Clutter blindness is the root of clutter. We stop noticing it. This is a spooky, Twilight Zone kind of a feeling. Imagine waking up one day and realizing that you've been living in an alternate dimension! You have no memory of it ever happening. How did you get here? Where are you? Where are your keys? How do you get out of here?? Living with clutter can be like living in an animate, brain-eating fog. I call it... the Blurry Zone.
Memories are not always made. This is a great blessing. Imagine remembering every single step you ever took, every single word you ever heard or read, every bad smell you ever smelled, and having that web of memories get thicker and stronger with every passing millisecond. Confusing! Exhausting! The earworms alone would drive you over the brink of sanity. Living in the moment is much easier. It generally takes something significant to cause the creation of a memory. Where I last set down my keys, my teacup, or my book is evidently not the type of thing that leads to memory formation. I've lost so many items of various description on the bus alone that I can confirm this. Hats, umbrellas, gloves and mittens, scarves, a cell phone, a library book once or twice... Fortunately, the many times I've left my day planner or my wallet, people have been kind enough to call me and make sure I got them back. It's a testament to the power of forgetting that I can't even call up a full inventory of all the stuff I lost because I didn't make a mental note when I set them down.
Just like we don't always form memories, we also don't notice everything that surrounds us. Living with animals can make this pretty clear. My dog notices when people are walking on the other side of the athletic field of the school across the street, a full block away. My parrot notices when jets are flying overhead so high that I can barely make out a tiny metallic speck. He will bark at a squirrel on the back fence and she will imitate a starling that is calling from a tree at the end of the street. They notice things because their vision and hearing are keener than mine. They also notice things because they have no distractions, not that I can tell. They can't read, they don't have jobs, they're oblivious to gossip, and they have no awareness of current events, unless you count the eventful lives of starlings and squirrels.
My clients are often mystified by their own surroundings. When we work together, we find things in their homes and they can't explain how they got there! Half the time, they'll recognize the item as a friend's sweater, book, or board game. The other half of the time, they have no idea where these things came from or whom to ask. We find forgotten money, uncashed checks, and gift cards. We find things they recognize as their own personal belongings, but that they forgot they had, which is why part of the clutter involves stockpiles of supplies of multiple extra redundant copies of backups. The number 55 comes up a lot: fifty-five t-shirts on the floor, fifty-five coffee mugs stacked all over the kitchen. An entire drawer full of mechanical pencils and dried-up pens. Did I... intentionally bring home all these things? Why? I must have had a reason, surely? Past Self wasn't returning Future Self's calls. The two great questions are:
Why Do I Have This?
What Was I Thinking?
It's harder for my squalor clients. As far as I can tell, they have no sense of smell. I have a cast-iron stomach, but I have had to fight the urge to vomit on the job before. My eyes have watered. I have had sneezing fits so strong that I've had to run out to the driveway until they stopped. Yet there is the family, living in a miasma that is close to assuming corporeal form, and they seem happy enough. Mold, sour milk, rotting compost, and pet waste all mixed together, the smell you can taste. How can they not notice it? It's called olfactory fatigue. After a while, you just stop smelling it, the way that I forget how awful our tap water tastes until I've been on a trip somewhere else. The human brain is perfectly capable of ignoring anything it finds irrelevant, and ceasing to notice bad odors makes even more sense than becoming blind to stacks and piles.
The process of awakening and starting to notice our blurry surroundings is a gradual one. First, we start to train ourselves to pay attention to things that previously escaped our notice. It's totally Zen. Second, we gradually start to introduce systems that enable us to maintain mental clarity. A functional system means we don't have to rely on memory. I always put my keys back in my bag, so I always know where to find them. My teacup and book are on the end table, because there isn't really another logical place to put them. If something is not in use, and it goes straight back to where it belongs, then there are no mysterious way stations where things can be absorbed back into the cloud of unknowing.
Clutter contributes to more clutter, and systems lead to more systems. When something doesn't work, it's really hard to make it start working, like when someone misfiles a paper or shelves a book in the wrong place in the Dewey Decimal System and it starts to get recursive. Horrors! The converse of that is that when a system is well-designed, it advertises itself. You can go to someone else's house and figure out where to find the hand soap and the trash can. Order and disorder are spirals. Anything we approach with the goal of mental clarity will quickly become organized, while any place we inhabit in a state of confusion, distraction, or overwhelming emotion will most likely become disordered. Mess can happen in seconds. It can also be set to rights in moments, when it is clearly inharmonious and does not match the mental or emotional state of the humans in the room.
The key is to acknowledge that we have the power to control our own surroundings. We can decide what we want from a space. So often, we associate order and organization with nit-picking and criticism, but it doesn't have to be that way. It can be calm, or warm and welcoming, or strikingly stylish, or whatever we want. What we want is to live intentionally. What we want is to have our outsides reflect our insides, and vice versa. If we're going to have any blurry zones, let them be around the areas of bad memories or our friends' flaws.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.