“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.” This is a classic in the Parental Playbook; it is illustrated with its own full-color plate. It’s the one of a pouting child sitting on a bed underneath a banner that reads WE ARE DISAPPOINTED IN YOU. I realized one day that I had never finished the book. I was still sitting on the bed. I had no idea what came next. Sitting on my bed and thinking about what I had done was the only thing I really knew how to do well.
Perseverating can go in one of three directions. It can eventually lead to valuable introspection and personal growth. It can resolve into a regular writing practice. Unfortunately, most of the time it just hardens into a tendency to ruminate and second-guess oneself into a life of analysis paralysis. We sit and stew, not even realizing how many opportunities are passing us by, because opportunities never plop down on a pillow next to us.
Nests come in many shapes and forms. They can often be spotted by the permanent depression they leave. (See what I did there?) My nest was the middle of my bed, where I always retreated when I felt too ill or exhausted to meet my daily responsibilities. Other popular nesting locations are a couch, chair, or computer desk. They can be identified by their squashed cushions amid a clearly defined ring of small objects. We default to our chosen nesting spots, and we feather them with favored items. There are usually empty and full drinking vessels, whether those are soda cans or cups, teacups, coffee mugs, water bottles, or a disquieting number of alcohol containers. There are likewise usually dirty bowls, plates, food wrappers, or pizza boxes. There’s a high likelihood of papers, mail, and reading material. Thirty years ago, there likely would have been an ashtray; now, it’s probably a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Other detritus winds up in the nest, in the same manner that corvids collect shiny objects: nail clippers, sewing needles, coins, stray earrings. Scattered nearby will be anything else that was carried there, used there, and remains there until we somehow reach escape velocity and manage to get out of our own gravitational field.
This is part of how hoarding happens. The tendency to sit in the nest becomes stronger and stronger, and the nest becomes larger and deeper. A nest begins as a comforting retreat, a safe place to hide away and regroup. The more comfortable the nest, the less reason there ever is to leave it. Many of us struggle to get out the door with enough margin to arrive at our commitments on time, and a key factor behind this is the desire to stay in the nest. The more stress and anxiety we feel upon leaving, the more attractive the nest, and the better it feels to return to it and sit in it. If we feel like we are getting negative feedback about the nest (for bird nests are usually messy, smelly places, if warm), we then feel the need to protect it from criticism or rejection. The more feathers in the nest, the less likely anyone else will want to come over and sit in it. Squalor in particular can be expressed as an overt, fully conscious “F You” to specific individuals. “Excuse the Mess But We Live Here” is perfectly equivalent to “Sorry Not Sorry.”
A certain portion of the contents of every hoard I have seen is made up of genuine trash, just for volume, because we can only afford so much packing material. Stuff has insulating qualities. It deadens sound. It makes a room smaller and cheaper to heat. It creates obstacles that keep people from reaching us. It marks our territory. It preserves the illusion that time is not passing.
For many years, I had a rickety floor-to-ceiling bookcase made of wooden crates, boards, and concrete blocks. It was a safety hazard and it looked terrible. I packed it full of secondhand books, some gifts, some that I had picked up at library fundraisers or thrift stores. Most people seem to keep books they have read and enjoyed; I buy books that I seem to believe I will read one day, but then almost never do. At least 80% of the books I stacked along my wall never got read. As I was collecting them, I was checking out and reading library books. I had no need to purchase or collect books. It hit me one day, as I was sitting in my nest in the middle of my bed and staring at that wall of books, that I had started putting it up between me and whatever wall of my bedroom adjoined the loudest, most populated room of the house. I started downsizing when I began living alone for the first time and no longer had anyone to block out.
I started leaving my nest more and more often, as I felt better and as I had better things to do. I’m fortunate that I tend toward curiosity and wonder; my drive to research and explore and travel and go on Fact-Finding Missions has usually surpassed my drive to chillax in my nest. I started to realize that a higher activity level improved the quality of my sleep and decreased my level of chronic pain. Hunching over a book or a keyboard or a sewing project or a screen tended to do the opposite. At this point in my life, I’ve completely flipped my ratio of nest time to active time. I sit only rarely, when I’m working, and I tend to pop up and down between work sessions. I feel confined when I spend too much time indoors or at home. I feel too physically restless to sit. I can’t even sleep in anymore. When I’m up, I’m up. I’ve been sleeping 8-9 hours a night for so long now that I don’t have any extra snoozling ability.
Nests are meant to be temporary. Pelagic birds such as the puffin live at sea, coming to shore only for the brief periods necessary to lay a clutch of eggs and raise the hatchlings. The rest of the time, they’re out and about this vast blue ball called Earth. I can identify with this. When I go to sleep in my little backpacking tent, it looks and feels the same, even when I’ve had to pack it up each morning and pitch it in a different spot each night. It’s even round and yellow. My carry-on suitcase has a similar nesting feel. I pack the same items in the same pockets no matter where I’m going. My laptop is another type of nest. I sit at it and hatch one egg after another. Fly free, little birdies!
There is a type of nest that is comfortable for good reasons. That is the nest we make when we’re snuggling with someone lovely. In cold weather, we get out an old quilt, and the ritual of Couch Time commences. Our dog fusses at the quilt until he can get underneath. The parrot waits impatiently while he turns around and gets comfortable. As soon as he stops fidgeting under the blanket, she rushes over and stands on him. (She’s gone in there with him, but the dog fort is too hot for her). The four of us nestle together, two of us working or reading or watching a movie, the other two sharing body heat while pretending they aren’t. Our Couch Time nest is a part of our family romance. There is nothing wrong with the natural urge to nest, as long as it leads to a bigger life and more love in the world.
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.