These are stories I've heard a thousand times. The siblings who are no longer on speaking terms due to a fight over an old photo album. The adult children who are making claims on furniture and china while their parents are still alive. Entire branches of a family tree ready to go to court over an old ring. These are just the material objects. We call them 'heirlooms' but they're really more like grenades or land mines, ready to rip generations to shreds, shrapnel piercing hearts.
Let's not even talk about the money.
Estates are the most dramatic, but hardly the only examples of the way that we prioritize mute, soulless housewares over other human beings. We continue to have to be told "first people, then money, then things" because we don't truly believe in it. We love our shiny stuff, don't we?
Get into a fender bender. Feel burning rage over the damage to the vehicle, rather than weeping with gratitude that everyone survived. Hello, precious stranger, can we hug? Because I couldn't bear the thought of your blood in the gutter. I'd never sleep again. Oh, by the way, I am also so sorry about your paint and fiberglass. Now that would be an interesting world to live in.
House is on fire. Airplane is on fire. Ferry boat is sinking in the sea. How many times, how many times, how many times do people try to get out with their luggage? How many exits have been blocked because someone had to try to save the camera or the laptop? We know better. We've seen so many movies. We understand disaster. Yet there's always someone whose first thought is to save the shiny stuff. Sorry, sir, your children are going to have to die today because MY STUFF.
Crisis brings out our true natures. Most of the time, though, we're blessed with boringly ordinary days. So many days. All our loved ones are accounted for, everyone still alert, walking, with full use of all limbs and senses. It's too much to ask to expect us to be grateful for this. Only after something goes wrong do we finally understand that appreciation was called for. There's nothing external to prompt us to get our priorities straight. Why should we ever put people before things? Or especially money?
People come to me, contemplating divorce because of a specific stack or pile belonging to their hoardy spouse. "Have you told him how you feel?" "Have you asked her to work with you on this?" "Why do I, a relative stranger, know you are preparing to end your marriage when your spouse doesn't?" The stuff is blocking emotions on both sides. The hoarder never reaches out to connect, can't discuss THE STUFF without getting defensive or throwing a hissy fit. The tolerator never tells the truth about those dying embers of love. How can a pile of papers or a stack of boxes have the power to kill a marriage? I'll never understand it, but they can and they do.
Not everyone I meet is ready to do the work. I always recognize "my people" on contact. They'd be lucky to ever meet anyone else as unfazed or sympathetic toward their living situation as I am. I have seen some serious stuff in my time. If they're not ready, though, they're not ready. When they're at a One or a Two on the Readiness Scale, they always sound the same way. They're not prepared to acknowledge that they have any part to play in their financial situation, their state of health, their career growth, their living environment, or their social life. Talking about these things tends to make them irritable and defensive. There is nothing harder to bear than to find that one of the central dramas of your life is a routine pattern faced by many others. I don't want information! I want sympathy!
The broke person who is paying for a storage unit. The broke person who has a stash of "valuable" (?) collectibles yet refuses to sell. The broke person who could be renting out a spare room, yet it's full of stuff. The broke person who keeps buying stuff, even if it's from the thrift store or the library book sale. The broke person who might be able to get a job in a different city, but relocating is completely unthinkable due to the stuff. The broke person who could cover the cost of renters insurance, or some other bill, by selling off some of the excess, but will never do it. I know someone who literally sold blood plasma rather than sell off some collectibles. Things, then money, then people, even when it's oneself.
The single person without so much as a single drawer or shelf that could be used by a partner. The single person (or married person) who would rather break off the relationship than get rid of any of the stuff. The single person who is more comfortable with objects (including books) than other humans. The single person who would rather stay home than go anywhere and risk meeting strangers. The single person who is substituting the company of pets for the company of a life partner, and boasting about it.
The unwell person whose kitchen is unusable due to clutter and squalor. The unwell person who does not have enough floor space in any room to do a simple physical therapy exercise. The unwell person who sits in a crowded house and tolerates chronic pain rather than seek treatment or make any lifestyle changes. The unwell person who would have to do forty percent more work to clean around a cluttered house, and so does nothing. The unwell person who fights constant respiratory ailments in a house full of dust, mold, filthy floors, and pet dander.
It's hard for us to see the connections when we're in the middle of them. The connection between clutter and financial hardship. The connection between clutter and debt. The connection between clutter and petty squabbles. The connection between clutter and loneliness. The connection between clutter and health problems. We don't see it. Those moments when we behold a shiny, shiny object can hold us in thrall, so that for a brief moment, we forget all our troubles. We can get so caught up in the minutia of a thousand shiny things that we never pull back to look at the overall pattern. We put things first, so we don't notice what's going on with the money, so we feel this overwhelming sense of scarcity or desperation. This tends to prevent us from fully attending to another person, from opening up, from seeing that this is a fellow human who may need us more than we need anything or anyone else at the moment.
If we knew how, we could find more joy in camaraderie and friendship than we do in all the dumb ornaments and contraptions with which we surround ourselves. If we allowed ourselves to feel it, the love and companionship available to us would fill us up in a way that shopping and collecting never can. If we could manage it, if we could put other people first for even a minute at a time, we'd find that we could get by with very little money and very few material possessions after all.
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.