Last month in the middle of a health crisis I realized something surprising: Marie Kondo knows a lot about healing.
In mid-November I had a flare of a chronic condition that I thought had been largely resolved: PCOS, a complex disorder marked in some by menstrual irregularity, including long spans of uterine bleeding, anovulatory cycles and ovarian cysts. My symptoms had largely been relieved using traditional East Asian medicine but my cycle was still extra long so I was exploring other options. Around the same time I started learning more about traditional medicine where my family is from in Belize by connecting with an apprentice of the Yucateca Maya healer Miss Beatrice Waight. In that tradition uterine health is a primary focus and abdominal massage is a pillar of the medicine. All kinds of problems from infertility, endometriosis, and chronic miscarriage to back pain and depression can come from a uterus that’s out of place and the massage is designed to bring it into alignment.
I had already been having a month of abnormal spotting when we did the massage, wondering what was going on. I knew from imaging and other practitioners that my uterus had been hanging out on the left side of my body for a long time and I got the sense that the spotting had something to do with that. After Keath worked on me with the massage I felt strongly grounded, as if the axis of my body had been realigned. I felt as if a door to a wonderful new world had opened up in my lower abdomen, one that led to my own personal power. Two days later I started bleeding. Thinking it was finally a real period I wasn’t concerned, but as the days went on I started to wonder. I’d had long periods of bleeding years before from hormonal imbalance and they had always left me debilitated. In the Maya understanding the uterus’s function of releasing blood every month is impaired when it’s tilted off from it’s ideal location in the center of the body. Sometimes, when the uterus is aligned through massage old blood can be released and the organ naturally cleanses itself.
But as the bleeding continued into the second week I wavered between the deep sense that my body knew what it was doing and a primal fear that I was in danger. What if I couldn’t work? How long would this last? Could I really wait this out? My life was upended and I found myself doubting the values I adhered so strongly to: that the body has its own wisdom beyond my intellectual knowing, and that it can be trusted. I could barely leave the house; my only choice was to surrender to this process and ask for help. Luckily I had the resources to take time off from work and take care of myself, including a loving community. I pulled on all the practitioners I knew who might be able to help me figure out what was going on. I checked in with Dr. Bonita Wilcox for a Naturopathic consult and visited my primary care doctor who did lab tests and imaging. Liz Long offered spiritual balm in the hardest part of the process. I saw Dr. Joon Hee Lee for East Asian herbal support and did pelvic floor work with Tami Kent. Tami helped me connect to my pelvis in a totally new way, complementing the work of the massage and helping me feel a strength and ease that was surprising. Dr. Lee diagnosed deep Blood Stagnation, seeming to agree with the Maya view of old blood needing to be expelled, and gave me a formula made of leeches (because anticoagulants = no more blood stagnation! Check out this fascinating article on the medicinal uses of leeches). The imaging came back in support of the traditional diagnoses: I had a large blood-filled polyp in my uterus that was likely the source of the bleeding, which probably wouldn’t stop until it was surgically removed. Blood stagnation, indeed! No wonder my body was clearing out in such an intense way.
Around the same time I started dealing with the bleeding Marie Kondo started her Netflix series and was all over the news. She was becoming an icon in the U.S, inspiring people all over the country to tidy their spaces by discarding the majority of their belongings and choosing joy. She was bearing the brunt of more than a few hilarious memes and plenty of articles and parodies about her and her method, including this one in the Atlantic pointing out the influence of privilege in tidying and others decrying the lack of focus on how to recycle items instead of filling landfills. Years earlier I had dismissed her as the latest well-marketed quick-fix self-help guru. But, for whatever reason, this time she peaked my interest. I started her book and almost instantly became a Konvert.
I knew I had to make some major changes in my life and that it wasn’t just about life hacks and being more efficient. I was living with my nervous system operating on 11, burning out my adrenals and throwing my hormones out of whack. It was a vicious cycle that had been going on for a long time—now was my chance to take a hard look at myself and change the dynamic that propagated this problem. My life (and the world) stressed me out and my body was giving me a stern warning that I could not go on like this.
So I tried tidying.
Have you ever tried to clean and organize a room when there’s just too much stuff? You take the books off the shelves and wipe them down. You put them back. You put the papers on your desk in a pile instead of strewn across it’s surface. Everything looks neater for a few days or a week but not long after it’s pretty much back in the same place.
The thing is this doesn’t just apply to our spaces, it also applies to our bodies. We have to discard before we can create, compost and till before we can plant seeds. Not only is there a connection between our spaces, bodies and psyche that Marie Kondo, psychologists, health care researchers and designers agree on, but there is also power in ritual. Occupying our spaces through mindfulness and intention can translate to our minds, bodies and lives. Setting yourself on a messy drawer, closet or cabinet with the intention of using it to solve some other question in your life is a helpful way of working with it in a more tangible way: letting you unwind externally as you unwind internally and allowing yourself the physical and mental space for the answer to come.
I started my KonMari journey with this intention in mind. It seemed fitting that discarding and feeling gratitude for the stuff that didn’t serve me would also mirror my internal process of discarding the processes in my mind and body that I no longer needed but had been helping me survive in the past. If there was a mass in the most intimate region of my body that I needed to get rid of maybe I could use tidying my intimate living spaces as a catalyst for change in both.
I expected there to be a shift. I know the ease that comes from looking at a clean room. But, I didn’t expect how deep it would be. As part of her method Kondo not only says to keep the things that spark joy, but to thank the things you are getting rid of. She says that the way to distinguish between what sparks joy and what doesn’t is how it feels in your body. This ended up being key. Gifts from past lovers against whom I still held resentment gave me an opportunity to see the beauty that had come into my life from those relationships. Handling old papers from a grad school I was still bitter towards gave me the chance to recognize the delight I felt in learning and the positive experiences I had had with my teachers. By handling my things in such a careful and mindful way and feeling their impact in my body gave me the space to let stuck emotions flow and release in a way that never would have happened if I had just rounded up all my stuff and hauled it to Goodwill. And I found that when I considered buying new things I took a moment to pause and ask if it really was meaningful enough for me to spend my money. It even started applying to opportunities and people. Would it spark joy? Did I want to invite this person or project into my life? Was it invigorating or did it drain my energy? Along the way I had to be patient and careful with the process, knowing that my habit (the exact one I was trying to remake) was to plow through and just get it done. But, the method asked me to develop a deeper conversation with my things and my body. I couldn’t rush it. The power of that collaboration was miraculous.
I stopped bleeding a couple weeks after starting to tidy my room. Two days after starting Dr. Lee’s herbs (aka, leeches) and doing the pelvic work the bleeding was half what it had been. The next week again after starting a new round of herbs and another pelvic session I stopped completely without having removed the polyp or taken any medications.
Healing is complex and mysterious. Going deep takes time and there is no quick fix. Marie Kondo and traditional medicine know this. I don’t know exactly why the bleeding stopped. I know that the process is still ongoing and that both healing and tidying have required me to drill down with dedication to uncover all the layers and clear out all the forgotten corners, without knowing exactly what I’ll find. I was the only one who could decide to engage in that inner process. In both cases another world was possible, but I had to commit for the long haul.
I want to add that I could (and probably will) write a whole post on how this experience highlighted the lack of systemic support there is for healing. I had no financial safety net to fall back on. I made my decision to take three weeks off of work knowing that I would lose money, and thankfully I was able to do that. There are many, many more people who can’t afford that option. What does healing look like on an individual and societal level when people’s basic needs aren’t met? This is a moral and political question for our time.