When I was around 8 years old, I started saving gum wrappers. I would fold them with sharp creases so they fit neatly in my jewelry box. It was my intention to have one of every flavor of every brand, although I never seemed to have the resources to pull that off. I think this started after my parents told me to stop bringing home rocks I had found on my walk home from school – ordinary gray rocks, not sparkly rocks or rocks with an unusual shape. I picked up every lost button, screw, paper clip, or UFO (unidentified found object) I saw, and I perpetually walked with my head down, looking at the sidewalk. I still pick up pennies to this day.
As a kid, I was just a disaster. There was always stuff piled ankle deep on my bedroom floor. I once stepped on a thumbtack that had to be removed with pliers. My dad walked in once and stepped on the prongs of an open three-ring binder. I couldn’t go anywhere without at least one bulging backpack and usually a tote bag as well, bringing all sorts of random stuff with me to school every day. I had dozens of stuffed animals on my bed. Every object in my orbit had its own personality and backstory. I would sit on my bed for hours playing with a bag of marbles, rolling them around on the drapes and folds of the blankets, making up stories about them. I think I can still remember every toy or article of clothing I ever owned, as a kid and possibly as an adult, too.
Where do these attachments to things come from? I believe from my own experience, and from working with children and their parents, that kids are taught a particular attitude toward possessions starting in infancy. Both sides of my family treasure old photographs and handmade art objects. Parents will lovingly coach kids on who gave them what toy or shirt. Every child I have ever worked with has cheerfully, even gleefully, set aside heaps of unwanted toys and clothes, only for the distraught parents to start pulling things out of the pile. The child is made to feel guilty for not being interested in something that was a gift. That’s part of the problem. Children often start receiving gifts before they are even born into this world. They may never be in a position to choose their own possessions or what is or is not kept in their personal space. They are surrounded by a legacy of mystical objects connected to people who are important to the parents but whom they may never even have met.
The flip side of this is that children are not always allowed to set boundaries on things that are important to them, starting with physical privacy. I remember being utterly heartbroken when my mom threw out a wrinkled old piece of wax paper with a bunch of grubby old stickers on it. I would sit and stare at that thing for maybe an hour at a stretch. It was more important to me than most of my other toys. As an adult, I would have thrown it out, too, but I wasn’t asked. Kids who relocate a lot sometimes grow up to be more attached to their things, because they never felt like anything belonged to them. Possessions can be a form of permanence and security when the home, the school, and the classmates keep changing.
The emotional world of a child is complex. By the time I started compulsively accumulating, my family had relocated out of state, leaving two sets of grandparents and five of my parents’ six siblings and their families. I had two preschool-aged brothers who challenged my status in my parents’ attention. Other kids at my school had started bullying me. I retreated to a world of my own creation, where my things were predictable. I was a sensitive, sad, lonely kid without a lot of better ideas on how to spend my time.
Looking back, my drive to accumulate stuff could easily have been diverted into artistic expression and more social contact. I loved books and I once won a poetry contest. I really enjoyed learning calligraphy and playing clarinet. As an adult I learned all sorts of crafts. “Upgrading” or trading a few old objects for a new one, such as a set of watercolors or a new notebook, would be one way to help teach a child how to let go of unneeded possessions. Activities like hiking, birdwatching, learning to identify clouds or constellations, researching interests such as dinosaurs or trains, and singing together are all great ways to spend time with kids that don’t involve interacting with “stuff.” As adults, we also have to set a strong example in our own behavior, showing how we make space and let go.
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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.