Most of the things we do are based on stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works. My work with squalor and hoarding has exposed me to a rich and varied folklore about material objects and their emotional significance. Fascinating stuff. (See what I did there?)
“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” and at least as many in the average cluttered house. Every object has a story attached to it: Where it was bought, who gave it as a gift, what occasion it represents, what future aspiration it signifies, how it fits into a collection, what it does, and often how much it cost. It’s like everything has an invisible QR code that can only be read by the materially-oriented owner. Ah, but – in every house where I have ever worked, there are objects that turn up that nobody recognizes. Usually there are enough mystery objects to fill a standard moving box. Nobody can figure out where they came from or how long they’ve been there. I suspect interdimensional portals of some sort.
My people are versatile and resourceful. Pick up any object at random and they will be able to come up with dozens of potential uses for it. That’s part of the attraction behind empty packaging materials or doodads that someone else would throw in the recycling without a second thought. Might come in handy. Sure. I bet I could come up with a list of uses for a roadkilled skunk, a broken lawn chair, and a gallon of corks, but that doesn’t mean I need them in my garage. The irony behind these divergent thinking skills is that they lead to maximal stuff, rather than minimal. If you’re MacGyver, you can build anything out of the bits and bobs laying around in a parking lot. If you’re the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, all you need is coconuts. What’s with the warren of tottering box towers?
One of the sadder paradoxes of clutter is that my people are very territorial about their belongings, yet not very good about respecting the boundaries of other people in the home. Don’t touch my stuff, even the stuff of mine that I put in your closet. Don’t touch my stuff, even when it’s on the dining table, the couch, the kitchen counters, the bathroom counters, and the living room floor. I know children who are teenagers and have lived their entire lives with part of a parent’s hoard in their bedroom closet. There are always reasons why the stuff is there, reasons that boil down to “I am unable to respect that others are equally entitled to a fair share of the communal living space.”
Another paradox of clutter is that it tends to build up in inverse proportion to perception of financial stability. Poverty makes us cling to what we can. When we’re more financially comfortable, we start to realize that we could buy one of those any time, and maybe we don’t need it right now. Personally, I have a harder time letting go of things if I got them for free. When we’re broke, we like wandering around the thrift store or the dollar store or the library book sale, because these are places where we finally feel like we can splurge and bring home anything we like. We don’t realize that over the course of a year, we’re spending the same amount we would buying fewer, higher quality, more expensive items. Some of us are even paying a monthly fee for a storage unit we can ill afford, not realizing that after a few years, we could replace every single thing in there with a brand-new one for what we paid to store it all.
Clutter doesn’t make rational sense, by definition. Clutter isn’t about the nature of the object, or its value; it’s about whether it is disorganized or whether it gets in the way. Clutter makes it harder to clean up and harder to find important things. It’s also a safety hazard. Why do we create these high-maintenance living environments for ourselves? It’s because we value individual objects more than we value their collective utility or the function of the space we’ve cluttered up. We don’t realize what a burden our stuff places on other people around us. Life gets easier when we start to trust our ability to make do without a particular object, the power we have to troubleshoot and solve problems without money, and the freedom we feel when we finally have room to move.
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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.