our relationship. I know he appreciates the effort it takes every time I toss an old T-shirt or notebook, and I value his willingness to allow me to move at my own pace when it comes to purging. And there has been progress. We now keep our large collection of sex toys in its own neat drawer. I use my bookcase rather than turning my bed into a library. I’m going to toss my MacBook Pro that died last summer. Baby steps I can manage.
His birthday is this week. I’m toying with the idea of wrapping that ancient cellphone, handing it to him, and letting him do with it as he wishes. For a hoarder, that’s true love.