I’ve written more than once about being a packrat–specifically, a packrat son of packrats, grandson of packrats, great-grandson of packrats, great-great-grandson of packrats… and I’m sure it goes back further than that, but those are the ones I know. Growing up like that, many habits of thinking and perceiving and worrying become deeply ingrained in one’s brain, so that it is a constant struggle to keep from turning into a full-on hoarder. Any time I put something that we no longer use into the pile to take to Value Village or what-have-you, I hear a chorus of voices in my head admonishing, “You might need that some day!” With some side comments about how much money it originally cost, so that would be a waste and so on. This manifests in many other ways. If we don’t finish all the food we cooked for a particular meal and I even think about tossing the tiny portion of something that just isn’t really worth putting in a container to stick in the fridge, the chorus will talk about wasting food and people who can’t afford to eat (as if I could someone forward this tablespoon of vegetables that were already part of leftovers from a meal a few days earlier, to a starving child somewhere, right?). It really does feel, at times, as if I am haunted by a slew of judgmental ghosts.
One reason those ghosts are so strong is because they are really a manifestation of anxiety. Spend any part of your childhood or young adult life where food and shelter were in jeopardy because of money issues, and those anxieties get a lot of power. And because we survived some of those situations thanks to some packrat in the family who kept that old appliance when they bought a new one which we can now use after ours broke until we can afford to replace it, well, those anxieties can rightly remind us that “You might need that someday!” is true.
To get out of the abstract for a bit: one of the tasks that has been on my list for a while was to go through the closet and my chest of drawers to purge clothes that I don’t wear anymore. We last did that seriously two years ago while preparing to move… and we did it again when we unpacked, because after all that packing and moving we were both feeling that we had not been ruthless enough in the purge leading up to the move.
But we’re both also busy with work and chores and so on, so it is easy to put it off. I have also learned that those ghosts will enlist the aid of my inner procrastinator in interesting ways. Usually I distract myself with another chore or project that is important, but manages to grow into something bigger. The trick, I have learned, is to actually say out loud, either to myself or my husband, “I really want to go through the closet and drawers this weekend to get rid of the clothes that don’t fit me any more.” And even though whether they fit isn’t the only reason I plan to get rid of some clothes, if that’s the only part I admit out loud, it’s harder for my to procrastinate.
Yes, I just admitted that I have to trick myself. The funny part is that it works.
Weekend before last I started at the closet. One reason it had become urgent is that the closet is so full of clothes that it is difficult to put clean clothes away after I do the laundry. It’s a struggle to squeeze things in. The side effects of that are that it is difficult to find a particular garment when we want and that a lot of shirts especially get weird creases because everything’s jammed in.
Because I had been doing other housework that day, I didn’t get started on the closet until nearly 2:30 in the afternoon. As I pulled things out of the closet, giving them a look over and trying them on, it was easy to toss things that don’t fit (or don’t fit comfortably), or if they have another physical issue (there was one really nice dress shirt that I really like that got a coffee stain on it that resisted all my attempts to remove, and it wound up being put back in the closet because the packrat ghosts in my head convinced me that I could think of something to remove the stain later.
It was more difficult to put things in the “get rid of” pile that had no physical problems, but that I just know I’ll never wear again. There are a few reasons that I know I won’t wear something ever again. Sometimes it’s something that I bought because I thought it would go really well with something else and I either no longer own that other garment or once the outfit was assembled it didn’t look good or it had a major impracticality or whatever. Other times it’s just that while it looked good in the store, later I didn’t like how it looked on me. And other times it’s just, I’m over that–whatever look it was.
If I keep it, it will just hang in the closet. It will be looked at from time to time while I’m looking for something else, but I will never pull it out and actually wear it. I know that. No matter how much I know that, I feel a tide of guilt rising inside as I contemplate tossing it into the “give away” pile.
The trick I have used in that situation is to ask myself, “If my friend Kristin were here, what would she ask me?” And what I imagine Kristin (who I sometimes call “the Ruthless One” in these circumstances) would ask me is, “Are you really ever going to wear that, or is it just going to take up space that you could put to better use with things you actually do use?”
And once I have imagined Kristin saying that (or similar), the guilt recedes and I can put the shirt or whatever into the pile.
A bit over two hours later, I had pulled every shirt, sweater, pair of pants, jacket, and so on out of the closet, tried it on, put it into a pile, and then had re-hung all the clothes that I was keeping. I had an embarassingly enormous pile of clothes to go, and an impressive mass of empty hangers. And I was tired and sweaty and felt grungy and grumpy.
I checked in with Michael about how many of the hangers to keep, I bagged up the clothes and the hangers, and I hopped in the shower to wash the grunge and (mostly repressed) guilt away.
I looked at the chest of drawers–three of the six drawers so overfull that they couldn’t be fully slid in, looked at the time, and decided that it was not procrastinating to put that off until next week if I loaded up the car and actually took all the stuff we had in the get-rid of piles away. And it wasn’t just an excuse, between that and the other housework I’d been on my feet and moving for many hours. Value Village was only open until 8pm, and we were now past 5.
So we loaded up the car (which took longer than I thought), drove up to the donation center, dropped the things off, did a quick run through the store on my usual quests (I am trying to replace one decorative plate that got broken while we were hanging the set on the wall at the new place, I keep hoping to find a matching sixth cut crystal wine glass for one of my sets, and I have slowly been acquiring semi-matching bone china saucers to go with a small set of teacups that belonged to my late first-husband’s grandmother — and which, yes, I actually use!). And then we stopped at a nearby sushi place for dinner.
Then, this last weekend, I went through the drawers. Since taking things off hangers wasn’t involved, it went a bit faster. The pile of things to get rid of wasn’t nearly as impressive as the one I’d had the weekend before. But now I am able to easily open and close all six drawers on my side, and there is actually room in the drawers for some new things when they come along (because they will).
Michael, on the other, spent something like five minutes going through his drawers, and all he did was move heavy winter things to the drawers drawers in the bed pedestal (we decided after the move that they only we we’d remember to use them at all was keep seasonal stuff in them), because as the hot weather had come on, he’d started pulling summer clothes out of the drawer, but hadn’t transferred. But all the drawers on his side now easily slide closed, so, win!
Of course, while he was a lot of packrat tendencies, his are focused differently than mine. And he doesn’t have the same habits I have of, for instance, if I have to toss out a couple of socks because they wear out, I will replace the two thrown out pairs with six… and then a month later not remember that I have already more than replaced those “bunch of socks I had to throw out” and buy another six-pack.
One last trick for dealing with all of those ghosts. Whenever I win a little battle with them, I make an extra donation to either Northwest Harvest or True Colors United–gotta use that guilt for something useful, right?
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