Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"What Is Hoarding?"

My mom asked this question rhetorically one weekend as I sorted through a box containing, among other things, nearly every single birthday card I had ever received. You know, just the kind of chit-chat that comes up when contemplating a box that happens to contain blank stationery from 1982.

Let me start by saying that no home in my immediate family has ever been touched by the type of hoarding that deeply affects lives and makes for sordid television shows. I have known people with real hoarders in their families — my ex and one of my best friends among them —and it's not a joking matter. (Well actually, they have joked about it, but I can't. So let's move on.)

Those shows, and those examples, can convince an average person who hangs on to things too long that there's really nothing to address. The home has clear pathways and is not sanitation hazard. The home may also be your parents' home, where you do not live but where you store a few "keepsakes." So what if there are a few full boxes in the closets, and possibly a Naf Naf shirt from 1986? Nothing to see here, people! Fully functional, that's me. Oh, and by the way, I can't stand clutter. In my place.

My mom and I have both been (jokingly, sort of) accused of hoarding by other family members. What this tells me is that the condition is possibly hereditary, and therefore I bear little to no responsibility for whatever tendencies I display. (Right Mom?)

I'll admit that I wondered what would happen when she retired. Controlled chaos hid behind closed doors for many years: kitchen cabinets were crammed with towers of Tupperware and unmatched lids, not to mention a bunch of expired food; basement closets harbored untold amounts of clothing.

One of the first things she did upon retiring was to clean that stuff out.

I'll admit that surprised me a little. If I had just retired, maybe I'd just alternate going to the gym with lying around a lot, and get to the stuff behind closed doors later (not unlike what I do as an unretired person on weekends). But she was ON IT. Like, within the first week.

She says now that she didn't realize how stressed she was when she was working, and how much it prevented her from dealing with stuff like Glad containers, tomatoes from 2006 and seven-year-old walnut oil (left there by her daughter, UncMo).

It was relatively easy to deal with the kitchen stuff. The clothes were another matter. "Clothes are my identity," she said. I could not judge, knowing that I had a stash of Esprit, Firenza, Guess and other labels (hello Naf Naf) meant to preserve my '80s identity. It's hard to throw away clothes of any kind, much less clothes that are in perfectly good condition, much less clothes that still fit, convincing you that if you could just donned the right outfit, you just might be teleported right back to your younger bod in the '80s, yet suffused with the wisdom and self-possession of your later years. Too much to ask?

But the key problem for me was, and always has been, paper. I grew up in an era that required it, and I saved it all: the birthday cards, the birthday newspapers, the letters, the resumes, the pamphlets, the brochures, notebooks, diaries, journals, the letters, the resumes, the Playbills, the stickers, bank statements, phone bills, credit card statements, pay stubs, my first bylined stories, more letters—you get the idea. (The class picture below, on top of the Penn graduation pamphlet and the candy cigarettes, is Sir UncMo's. I have extended, as a courtesy, hoarding privileges to his past as well.)

This all fits in a bedroom closet at my parents' house, far away from my actual (sort of) neat abode. It even fits with the records and books of mine that my dad, lacking any hoarding projects of his own to tackle upon retirement, took it upon himself to box up and stow away. It fits, but I know it's all there. Now, when I visit my parents on weekends, I often make it a point to wade through one of the many closeted piles of paper. (Sometimes I make some discoveries, and sometimes, as above, I end up bringing a select number of things in shoeboxes to my own closet, pretending that I've dealt with them.)

When I was a kid, I saved candy and gum wrappers. So, if you can picture it, I had a dresser full of clothes, and in the bottom drawer, I had maybe two small boxes (one of them was definitely a Barbie box) crammed with one representative wrapper of every bit of candy or gum I had ever consumed. Bazooka, Dubble Bubble, candy corn, Reese's, et cetera.

To me then, it was basically a way of cataloging my love for sweets. It was my Evernote Food, expressed via one ridiculous collage of waxed, colored paper. I still remember, as a kid, opening the bottom drawer of my dresser and seeing all those wrappers pressed behind the cellophane window that was meant to display a Barbie, and feeling a mixture of satisfaction and shame. The satisfaction was for what a good job I had done of cataloging my consumption. The shame was from knowing, vaguely, that it was not "normal."

That's right! I know what you're thinking: Today, that 11-year-old would have pharmaceutical assistance. Too late, friends!

Flash forward about 10 years. I'm done with college. My parents came to graduation, ready to help me pack up. "I knew you were depressed when I saw your room," my mom said later. It was a corner room on the ground floor of a group house in West Philadelphia, bars on the window, with a loft bed, where I read Sylvia Plath a little too closely (who's depressed?). It wasn't that I had accumulated very much. It was more that the room was a mess, and I had not bothered to pack a thing, even though I knew I was leaving. And my mom was right. I was abjectly depressed. You can't see these things in the moment. You have to look at them later and realize that you were a frog in boiling water.

This is where the question of "what is hoarding" gets interesting, to me. Are you holding on to a past you can no longer revisit? Are you just too tired to deal with the accumulation of stuff? Or is it a combination of both? What is your physical environment telling you about the mental?

Either way, my view now, in no small part because of that college insight from my mom, is that your physical environment reflects your current state of mind. Are you accumulating clutter and disorganized, or are you neat and up-to-date? Are you editing your life, regularly, in every way, or are you getting sloppy? Conversely, is your space so sparse or tightly controlled that there is no room for imperfection or spontaneity?

Now, like my mom, I resort to organizing my oversupply of beauty products and giving away clothing when things start feeling hectic. But I still possess, at the top corner of my closet, a shoebox with candy cigarettes in it (those things keep!). And I may or may not have rescued some perfectly fine McCormick Italian Seasoning of undetermined vintage from my mom's kitchen cabinet. I don't save too much paper these days, but I do hoard digital conversations, including chats with Sir UncMo. I know that we are meant to live in the present, but I may never let go of my need to preserve the past. Especially when it involves people who mean a lot to me.

All I ever wanted to do by saving things was to hold on to my life, the life that is slipping away every single minute of every day, inexorably, which I've known ever since the day in third grade that elementary school let out for summer and I was the only kid who wasn't happy it was over, because I realized, with devastating certainty, that I would never have another year quite like that one, never be a child again, and didn't even comprehend yet that the days were numbered where someone would put pen to paper, just for me, leaving an envelope to be opened.

Music: "Smoke"

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