This Keto Life: A Little Bit of Sweet

I go through phases where I bake a lot. It’s not because I have an extraordinary love of baking – I wish I did. It’s because I like baked goods, and I can’t just go out and buy baked goods that I can eat. If I want muffins, or cheesecake, or biscuits, I have to make them myself. There’s just no way around it.

I have a pantry stocked with almond meal, coconut flour, xanthan gum, arrowroot powder and all the accoutrements of a low-carb and wheat-free life. I do actually have sugar in my pantry, but that’s basically in case visitors want sugar in their coffee (never let it be said that I will not assist in the appropriate caffeination of guests).

I’m aware that, in terms of chemical precision, I do not lead a sugar-free life. Raspberries contain sugars. Many things contain very low level of sugars in some form, and naturally any carbohydrate I consume (digestible carbohydrate, that is) will get broken down into sugars eventually. Fructose, lactose, glucose, sucrose – they’re all around in low levels. I don’t get rid of them completely.

When a person gets into ketosis, however, and maintains it for a while – getting past the usual carb cravings and need for chocolate or biscuits or whatever a person’s particular sweet poison is – they generally notice a profound change in the way they taste things: they become more sensitive to sweet tastes.

Or, to put it another way, just about everything with an un-altered level of sugar (think biscuits, cakes, chocolates, lollies) tastes way too sweet. Nauseatingly sweet. I had a mouthful of regular Coke at one point; it tastes like someone had poured crude oil into a vat of syrup and then carbonated the lot. It was intolerable. It was nauseating. And this is from someone who occasionally drinks Diet Coke (mmm, aspartame. But more on that later).

I still craved biscuits and cakes, however, but when I sat down and thought about it carefully, I realised it wasn’t really the sweet taste I was craving – oh, I wanted a little bit of sweet, but mostly what I wanted was the textures. The crumbly, chewy texture of a really good choc chip cookie; the smooshy filling and crumbly base of a cheesecake; the flaky, fluffy choux pastry of an éclair; these are things I wanted. I wanted textures, with a little sweet, and the other associated flavours.

Enter: artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners get a lot of flack. They’re blamed for everything from cancer to migraines to gut flora disruptions to laxative effects, and to be fair, these associations are (with the exception of cancer) pretty airtight for people who have these responses.

I can announce that I’m looking forward to making a low-carb sugar-free raspberry cheesecake (it is amazing), and I’ve had the response “Ugh. Why would you want to?”

Uh… because then I can eat cheesecake without getting sick? Why, is this rocket science?

I can’t help but think this is how vegans feel when someone says “Ugh, vegan cake, why would you eat that?” Because they want to eat cake without consuming animal products? This is not a difficult question. Also, even though I am a person who consumes vast quantities of dairy, eggs and meat, I’ve had some pretty delicious vegan cakes.

As a side note here, can I ask that people not do that? If someone tells you they’re excited because they are having delicious vegan cake or low-carb protein cookies, can you just not act like it’s disgusting and awful and like you feel massively sorry for them? They’ve found tasty food they can eat. Just be happy for them. Be nice about it. Don’t be a douchebag.

These days, when I serve people slices of my low-carb sugar-free raspberry cheesecake (now that I’ve perfected it, that is; initially I made some hilarious mistakes and it tasted like bicarb soda and licorice. Ugh), they make happy noises; and if they didn’t know it contained stevia, I tell them, and they are flabbergasted. Well, if they had any preconceptions about stevia and non-sugar sweeteners, at any rate.

I’ve learned, over the last year or so (two years in November!), a little bit about artificial sweeteners and how to use them successfully, and which ones I, personally, can and cannot tolerate. I am a connoisseur of sweeteners. Allow me to share my (admittedly idiosyncratic) experience.

When it comes to sugar alcohols: I can’t tolerate maltitol. My gut says no. There is bloating. My belly puffs out like a white marshmallow. It looks like I am pregnant with a little maltitol baby. It is very uncomfortable. So no, even in small amounts, no maltitol for me. Sadly, this cuts out the majority of mass-produced low-carb sugar-free snacks – they all use maltitol. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s easy to work with. Maybe it’s cheap. It has – to me – a horrendous aftertaste. But some people tolerate it just fine. It has the highest glycaemic index of any artificial sweetener, which may be a concern for people attempting to maintain ketosis.

I can sort of tolerate xylitol. Xylitol (birch bark extract) is very popular among the keto and low-carb and I Quit Sugar crowd, as it’s a one-for-one swap. This is really quite convenient for baking purposes. It turns out that I am okay with xylitol in small quantities; not “chocolate mug cake” quantities. Don’t ask how I know. You don’t want to know how I know. But never again. Many people are good with xylitol, and it has a moderate GI response.

I can definitely tolerate stevia. Mind you, I did try liquid stevia for a while, and I am sad to say that I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I can’t handle the backtaste. Instead, I use a powdered blend of stevia and erythritol (Natvia). Erythritol is generally not absorbed by the gut, so it has a fairly negligible impact on blood sugar, and although it has a slightly cold taste that some people are bothered by, I generally don’t get a stevia backtaste when I bake with it. Natvia is actually my baking sweetener of choice.

Sucralose – Splenda – is a funny one. I didn’t used to tolerate it well – it seemed to send my blood sugar up – but now it doesn’t? Perhaps I misunderstood what was going on? Who knows! Regardless, I’ve done a few tests, and I’m actually fine with it, to the point that I now carry around little Splenda tablets to add to tea when I’m out. I don’t add sugar to coffee, but when I have tea I really like a little bit of sweetener in it, and Splenda does the trick nicely. It doesn’t work well in coffee. Maybe that’s because I’m a coffee snob. It seems to add a weird tang to the coffee. Still – fine in tea.

Aspartame – oh, poor aspartame. Maligned. Shown to – apparently – cause cancer in rats in large quantities. Very large quantities. I’m really not sure where the science falls – up and down and back and forth. It’s bad for you. It’s not bad for you. It’s bad for rats. It’s only bad for small rats. What? Honestly, at this point, I don’t care. I seem to tolerate it well and don’t get headaches, so I drink it in Diet Coke when I have a craving. I can’t have a lot of it – mostly because, to me, it tastes too sweet (yes, it’s a sweetener. Shaddap).

The final sweetener I consume in any quantity is sorbitol, another sugar alcohol. It’s the key ingredient in my “No Sugar Added” Vanilla Ice Cream (Peters). It turns out I can tolerate the amount in a standard (50g) serve of the ice cream. If I go wild, and have a double serve (100g), the binge will have consequences. Unpleasant consequences, much like the xylitol.

This really covers most of them (I haven’t covered “acesulfame K” because even though I found out I consume it, I haven’t noticed any real pros/cons, and I forget what it’s in). Essentially, I don’t have the headache/migraine response to any of them, and mostly if my body objects, it objects in a gut-oriented sort of way, although occasionally it objects in a blood glucose insulin spike sort of way.

All of which are way better for me than consuming “pure, natural” sugar (“Why don’t you just have sugar?” “BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE BEING SICK, YOU KNOB.”). When it comes right down to it, I don’t give a crap how “natural” my food is. I care whether it will make me sick or not. Given that so many foods make me feel sick, that has to be my primary concern. Having found a diet that doesn’t make me sick, I’m pretty happy.

I do, however, have one extra tip for anyone embarking on the sugar-free baking journey: use less sweetener than the recipe calls for. If you’re keto-tastic, your palate has probably adjusted, and the last thing you want is to overwhelm it with sweet tastes you’re not used to. Also, a lot of these sweeteners do have some sort of backtaste, and you don’t want that to overwhelm the deliciousness of your cakes and biscuits!

Generally speaking, I use half to 2/3 the amount of sweetener the recipe calls for (if it’s an American recipe, it’s closer to half – you guys have one hell of a sweet tooth!). This can be a bit problematic if it’s a powdered sweetener and you’re also using it for bulk, but a bit of trial and error should resolve the issue.

Then, at the end of it all, you get the little indulgences that make it possible to live with a restrictive diet like keto – and you get a little bit of sweet.

Pro drugs! Drugs for me!

I am pro-drugs.

That’s right. All the “chemicals” (even water!) for me. All the unpronounceable names (spoiler: I can pronounce them. That was my favourite part of organic chemistry). All the warning labels. All the little pills.

Get them in mah belly.

(not literally. Some of them go into your blood vessels, or your muscle, and let’s be honest: the warning labels are not edible. Although I’m sure you could make a warning label out of icing. You could write “Toxic – Do Not Eat” in icing and that would be hilarious)

I’m not sure if this is an unusual stance. The rest of the world – or at least, those portions of the world with which I interact on a regular basis – seems to be outright anti-drug.

There are good reasons for this. Drug abuse is a real problem in the real world with real consequences and real awful crime and death and suffering. My custodial parent had (still has, by all reports, but we don’t speak) a substance abuse problem. It’s a fucking ugly thing to live with and to see, and she was functional. There was no vomiting or passing out. She paced herself. Like a pro. And it was still awful.

I’ve written another post about the anti-medication stance and how, since I am an evolutionary disaster, I interpret that stance as wanting me, personally, to be dead. This is coming from a slightly different angle.

This was inspired by the recent realisation that I have an interesting knee-jerk response when a friend has an even vaguely medical problem. I always want to help my people; I want to solve problems; I can step back and listen to a whinge if someone just wants a helpful ear, but my instinct – if someone is not feeling well – is to offer them drugs. Anti-histamines. Painkillers. Whatever I have on hand.

As it happens, I have a lot on hand.

I’m a walking pharmacy. A few months ago, the little snaplock bag in my backpack was stuffed with the following things:

  • paracetamol/acetominophen (for the U.S.ians out there)
  • ibuprofen
  • Voltaren (diclofenac)
  • Naprogesic (naproxen)
  • Telfast (fexofenadine – an anti-histamine)
  • Codral (cold and flu pills with pseudoephedrine)
  • Ibuprofen + codeine (over the counter – 10 mg codeine per tablet)
  • Paracetamol + codeine (over the counter – 8 mg codeine per tablet)
  • Panadeine Forte (prescription – 30 mg per tablet)

I also have a standing prescription for what I call “horse pill antibiotics” (Augmentin Duo Forte) in case of rapid abscess accumulation (and sometimes they come up fast), I keep Kwells (seasickness tablets) in the glove box (I don’t get seasick – they’re for dive buddies and Husband), and I have a stash of really good sleeping pills (two different kinds). My GPs trust me not to abuse any of these prescriptions or stashes, and I reward that trust by only taking these drugs when I think I really need them.

I actually don’t take most of these very often.

The hayfever (for which I take Telfast) only kicked in a few years ago. It turns out you can reach the ripe old age of thirty-two years with a sense of smug reilef that you don’t get hayfever, and then it can all fall apart in one bad pollen season. I usually only take the Telfast on high pollen days when I want to go for a run (my favourite running track has some lovely wattles planted nearby. Beautiful golden blooms like sunlight drifting down onto the track, such that everyone in a 50 yard radius swells up like a sponge).

The Voltaren, ibuprofen and Naprogesic have been kicked out of the stash as these belong to a class of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and if you have Crohn’s, they can trigger a flare. I don’t have a solid diagnosis, so in theory I could take them, but I’d prefer to avoid it. The really frustrating thing is that they are really good for muscle pain (hypermobility) and period pain and general headaches. I do tend to wander around with Voltaren emulgel; external application is unlikely to cause me problems.

The plain paracetamol has been kicked out as it does basically nothing for me. If the pain is of the level and type that will be helped by paracetamol, I won’t feel it. I am not kidding. The only reasons for me to take paracetamol are (1) to amplify the effect of endone if I am in severe post-surgery pain or (2) to reduce a fever. In which case I am unlikely to be out and about, so I can just raid the bathroom cabinet – I don’t need it in my “walking pharmacy” stash.

But the Codral, Panadeine, Panadeine Forte and Telfast remain in my stash. If I do end up needing them, I tend to need them right now.

(as a side note, while I tend to offer people drugs, I don’t offer prescription drugs. I would never give someone Panadeine Forte unless they already have a prescription for it and have left theirs at home for some reason)

What all this means is that I am a self-medicator par excellence.

I am on regular SSRIs and the Pill as well. I don’t see antidepressants as a weakness; I see them as a great tool for preventing me taking a voluntary header from the third floor (they do not, however, do anything for my gallows humour, which continues to make people very uncomfortable). I take fish oil (for inflamed joints), multi-vitamins (long story), vitamin D, Metamucil and probiotics. All supplements have been recommended to me by medical professionals given my diet and weird digestive issues (and, in the case of Vitamin D, skin tone and the resulting tendency to avoid being out in the sun lest I burst into flames).

So it does hurt a little bit – just a little, even though perhaps it shouldn’t – when I see this constant message out and about in the world: “People take too many drugs. We should just have a good diet!” (kale will totally cure my autoimmune issues) and “I will beat this thing without medication because I am strong!” (because I am terribly weak for taking Zoloft?) and “People don’t face up to things these days, they just take drugs!” (I face up to agonising pain and then I take the drugs. In that order.)

Even Lily Allen – a pop artist for whom I do have a bit of respect – pissed me off with the lines “You’ve got a prescription, so that makes it legal / I find the excuses overwhelmingly feeble.” Well, fuck you, Allen. Fuck you in your self-righteous face. “Your daughter’s depressed / we’ll get her straight on the Prozac / he doesn’t know / she already takes crack.” Yeah, okay, that’s a possible contraindication right there – but are we saying that drug addicts don’t deserve to have their depression treated? I realise the issue is complicated, but fuck.

I am tired of hearing drugs and medications demonised. “Don’t take supplements, just eat a Healthy Well-Balanced Diet!” Well, brainiac, my digestive system can’t tolerate your well-balanced fucking diet, so I take supplements. That way I get to avoid agonising gut pain and I also get to not have a vitamin deficiency! So much win!

“You shouldn’t need drugs to be happy! Just meditate!” I am not certain this even deserves the kind of vicious response of which I am capable.

I’ve always felt this way, but it’s taken on a new spin recently.

The twist is this: pain.

I’ve had numerous surgeries for abscesses, and they always send me home with a stash of Panadeine Forte (see above). However, my pain tolerance is very high, and for whatever reason, I don’t have a lot of pain after those surgeries. The abscesses themselves are sources of agony. The surgery – if I can’t get an OR and end up having it under a local (there’s now enough scar tissue that this is no longer an option – I just stay in the hospital until an OR is available – but it used to be more of a toss-up, and I used to push for locals over generals) – is mind-meltingly painful. Post-surgery? No worries. Some discomfort, but mostly I’m fine.

So I ended up with high-dose codeine sitting in my drawer.

Every now and again – at first it was only a couple of times a year, but it’s more frequent these days – I would get agonising gut pain. Like being stabbed. It was bad enough to cause greying vision and falling over. My legs would collapse under me. On one memorable occasion, I’m reasonably sure that the only reason I didn’t pass out was because I was carrying a gel to be visualised, and goddamn if I was going to drop it and have to repeat an hour’s work when I was already in the lab at 8 pm. I am nothing if not bloody-minded.

It’s never been diagnosed (working on it). It’s not gallstones. It’s not kidney stones. It’s not any number of other things that have been checked. It just happens.

And, since I had them there, I took my Panadeine Forte for it. Codeine slows peristalsis (the muscular movements of your intestines, shifting partially digested stool around). This means that, not only do you experience the narcotic effect of pain relief, but, if your gut is the source of your pain, it will ease on a mechanical level. I felt horrendously guilty for using the prescription painkillers that had been prescribed for a different issue, but it was the only thing that helped. I would take them, and sleep for a couple of hours, and wake up feeling a lot better – sore on the inside, like my intestines were so much tenderised meat, and not wanting to eat much, but better.

That’s been the story of my Forte useage. In recent times, I would go to doctors and ask for a prescription, explaining with many disclaimers that I really only take it when I need it, because I was terrified of being labelled a drug-seeker. And that terror meant it took me much longer to be comfortable asking for what I needed.

Where did that terror come from?

Oh, that’s right. This demonisation of drugs, combined with having had a parent with a substance abuse problem.

In the not-too-distant past, before my chronic health issues blew up (the last couple of years), I could make a box of 20 last for over a year. I’ve actually had to throw out expired boxes. Even the most wary GP laughs when I explain how long a box would last me, and would then gently say that they’re not worried about my “drug-seeking” behaviour. This reassures me, but I still worry.

I’ve been reluctant to take them for a number of reasons. Firstly, the worry about addiction – I don’t have an addictive personality (I have an obsessive personality, but that’s not the same thing), but brain chemistry is brain chemistry, and chemical dependency is theoretically possible for everyone. Secondly, the fear of building up a tolerance: if these are the only readily accessible painkillers that work, I want them to actually work. I want my brain to gurgle and fall over when I take them.

Thirdly – and this is the interesting one of late – the issue of functionality. That much codeine makes me dopey and fuzzy. I am suffused with a sense of euphoric well-being, I think happily about how lucky I am to know the wonderful people that I do, and how nice my house is, and how pretty the forest is, and all this is quite pleasant. I also get sleepy.

Quite obviously, I can’t drive. I’m also not in a position to be able to write a paper or run an analysis. I certainly shouldn’t sign any paperwork in that state. I know that when I take the painkillers, I’m taking myself out of the usefulness stakes for a wee while.

This has changed recently.

I’ve noticed a very odd occurrence, recently, and it’s that – when the pain is severe enough – I actually concentrate better when full of codeine. I’ll recluntantly take my panadeine forte after much unhappy internal debate, feeling (however irrationally) like a failure for not being able to tough it out, expecting to have to work much harder mentally to get my work done, and I find that, hang on, now that I’m not in pain… I can stand up straight. I walk better. My muscle activation is better. Instead of being wonky, I walk in such a way that my physio and podiatrist would be hard-put to criticise my form. My core muscles do what they are supposed to. I can concentrate on what I am doing. Even though I am high on codeine.

This is because there is a point where chronic pain is so distracting, and so destructive, even though it’s not acute stabbing agony pain, that you can’t focus. You can’t get things done. You can’t move your body properly. I can actually be in this much pain for a while and not consciously notice, because of my wonky pain processing.

I am mesmerised by this realisation – that the pain is worse than I thought it was, and that sometimes I function better on prescription painkillers than off them. It is exactly the opposite of what I would expect. I’m finishing this blog post a few days after my surgery, and I’m currently on a full dose of forte, and it still hurts to sit up, but I’m able to converse, and concentrate, even though taking deep breaths is awful. I’m able to write, and structure sentences. I worry that this functionality is related to me building up a tolerance to codeine (and the fact that I’m still in pain might contribute to that conclusion), but it’s a strange eye-opener for me.

I don’t want to take the painkillers. I would rather not take them. It’s hard for me to admit I’m in pain, to admit that there is something about me that is so broken it hurts all the time. I have so many objections to taking them.

But that’s how it works for now. And all the fluffy, organic, natural-living, anti-“Pharma” rhetoric can’t take away my pain the way the pills can.

So I take them.

The Mighty DeCluttering Project and that KonMari book

I have had quite the obsession over the past few weeks.

I tend towards hyperfocus on projects – I work a lot better when I have one major task to focus on rather than several little tasks. This is one reason why I have to set aside specific times for “deal with emails and committee work” otherwise my current Super Project will just steamroller everything.

My obsession is decluttering. And reorganising. And tidying.

My obsession – to those not currently blessed with access to my excessively voluminous Facebook presence – may come as a surprise. I’m not generally a domestically inclined person. I like things to be nice and clean and organised – and food mess makes me gag – but I’m rarely willing to put in much effort to make that happen (except for cleaning up food mess, because of the gagging).

Partly due to my natural character, and partly due to my chronic illness / fatigue load, my response to an unmade bed is usually “Well, bugger” and falling into it face first; my response to a pile of clean laundry is generally “yup, it’ll fit” and shoving it into the drawer in whatever way manageable; and my response to clutter on my desk getting in my way is to open the nearest drawer and shovel it in. Life is too short to waste time being neat.

That has often been how I roll. Eventually the clutter and the crap and the chaos (ooh, alliteration!) builds up to a point where I crack. I can almost feel it happen. There’s a little snap in my brain, as of the high E string on an acoustic guitar snapping, a little “ting!” followed by whiplash and a sting on your hand and suddenly everything must be just so or so help me God I will fucking end you. And I go on a cleaning warpath, until my energy runs out, which is usually about six hours. Anything not tidied, organised, washed or thrown out after six (very intense) hours hits a “Meh” button.

Given this tendency, I seem to be the kind of person for whom the KonMari book (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising” by Marie Kondo) was specifically written. Too lazy to maintain a complex environment to a high standard, but desperate to have a simple environment to deal with? That’s me. All me.

I admit I was skeptical at first as to how a book could teach me to tidy – isn’t that like teaching me to wash my hair? Who doesn’t know how to tidy? – but after recommendations from two very different friends, I caved.

Apparently, the answer to “Who doesn’t know how to tidy?” is “pretty much freaking everyone.” Apparently, there is a way to tidy your house that means you don’t have to do it over and over again – so you avoid “rebound”, as Ms Kondo refers to it.

The number of times Husband and I have rolled up our sleeves and sorted out our house, and then looked at it with sighs of satisfaction and declared determinedly that now we will keep it this way are uncounted. We both respond badly to mess. It makes us irritable and depressed and makes it hard to concentrate on any task at hand. We both have a habit of removing to a café or a library to work when our own space is disordered (or even if we just need a change of scene, to be honest, but in my case there is often a stylised “I am an artiste! I cannot work under zese conditions!” response).

And I’ve been slowly becoming aware over the past few years that we have too much crap. Way too much crap. Ludicrous amounts of crap for two people with no kids. We moved from a medium sized flat to a large-ish house with lots of storage to a much smaller house with almost no storage and in that time my Mum moved into a retirement village and suddenly I had to deal with all the crap I’d been stashing at her place and that process has wreaked some havoc upon us.

So what’s the basic secret of this KonMari decluttering method? What are the key features that prevent what the author refers to as “rebound” and what I refer to as “wait a minute, didn’t we tidy this two weeks ago”?

As near as I can tell, there are basically two broad issues (there are other details that I shall delight in writing about, but these are the take home messages).

  1. You have too much shit and you don’t even like most of it that much

KonMari does not phrase it this way. She is very polite. This is Kate-phrasing. This describes about thirty combined years of Kate-and-Husband shit, brought from various sharehouses over the years and acquired as gifts with good intentions and love or just somehow accumulating and breeding over time (three pocket knives? What are they, self-cloning?). This is study notes, conference programs, birthday cards, old essays, records, two record players (one defunct), old computer software and games (floppy discs, people. I’m not even kidding), soft toys, knick-knacks (“And the dust. OH THE DUST.”), worlds of excess clothing, manchester (how many towels?!), board games that we never play (some we fully intend to), DVDs from childhood, jewellery that I never wear, posters we will never put up (but in that process we have found some to set aside for framing).

In short, I have filled our car – a Subaru Forester, no less – five times with things to be taken to the charity shop (I like Parents Without Partners in our community) or the transfer station. This includes the passenger seat. I actually put a seatbelt around boxes, leaving only enough space for me to actually drive the car, and see out the side view windows. The seatbelt is there to prevent bags and boxes from toppling and also to prevent my safety conscious car from shouting at me to belt in my “passenger” (I call him “Mr Crap”).

I have found a local muso to take my Rolling Stone and Audio Tech magazines; Husband is certain he can find someone to enjoy the old Hyper magazines we have (they’re in excellent condition); and, after seeing what they go for, I plan to sell my N64 on eBay.

Basically, it’s impossible to keep a space tidy when it is full of shit. So we need to get rid of that excess shit. That turns out to be about 90% of the work. The “KonMari” method recommends focusing, not on deciding what to discard, but on deciding what to keep. The things you keep are supposed to “spark joy”. I feel this is a bit too specific, and ignores things that do not spark joy but which are necessary, otherwise our horrendous electric stove would be sitting on the nature strip, alongside two boxes of tampons and three bottles of insect repellent, but it’s basically a good principle. Due to cash flow issues combined with weight loss, I’ve also kept my really boring $5 t-shirts from Target, as I like to not be naked. These do not spark joy. They do spark non-nakedness and a lack of arrests for public exposure, which I suppose are joyful things in their own way.

  1. Your shit is disorganised and you don’t have a system

“Keep things with other similar things.” It doesn’t matter if it is annoying to get something out – you need to get it out, so you’re going to do that anyway, and you spend more time with it not being out, so it’s more important that the storage system actually works. Don’t go nuts on storage solutions – you won’t actually need most of them after the Mighty Decluttering.

One good example of the disorganisation is our kitchenware drawers and cupboards. We did throw out a good deal of it, but to my surprise, when actually stacked systematically (and it took me a bit of fidgeting and planning to come up with a system that fit the dimensions of our cupboards and categories of cookware), our pans and trays and tupperware and mini-appliances do actually fit in our cupboards. All it took was proper stacking and a good notion of what goes where.

The key here is that we have maintained this system for four weeks. Husband is in charge of the kitchen in our house, and he is not greatly inclined to spend ages stacking things (I can get quite stuck into it), and the kitchen is still really tidy. The kitchen. Still tidy. For four straight weeks. That’s a record for us. I feel a trophy is necessary, except that would be more clutter.

One other example is the bathroom cabinets. I would basically go through these once a year and reorganise all the medications and whatnot (I have trays in the drawers for this, because otherwise a pain-filled Kate cannot usefully tell a solicitous Husband where the codeine is, especially if one requests over the counter codeine and instead receives prescription codeine. Oh, that was fun. Also, I couldn’t drive anywhere for several hours), and they’d get messy again.

It turns out that, after a rapid whirlwind discard of expired and near-to-expiry things (cough lozenges. We always buy these and never finish the packet), it was much easier to reorganise. I also threw out a metric fuckton of makeup I never wear that had gone crumbly. I probably wear make up about four times a year. I really enjoy it, but only when I’m in the mood, so it’s not worth keeping more than foundation, a couple of lipsticks and a few shades of eyeliner.

I can even keep the drawers tidy. I fold clothes now – and not just in an immediate burst of enthusiasm, but consistently and when I’m not in the mood as well. I’ve maintained a clothes-folding habit. More on that later.

It seems to be about being realistic, about being honest with yourself – not “I might use it or wear it one day” or “it might come in handy”, but “okay, I’ve had this for how long and it has not been of any use to me at all.”

How I have departed from the KonMari method

I haven’t taken all of the book as gospel, although it is all basically good advice and even the parts I have ignored are supported by fairly compelling arguments (except possibly all the animism, but that’s adorable and I like the idea of it anyway).

One of the ways we departed from the method was that, instead of just doing all the discarding first and then tidying, we discarded and then reorganised what we kept as we went. This made things take a bit longer. Also, once things are tidy, you suddenly start to get more annoyed by remaining flaws in your house, so we’ve taken advantage of this deafening roar of motivation to fix things that have been irritating us: the fly screen window in the dining room has been busted ever since we adopted Abby (that correlation does imply causation; we witnessed it personally). I’ve now fixed it (embarrassingly, it took about five minutes and no equipment at all). The doorknob on the front door has been wobbly and loose and becoming increasingly likely to detach over the past year. Husband has now replaced it. Other doorknobs in the house have worn out their threads to the point that you can get trapped in various rooms. They have now been replaced. We even started dealing with car issues we’d been putting off – service for the Ford, wheel alignment and new tyres for the Subaru.

Basically, once we started putting our house in order, we started to feel the urge and the space to put the rest of our lives in order. This is actually exactly what KonMari predicts in her book, but we did it simultaneously with the decluttering.

Also: we didn’t discard CDs. We keep those as backups. We didn’t discard (many) books. I got rid of a few that I don’t feel emotionally attached to in their paper forms, which cleared up a shelf in my study (actually, desk space. I was using it as a “bottom shelf” but it made my desk feel very cramped and cluttered, so I’m pleased to have that space back), but the vast majority of books have been kept. They make us happy. I kept probably about a hundred times the memorabilia that you’re supposed to keep – because I found that handling it did “spark joy.” I have two plastic crates of memories that I genuinely enjoy going through. How often will I go through them? Probably not often, but I am delighted that they are there.

What I learned was that I know that. Previously I felt guilty and grumpy about having all that crap down in The Vault (the downstairs storage area). Now I feel good about it. That’s what I decided to keep, rather than just keeping it by default. I did get rid of about two thirds of it, but what I kept matters to me.

I don’t empty my bag out every day as KonMari recommends. I’m considering making it part of my routine, but as an absent-minded person I think it would be too easy to forget all the things I have to carry with me. Not just “keys, phone, wallet,” but extra things like medications, painkillers, salt for adding to water, sunglasses (prescription), handkerchief, thing for cleaning glasses, earbuds, pens, diary, Kindle or current paperback – all things I carry and actually use on a daily basis.

The thing is that, while KonMari recommends getting rid of most of your books (you already have the information, apparently) and various other things, she also acknowledges that different things bring different people joy, and if those things bring you joy, then by all means keep them! Just make sure you’re not keeping things out of habit: things that will not make you happy, that will just take up space.

Surprising Consequences of Decluttering

When tidying was described as “Life-Changing Magic”, my initial response was to make a loud raspberry noise. I am very mature that way. It’s cleaning, for God’s sake.

Except… it does seem to genuinely function as described. Having a streamlined space makes my brain feel more streamlined. I feel like I have more space in my head to think about my life. It’s hard to describe, but now when I walk into a tidy, organised bathroom, there’s a happy little sigh in the back of my head. The same with my study, with the kitchen, with the dining room. There’s a bit more of a struggle with the bedroom and lounge room – very “lived-in” spaces – but even they have been profoundly improved by the process.

The motivation to tidy up and organise other aspects of our lives has come as a surprise to Husband and myself. We didn’t expect to suddenly book in the car services we’d been putting off, or replace the broken door handles, or nail down the damaged boards on the back deck properly – those things just suddenly seemed worth doing and perfectly manageable. Some things are natural consequences – you cook more when your kitchen is clean – but others are genuinely surprising.

Another one is folding. I suddenly decided that I would try to fold clothes. KonMari said that “folding clothes can be fun!” and I thought immediately “What a load of horseshit!” but decided to give it a try anyway. I wouldn’t describe it as fun.

I would describe it as extremely mindful. When I lay out a piece of clothing, be it t-shirt, pair of socks, or jeans, and then work out how to fold it in and roll it up (I tend to roll things up), I am focusing solely on the feeling of the fabric in my hands, the colours and images on it, the neatness of it. Once it’s done, I place it in the drawer such that I can see all my t-shirts at once. No more rifling through a pile looking for that one black shirt with the design on it that I want that looks like the other black shirts I have without designs on them. It’s just there.

Instead of a frustrating task that I want to put off (mostly because of over-stuffed drawers that won’t close), I now look forwarding to folding and putting away laundry. I close down and just have a quiet sensory experience, just me and the fabric and the drawers. It won’t work that way for everyone, but for some of us, it might turn into a mindfulness exercise.

Another surprising consequence is that my resting heart rate has gone down about five bpm on average since I began this project. Some of that will be because I have such a specific ongoing project – I get stressed when I don’t know what I’m doing the next day, so ongoing projects are very good for me – but some of it is because I don’t have that constant itching at the back of my brain that says “you should tidy that. You should clean that. What’s that doing out? Where is that thing you were looking for? Why is that out where you tripped over it?” and so on.

I am happier with less stuff. This surprises me because I unashamedly like stuff. I like gadgets and books and pictures and memorabilia. These things make me feel comfortable and safe. It turns out that more was not better, and I have not only decluttered my house – I have decluttered my head.

It is immensely satisfying.

Now, onto the rest of the home improvements… (clean roof. Clean gutters. Clear back deck and paths. De-cobweb house. Re-do weatherproofing of house. New oven/stove unit. The list goes on).