The Urge to Purge

Anything in your life that suffocates you is junk. Anything that crowds the life out of you is junk. That which restricts our living, loving, thinking, and feeling is junk, be it a thing, habit, person, place, or position. Anything that builds, edifies, enriches our spirit–that makes us truly happy, regardless of how worthless it may be in cash terms–ain’t junk. ( Not for Packrats Only, p. 142)

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These days when friends ask me what I’ve been up to, I usually start beating around the bush, telling them about working on my bike or the poop cupcakes I made last week. Eventually though, I must explain that the bulk of my mental energy the last few weeks has been dedicated to decluttering my house, and why it has been so important.

A year ago, I felt like my life was out of control. My house only reflected that chaos. Instead of being a sea of calm in a cruel, cruel world, any notion of respite at home was laughable at best. There was so much “stuff” catching the dust my rickety old house generated, I couldn’t really keep anything clean with the little time I had. After about six straight months of intense drama in the outside world, I decided to make my home a pleasant place to be for me. This spring I started reading books like Clutter Control and various web sites like Unclutterer, and made some slow, steady progress thinning out my immense book collection. Then this summer I started watching Hoarders.

If you haven’t seen it, each episode of Hoarders (which you can view online!) features two compulsive hoarders whose living spaces are so packed with stuff that they face eviction, jail time, losing their children, or more. During the episode, they try to clear their house aided by a mental health and/or organization professional who specializes in working with compulsive hoarders. There is an amazing age/gender diversity among the hoarders, and many of them function so well outside the home that they regard their house as their one huge, shameful secret.

When the hoarders clean their house with the professional, a series of questions are asked about specific possessions. A high level of anxiety usually subsides, uncovering other emotional issues, which are then discussed and worked through one possession at a time. Although all the hoarders make some modicum of progress, it’s clearly a struggle, often exacerbated by external hardships like living with an alcoholic parent, a family’s impatience with the hoarder’s behavior, meeting an external deadline to avoid eviction, and so on.

Inspired by this show, I started noticing hoarding-like symptoms in myself and those around me. An entire closet shelf of different versions of my favorite game, even though the friends who come over don’t really enjoy playing it. Having difficulty finding seating in the room a relative spends most of their time in, because the room is packed to the brim with fabric and magazines which they claim will be used “someday.” Keeping an unplayable, unfixable violin for ten years because of my sentimental attachment to it.

My mind on overdrive, a few nights I woke up at 2am and started obsessively reading books about decluttering and the psychology of clutter on my new best friend, Google Books. Cut the Clutter and Stow the Stuff was instantly intriguing to me, as it seemed more in-depth than your average anti-clutter book, separating out different types of clutter personalities and pointing out specific pitfalls. Stop Clutter from Stealing Your Life was written by a former hoarder, presenting a compelling true story and digging into clutter/hoarding psychology a fair amount. Reading the Google previews of those books inspired me to start taking more drastic action with the stuff in my house.

And then I discovered Julie Morgenstern.

A friend forwarded me a link to a book she wrote about making your work life work for you, called Never Check Email in the Morning. (Oh, if only I had had that book a year ago!) I liked the Google Books preview so much, I requested the book from the library. At the same time, I watched the short video Amazon had posted to promote another one of her books, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life. In that video, she discussed her past life in theater, and when she finally got rid of her old scripts, her new organizing business suddenly billowed.

“Hey, I was just contemplating getting rid of all my old scripts the other day!” I reminded myself. It was like she was speaking directly to me, and I was hooked. Purging continued steadily as I sold my old piano/violin/vocal music on Craigslist, cleared out more books, trusted the universe to provide me with the clothes I needed if I would just throw out my nasty old T-shirts, and finally recycled some scripts.

At a thrift store last week, I found and started reading Not for Packrats Only while I waited for a friend. Perhaps I should point out here that I am refusing to buy any of these anti-clutter books, on the principle of stopping clutter before it starts. Instead of buying this book for $1.99, I checked it out of the library and have since been alternatively inspired and dismayed by the literary equivalent of a fluffernutter.

Regardless, I continue plugging along on my purging mission, asking myself a series of questions I’ve learned from the collected wisdom of these books. When was the last time I used this? Why do I still have it? Is it something that I feel I need to keep for my identity? What can I do or tell myself to allow me to let it go anyway? Is it worth the space it takes up? If I keep it in storage is it going to get worn or destroyed? Can I get another one when the “someday” I am saving it for comes? Would the money it could bring in do better in the bank than what the item is physically doing for me now? What’s the worst that could happen if I get rid of it?

Already I’m experiencing the impact of letting go of the old to allow in the new. Much like Julie Morgenstern experienced, an excellent, unexpected opportunity appeared on the horizon yesterday, supporting the direction I want my career to be moving in. I’ve gotten the shot in the arm to keep trudging along in my quest for a happy house.

Moving forward, I will strive to be more conscientious about the things I let in past the door. The past few years I’ve tried to help my relatives by giving them genuinely useful Christmas presents instead of more “stuff.” Some items I’ve come across I’m planning to use as gifts, creating a win-win situation–they get a useful present, and I get to get rid of my “stuff!”

Extrapolating from physical clutter, I’ve even started setting my sights on a philosophy much like the one at the top of this post, trying to keep mindful of people, ideas, situations, or whatever causes as much mental clutter as that milk crate of sheet music I just sold.

Thus, if I know you, you had better start “enriching my spirit” or I’m dumping you off at Value Village along with my old sheets!



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3 responses to “The Urge to Purge

  1. How did I miss this? My friend Dmae wrote an article about hoarding issues in her family that was recently published in the Oregon Humanities Journal:

  2. MoM

    Hey! I know that “relative” you’re talking about. You know, the one with all of the fabric and piles of magazines! That’s ME!!! Now is that any way to talk about your dear mother ?

    (yes…I know it’s true…but I TRY 😦 )

  3. Pingback: Why I’m Quitting Farmville « bookish

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