Coming to terms with my junk drawer has been a journey of releasing the shame I've long associated with it. While, as a young kid, having such a place for random stuff seemed largely benign, my perception of clutter shifted drastically at age 12.
My mother received a call from a Louisiana hospital alerting her to the fact that my then-estranged grandmother had struck a telephone pole at 3:00 a.m. while driving herself to the emergency room because she'd suffered a stroke. When my parents, brother, and I arrived at her apartment with a U-Haul to collect her things and move her to live with us in Texas, we were shocked to witness what could only be described as the home of a hoarder. Piles of pairs of shoes, varying only slightly in color and style, filled her closet; makeup compacts and lotions toppled out of every bathroom drawer and cabinet. And no piece of furniture was left uncovered: Every surface was stacked high with junk.
We soon learned that my grandmother, who has since passed, had been living with untreated bipolar disorder, and after her stroke, would suffer with dementia. The tie between her cluttered home and her mental illnesses was undeniable. While her years-long estrangement from my family had once been a decision she made due to a difference in belief systems, it was also clear that her messiness had become a source of shame for her, further isolating her from the people in her life who loved her... and likely anyone else, as there were few uncluttered footpaths to walk in her space.
While my junk drawer is certainly a much smaller mess than what we encountered in my grandmother's space, it has similarly made me ashamed of my inability to live a clutter-free life—especially in the six years since I was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), at age 22.
At times, I’ve felt like my junk drawer is a symbol of my incessantly disorganized mind, a reminder of my executive dysfunction.
At times, I’ve felt like my junk drawer is a symbol of my incessantly disorganized mind; a reminder of my executive dysfunction; or a signal fire to unassuming guests looking for cutlery that seems to scream out, "See? SEE?! This girl doesn’t have her sh*t together—she’s a mess. Don’t let her fool you!" And at other times, my junk drawer has served as a terrifying reminder of my grandmother’s apartment—a symbol of my family’s imperfect mental health history and a potential precursor of what could happen if, one day, my mess were to extend beyond the confines of a drawer.
Among neurodivergent adults, such feelings of deep shame around struggling to handle care tasks and keep house are common, says clinical psychologist Andrew Kahn, PsyD, associate director of behavior change and expertise at Understood.org, a nonprofit that provides informational resources for neurodivergent folks.
Societal norms tend to hold adults—and especially women, who have historically been appointed to the homemaker role in family units—to high standards of home cleanliness1, and when neurodivergent people like myself fail to meet those standards, feelings of incompetence and otherness can follow. “Nothing makes you look less put-together than when you spend minutes a day digging through a pocketbook, or a briefcase, or an office desk, and you can't access things you need,” says Dr. Kahn. “There's something about it that is childlike, like you can't organize your life. When you find yourself in full adulthood, and you're having the same problems your 12-year-old self with ADHD was having, [it] leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment.”
And yet, my junk drawer has also come to feel like an extension of myself. It's always been there for me after a long day, when I want a clutter-free space but can't handle the mental toll of organizing every loose item I come across. I'll clear off surfaces and put any random mail, pens, or other items that don't have a designated home into that drawer. And whenever I'm looking for something, I know to double-check the junk drawer before turning my home upside-down. There's no denying that the drawer has served a consistent purpose in my life, even as it's triggered shame.
Reclaiming my junk drawer as a functional space for my ADHD brain
According to Dr. Kahn, the ADHD brain, in particular, craves consistency as a result of unique challenges with executive function. As it jumps quickly from one thought to the next, it relies on dependable routines to stay on track with daily tasks—and having one drawer that serves as a container for random items can offer that dependability.
“Sometimes, our junk drawer is actually just our frequent 'drop' location for things we use regularly,” says Dr. Kahn, who also has ADHD himself. “If you think about it from an organizational perspective, if you want to be able to find the things you need, the number-one strategy for doing that is always putting those things in the same place.” And there's no reason why that place can't be a junk drawer, at least for certain kinds of things.
“Sometimes, our junk drawer is actually just our frequent 'drop' location for things we use regularly.” —Andrew Kahn, PsyD, clinical psychologist
I've also found that using my junk drawer as a catch-all for random things—versus allowing those things to remain on counters and side tables—can help me better focus when I don't have time for a full clean-up job. And that makes sense from an ADHD perspective: Visible environmental clutter2 has been shown to be distracting for those with ADHD, pulling the brain away from the more important tasks at hand. But when that clutter is out of sight (like when it's tucked away in a junk drawer), it can also be more easily out of mind, keeping distractions at bay.
Still, the often blurry line between what qualifies as an item that should go in the junk drawer and what doesn't can just as quickly make my junk drawer feel dysfunctional and less-than-satisfying. After all, people with ADHD tend to have low levels of dopamine in the brain3, meaning we favor completing tasks that yield clear, quick results as a means to dial up the dopamine. An ever-evolving junk drawer with little rhyme or rhythm doesn't quite fit that mold.
On deep-cleaning days, I’ve dumped out our junk drawer only to discover expired Old Navy Super Cash coupons and sticky ketchup packets—actual trash that would've been better off thrown out, but that I put in the junk drawer without pausing to think it through.
“Clutter equals stress, and if you have ADHD, it can be overwhelming,” says cleaning expert Becky Rapinchuk, author of Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home. “That may be why you might put off [handling a junk drawer]...because you're not exactly sure where to start. And if you're someone with perfectionist tendencies, that can exacerbate it, because you think [the cleaning] has to be perfect and 100 percent done in order to count.”
Ensuring my junk drawer continues to serve a positive role
Admittedly, I’m still learning how to strike a balance when it comes to my junk drawer—to remove the shame I've long felt around it and accept its role in my life, while also keeping its characteristic clutter from getting out of hand.
The deep-seated embarrassment tends to rear its ugly head when I find that items with another dedicated home (like my "good" scissors or important pieces of mail) have made their way into the junk drawer. Those moments make obvious my neurodivergent tendencies to seek out quick solutions over permanent ones, and worse, reignite my fear that maybe I don’t have the control over my clutter that I thought I did.
To get ahead of that feeling, whenever I pick up an item that has been left on our coffee table or kitchen counter these days, I take a moment to think about where this item (or something like it) usually lives, and where I might use it the most; sometimes, the junk drawer does make the most sense as a place to put it, but in other cases, it might have a home somewhere else, or even just belong in the trash.
In this vein, Rapinchuk suggests that I start calling my junk drawer a "miscellaneous drawer" instead. After all, it shouldn't be filled with actual junk (better to just toss that stuff). And calling it a "junk drawer" can enable it to more easily become a trash hub, hosting unused or obsolete items like lost buttons and take-out receipts. The miscellaneous drawer, by contrast, simply houses items that are purposeful and used often, but may lack another clear home.
Implementing such a thoughtful strategy for a junk drawer—like purposefully making it a checkpoint for motley items—can dismantle the frustration, guilt, and shame that has long accompanied my apparent disorganization, says Dr. Kahn. After all, just because my junk drawer system might be different from how someone who doesn't have ADHD chooses to organize miscellaneous items doesn't make it any less valid of a system, so long as it's intentional.
Breaking free from my negative relationship with clutter is also helping me assign neutral meaning to my junk drawer. Having one messy space in my home doesn’t mean that one day I’ll magically wake up to find myself in a Louisiana apartment littered with piles of shoes and makeup compacts. And even if I did somehow wind up in that scenario, I know that I have family and friends who would drop everything to help me get out of it, without judgment.
In turn, I’m choosing to embrace, not fight, our newly-promoted junk miscellaneous drawer this year. It might not be the prettiest spot in our home, and I might not be opening it on purpose in front of dinner guests anytime soon, per se... but should they need to borrow a pair of scissors, I won’t stop them from checking it.
Our junk drawer serves as a vital anchor for my and my boyfriend's household, a consistent home for some of our most-used, albeit totally random things. It also helps me live my life and focus on the things that really matter—like spending time with loved ones and filling our four walls to max capacity with light and love. And that’s all the justification I need to keep it in our home.
- Thébaud, Sarah, et al. “Good Housekeeping, Great Expectations: Gender and Housework Norms.” Sociological Methods & Research, vol. 50, no. 3, SAGE Publications, Aug. 2021, pp. 1186–1214, https://doi.org10.1177/0049124119852395.
- Woody, Sheila R., et al. “Effect of Environmental Clutter on Attention Performance in Hoarding.” Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, vol. 31, 2021, p. 100690, https://doi.org10.1016/j.jocrd.2021.100690.
- Blum, Kenneth et al. “Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and reward deficiency syndrome.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment vol. 4,5 (2008): 893-918. doi:10.2147/ndt.s2627
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