Clutter is complicated because not all of it is there for the same reasons. Some of it we keep because we don’t know what to do with it. Some of it we keep because it’s almost-but-not-quite what we really want. Some of it we keep because it ties us to the past and holds our memories. Some of it we keep because it got buried under everything else and we forgot it was there. Some of it we keep because it represents our aspirations for the future. Then there are the emotional placeholders.
Emotional placeholders are things we keep to represent dormant or dead relationships.
Photographs. Letters from people we don’t talk to or see anymore. Letters we wrote but never sent. Gifts we never gave. Entire boxes of unsent holiday cards or thank-you notes. Projects we started for someone but never finished. Possessions that belong to someone who isn’t in our life anymore. Sometimes, the people associated with these items have died, and getting rid of the item is like erasing the person. Just looking at these items or handling them brings up waves of emotions so strong that we feel we will be dragged out in an undertow of tears.
As often as not, the people associated with emotional placeholders are very much alive. We’re not always sure what happened. Old lovers. Former roommates. Best friends who somehow got away. Children who have cut us off, and maybe never even said goodbye. Estranged relatives, perhaps the entire familial branch.
We may think of these people every single day. We may have picked up the phone intending to call. We may have called or e-mailed or reached out on a regular basis for years. We may instead have failed somehow, keeping everything we wanted to say bottled up like so much souvenir sand. We tell ourselves that it’s the thought that counts. The love is there; isn’t that enough?
The truth is complicated. Unless they tell us, we can only guess what other people are thinking or why they do what they do. We may have been the cause of the problem. We may have been sitting on an apology that should have been delivered ages ago. It may have been our clutter that crowded someone out, and that’s perhaps the hardest. We can’t control other people’s thoughts or feelings or behavior. We can’t control the past. We can’t take back our words or actions, no matter how much we might wish we could.
There are two things we can do. We can recognize that no material object can ever take the place of a person. Things are not memories. Things are not feelings. We can learn to detach the emotion from the object. The other thing we can do is say what needs to be said.
I miss you.
I don’t know what to say.
I wish I had done things differently.
I just wanted you to know.
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.