I often describe myself as a “packrat, son of packrats, grandson of packrats, great-grandson of packrats—as is my husband!” But the last few weeks as we went through the most intense part of the move, and even worse now in the downhill phase, I’ve been admonishing myself with the word “hoarder!” Scolding myself and actively trying to amp up the embarrassment I feel when I realize I’ve hung onto something that should have been gotten rid of long ago. Which may sound harsh, but is entirely deserved, I assure you.
For instance, this weekend while cleaning out one of the closes at the old place (a closet next to the bathroom that we have previously referred to as the supplemental medicine cabinet) from which we had packed all the essentials weeks ago, I found a basket shoved in the very back of one shelf that include a bunch of hair ties sorted by color. I stopped using hair ties sometime around 1992 when I decided that my balding had progressed to a point where I should stop putting the long hair in back into a ponytail. So far as I know, Michael has never used hair ties. I recognized the ties and the basket right away, of course. They belongs to Ray. While the chemo thinned his hair a bit, Ray had never been a balding man, and he loved wearing his hair long, dying it interesting colors, and often wore different sorts of hair ties/binders in complementary or contrasting colors, depending on his mood. But Ray died 20 years ago. Sure, in the immediate aftermath of his death, I hung onto all sorts of things that some time later I was able to be a bit more rational about, but this is ridiculous!
It gets worse.
Also way back in the back of that shelf? A good dozen old prescription bottles all with Ray’s name on them. Part of why this is worse is that right after he died, at the request of the coroner’s office, I had bagged up what I thought was every single one of his prescriptions and handed them over. So it has been my belief for 20 years that there were no bottles of his medicine in the house. So clearly I haven’t been paying attention to the things that have been pushed to the back of this closet. Maybe that’s understandable, but…
There’s another closet where we kept tools and some other things. Like the aforementioned closet, we’d already pulled things out we knew we needed to keep some time ago. I knew that most of what we left behind at this point needs to be donated or otherwise gotten rid of, but we need to go through it to determine which things go to an electronics recycler, and which can go to Value Village. I thought that I owned exactly three of those outside light timers. These are devices which are equipped with a light sensor that will turn lights on automatically when the sun sets, and keep them on for the amount of time that you have selected. I believed that I owned three because for several years I used two outside, and then I found a fancier one that had multiple outputs, and I have found a specialized outdoor extension cord with a nifty stake and a lid device. I knew I was being a packrat for holding onto the two that I was no longer using, but what I didn’t know is that I actually owned a total of five of these things, at least one of which looks so shiny and new, that I don’t think it has ever actually been used!
There was a more amusing manifestation last week. While unpacking boxes of things from the kitchen, my husband was sorting cooking tools into piles, then selecting only a few of the best of each category. At one point he said, “We own too many pie servers!” When I disagreed, he said, “The only way we would need this many pie servers is if we hosted an Insane Pie Night!”
Studies have been conducted exploring the roots of hoarding behavior. Most articles, reports, and documentaries focus how hanging onto things relieves anxiety for some people, or on how the behavior is reinforced any time something that the hoarder has kept turns out to be useful for either the hoarder or a loved one. I have tried to explain how guilty I feel any time that I discard something which I don’t really need any longer–how I always hear the voice of my grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great-grandfather, et cetera admonishing me, “You might need that someday!” or “It’s wasteful to throw that away!”
But I think not enough attention is paid to another couple of aspects of human perception that plays into this behavior.
Whatever circumstances we grew up with feel normal; other circumstances aren’t just unusual, but feel wrong. For example, growing up among packrats means that I’m acclimated to rooms being stuffed full of things–bookcases that are packed not just with books lined up neatly, but with lots of extra books and other things stuffed into the spaces above the books on each shelf, behind the books, et cetera. Shelves that are mostly empty, with a small number of figurines or something tastefully displayed look wrong to me. Too much empty space in a room actually grates on my nerves, that’s how accustomed I am to having nearly every space available in a room used for storing something.
When an object is expected, we don’t really perceive it as separate from the environment. One of my friends sums this up as, “Once something has been left somewhere that it doesn’t belong for a couple of days, it becomes invisible to my husband.” I’ve done it zillions of times. For example, I come home from a Christmas gathering with friends with several gifts. Some of the gifts are books or other objects where I already have an idea of where it belongs, so I put them into spots on existing shelves or in a cabinet or whatever. But then there is the cool little toy or gadget someone gave me. I wind up leaving it on on end table or on a spot on a shelf in front of things which belong there, with the sincere intention to figure out later where it belongs… and then it just sits there. I never get around to figuring out where it should go (or whether maybe I should pass it on to someone else). It sits there for weeks or months, until some time when it is in the way. I’ll then pick it up, wonder briefly why it is there, of all places, and then, most likely, set it down in another place it doesn’t belong, where the whole process starts over.
It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of things having a place. Nor that I don’t realize that there is a cost to storing all this stuff I don’t actually need or use. Nor am I ignorant of just how much energy and time I waste looking for things when I can’t remember where they were left. It’s that dealing with it right that moment isn’t a priority, and once the object, whatever it is, has entered the category of being invisible, it never occurs to me to do anything about it when it isn’t actively hindering something.
I don’t have a solution to this. It’s a long hard fight that I have been waging with myself for years. I have reached a point in this move where I’m irritated enough at myself over this, that anything that I feel the slightest hesitation about whether we need it is being chucked into the nearest “get rid of it” box. I’ve felt an enormous sense of relief every time I’ve carried another load of things to Value Village. But I know how this works. I know that while I may be better at it for the next few months, the old behaviors will start creeping in.
The fight goes on!
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