I Tidied Up, but There’s Still No Joy

Marie Kondo promises joy through decluttering, but what if it only reminds you why you’re sad?

Photo: Morsa Images/Getty Images

ToTo live a happy life, just follow the steps laid out in Marie Kondo’s bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Bluntly summarized: Put all your shit into a pile, pick each item up one by one, and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “yes,” keep it. If the answer is “no,” thank that item for its service and let it go.

That discolored spatula coated with the weird sticky film that’s impossible to wash off? Throw it out. Those underpants with the expanding hole that always seem to be the only pair of underpants you can find when you really, really need to find a clean pair of underpants? Say thanks and toss ’em.

Sure, thanking a pair of busted panties sounds silly — many, many words have been dedicated to just how silly it sounds since Kondo’s book was first published in the United States in 2014 — but Kondo’s process makes sense. Because what’s left after you complete the tedious process? A life free of clutter and full of joy! Theoretically, at least. And like millions of others who read Kondo’s book — it’s sold over 10 million copies worldwide — I couldn’t wait to get started. My life had been consumed by stuff for years.

In late 2013 I moved across the country, away from the only place I’ve ever called home, into a house previously inhabited by a family member with a hoarding problem. It didn’t take long before living amongst the mess — my husband’s and my boxes delivered from Seattle, my father-in-law’s vast collection of nonsensical contraptions ordered from late-night TV, and all the brown recluse spiders who had built their homes in between the foot-high stacks of old mail, magazines, and paperbacks — started to chip away at my mental health.

I’ve lived with depression for most of my life and when it hits, at least in the beginning, I have almost always tried to chase it away by busying my brain with some kind of project. It’s an automatic reflex, even to this day. I’ve baked hundreds of batches of cookies over the course of a couple months. I’ve committed to absurd-at-the-time fitness goals. I’ve challenged myself to listen to every Phil Collins song every waking hour of every day for a week. This time, when my depression reared its head, my plan was to maintain some semblance of normalcy by fixating on Kondo’s advice and a free color-coded checklist I downloaded off some kind of Type A mommy blog.

You know how scientists can estimate how long Earth has existed by studying the layers of sediment leading to its core? Turns out my depression has a geologic time scale, too.

So, my husband and I started to dig through nearly a decade’s worth of existing stuff, as well as our own stuff that we brought with us in the move. We made “keep,” “toss,” and “donate” piles — we filled trash bags and rented dumpsters. (Yes, more than one dumpster.) We donated nearly a dozen trash bags full of linens and clothes, sold hundreds of dollars’ worth of old books back to a local used bookstore, and cheered each other on as we took turns dismantling a heavy-as-fuck and too-broken-to-move-anyway dresser with a sledgehammer.

Have you ever shattered an eight-drawer wooden dresser into kindling with a sledgehammer? I recommend it!

But I still didn’t feel the joy Kondo promised. Four years after moving in, there was still one room we had left untouched: The utility room, aka the room where we threw anything we couldn’t make a quick decision about, aka the room where all the spiders sought refuge when we first started our purge, aka the room I was hoping to eventually just light on fire and leave behind.

The room was small, but its walls were covered, floor to ceiling, with plastic-coated wire shelves. And those shelves were packed with even more items to sort. My joy was in there, somewhere. It had to be. So, one day last September, I blasted Beyoncé and started to dig. Again. Because winners don’t quit on themselves.

What I started to uncover wasn’t just junk, it was evidence.

You know how scientists can estimate how long Earth has existed by studying the layers of sediment leading to its core? Turns out my depression has a geologic timescale, too. These bags — some filled with stuff I had deemed important enough to bring with me in the move, but many of them stuffed with items I had mindlessly accumulated since moving — were the fossils that remained after years of grief, stress, and sadness.

Two years, four deaths. I had buried myself in shiny plastic nonsense.

In a Home Depot bag I found sandpaper, paint swatches, foam paint brushes, and small paper envelopes filled with seeds. I bought them in the spring of 2016, three years after the move, and just weeks after Jim, the beloved editor at the alt-weekly I worked at, collapsed in his office and died. My co-workers and I took turns feeling for a pulse. Someone called 911 while a few of us helped lift his body out of the chair and onto the floor.

The Home Depot bag was my way of saying I wasn’t going to put shit off anymore — I was going to sand off the paint chipping on the front porch railing and plant a garden in the back. I was going to fix up the house, inside and out. I was going to fix me up, inside and out.

Clearly, I never made any progress.

When Joe died the following summer, I had turned to the Container Store for retail therapy. Several of those bags were in the utility room, too. My husband had known Joe for years — Joe was his boss and his friend. Joe always enthusiastically told me to start a food truck, to bake cupcakes for the world. He was everyone’s cheerleader, even when his spine was literally crumbling from tumors. I bought a container for every ingredient — flour, sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, chocolate chips. I was going to organize my kitchen and bake my way through this, something that had worked for me in the past. The kitchen was going to smell of vanilla and butter, cozy scents to comfort me, to comfort my grieving husband.

But… it didn’t work this time.

The winter after we lost Joe, Everett died. Everett, the son of my first and best friends in Nashville, was born with a heart defect and was not quite three months old when he died. He was a warrior with the chubbiest cheeks you’ve ever seen and, when he was gone, I staved off complete emotional breakdowns with multiple trips to Michaels, the chain craft store. The receipts in the still-full bags were proof that I’d spent hundreds of dollars on glitter-covered papers, photo corners, fancy glues, and stick-on letters that I never once used.

Bringing all this shit into my home didn’t fix anything, but neither did getting rid of it all.

The plan had been to make hilariously tacky holiday-themed postcards to send to friends back home, even to acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to in years. I was going to ensure no friend of mine ever felt that kind of pain or loss again. I was going to ensure that I never felt that kind of pain or loss again.

Bags of goods kept revealing themselves as I dug.

An Ulta bag from last summer, the summer Alex died, held three sheet face masks I don’t remember buying; a Target bag overflowed with all the makings of care packages I never sent my nephews.

To see it all in one place now was overwhelming, but all these things, at one point, did spark joy. They were my way out, my quick fix, my light at the end of the tunnel. These were the promises I made to be a better friend, wife, daughter, and human while temporarily escaping reality amongst uniform shelves of consumerism glowing under fluorescent lights.

Every item in these bags was my attempt to ensure nothing else in my life would crack and if it did, I’d fill it with some caulk — which I found in another Home Depot bag, despite not owning a caulking gun.

Bringing all this shit into my home didn’t fix anything, but neither did getting rid of it all. Kondo’s method is imperfect. A clutter-free life isn’t magic, and it isn’t always life-changing. After uncovering all those bags, I did end up organizing my kitchen and putting some of those containers to good use, but a meticulous pantry has not kept me from missing my dead friends, and drawers full of methodically folded T-shirts have not kept me from lying awake at night wondering who’s next.

So if you need some brand-new plastic filing containers, unopened home improvement supplies, and enough glitter paper to cover your walls, there’s a Goodwill in West Nashville that’s well-stocked and ready for you. I threw my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in the donation bag, too.

But, trust me, if any of those items spark joy, even for a moment, just know: None of them will save you.

Megan Seling is a writer and author in Nashville, TN. Human Parts, Nashville Scene, The Stranger, Livability, Rookie, Wondering Sound, & more.

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