Post Traumatic Stuff Disorder: When Cluttered Environments Trigger Anxiety and Dread
Each night along the Camino de Santiago, I sorted and organized the contents of my backpack, leaving behind what I no longer needed. Sometimes all I threw away were cheese rinds and Band-Aid wrappers, essentially weightless, taking up little space. Other times I left behind perfectly good things that were redundant, such as a compact hairbrush and mirror (I had a comb, most albergues had mirrors). To shed even a few ounces was a liberation from my habit of over-preparedness and of finding security through things.
As I wrote here at the end of 2012, when I returned from my six week pilgrimage, reacquainting myself with the contents of the duffel bag I had left at my younger brother’s home jarred me. My purse, cosmetics and even clothing seemed to belong to someone with completely different needs. But that was nothing compared to the mountain of things I had stored in a 10’x10′ unit before I departed Denver for Spain, what remained after driving carloads to Goodwill and selling items through eBay and Craigslist. During the first few weeks of walking, I didn’t think about this stuff at all. Perhaps a month into the Camino a fearful thought dared to skitter across my mind, freaking me out that something might have happened to my life’s possessions. Since there was nothing I could do, I dropped the thought rather than spiral into needless worry. Upon returning, I discovered I was not in a rush to reunite with my belongings, untouched and unscathed. Indeed, I could barely recall what they were.
Lifting the squeaky metal door to my storage unit the first time, I felt in my bones the weight of all the boxes and bins, stacked floor to ceiling. My spirit sagged. I wondered why I hadn’t given everything, or at least much more, away before my pilgrimage, allowing me to start fresh. Nimble. Not schlepping a caravan of stuff like a modern nomad. At the time I left for Spain, a wholesale purge felt too drastic and emotionally wrenching. Many things had stories or memories attached to them. To give those up at once terrified me. It would have been a kind of death, an erasure of the past.
But to be reunited with my belongings all at once also terrified me, as if their presence alone could crowd out my hard won inner space. It’s one reason I chose, upon moving to Boulder, to live in furnished rented rooms with neutral decor. With most of my books, artwork and knickknacks packed away, they could not bombard me with stories and memories that make keeping my attention on the present all the more challenging. In recent months I’ve made pilgrimages to my storage unit, an archive of past lives, to continue sorting, donating and gifting that which I no longer want or need. As the piles slowly shrink, I feel lighter and more emboldened to shed or shred perfectly good things that, just a few years ago, I would have kept simply because they were “perfectly good” or because, some day, I might need them. Having just moved to a larger, unfurnished space, I no longer wish to continue subsidizing my life’s gradually dwindling archive. I want to completely empty my storage unit and, yet, I fear that introducing too much stuff too quickly into my new space will rekindle post traumatic stuff disorder.
My father’s unexpected death likely triggered my disorder, and I don’t use that term lightly. He left behind a large, cluttered house, where photographs and personal treasures mingled in drawers, closets and boxes with junk and useless papers. For months I waded through his things, separating wheat from chaff, fearful that if I weren’t careful I might throw away something precious. What if one of his endless scribblings on envelopes and lined notepads revealed something I hadn’t known? When overwhelm finally hit, I stored much of what I had deemed “wheat” in boxes and bins. In subsequent years, when time and energy permitted, I re-sifted the contents, discovering that many things I had clung to after his passing no longer seemed as critical. To find and discard new chaff was like removing another brick of grief even if it meant, at the same time, weakening the hold of memory.
People who lose their possessions to burglary, fire or flood deal with the shock of instant loss and the realization that they are not in control. Hopefully they adjust, adapt and move on from what was likely an impersonal event. In the rebuilding and redecorating, they can make new choices, unfettered by previous ones. They might discover, in the gratitude for remaining unharmed, how little they really need or how few things they actually miss. At times I wondered what I would do if my storage unit went up in flames. Would I cry? Would grief or relief dominate?
Years ago I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The title alone still makes me pause, even for reasons unrelated to the plot. To feel that lightness and the fragility of each moment and of life itself can be so unbearable that we trade it for heaviness, either the emotional kind or the solid anchors of a house and furniture so that we feel tied to this world. Sometimes emotional weightiness is bound up in objects, whether they are as cumbersome as a couch or as light as a letter. For the last week or so I’ve sifted through boxes and bins of my own possessions. Often I can’t remember what’s inside, so opening them is like receiving gifts from my earlier self. Some things, like a trio of small ceramic pomegranates I bought in Israel, still delight. Others, like bent or slightly rusty kitchen utensils, do not. When I encounter duplicate objects or books, I no longer hesitate to get rid of one of them. If I haven’t used something in years, I no longer listen to the voice that says, “Well, one day you might want it.” Out it goes. Still, each item I donate, gift or throw away feels like prying a plank from the narrow bridge on which I’ve been walking and tossing it into oblivion. I can no longer retrace all of my steps, only go forward. My hope is that by getting rid of more things I’ll be able to live in a way I haven’t before: in the present, with as much space and lightness as possible, much as I felt at the end of my pilgrimage.
You know, everything you say here about unburdening and traveling light rings true. At the same time, my house is a repository for other family members who are themselves lightening their own loads, yet they rightly want to maintain the family history archive. I think there is some truth in ‘If you don’t remember where you came from, you don’t know where you are going.’ I would feel absolutely terrible about shedding the family history, yet I do get rid of things all the time that are not related to it.
I think it’s a question of degree: how many things or photo albums do we need to remind us where we came from? And if the only place we can feel most alive is in the present moment, do we even need any reminders of what happened yesterday? That’s a radical question I keep asking myself…and I might never reach an answer! As I continue this process of shedding, I am photographing certain things (like my old artwork) so I’ll have a digital record. Right now, my need for space is trumping my old sentimentality, which had me keep EVERYTHING, to the point that it became a burden.
Well, Ilona, in my case, the number of old letters and photos I need to remind my extended family of all the places we came from takes up a whole room, and extends back 200 years! I feel that it is important to read what people wrote in other times and places in order to have perspective on our own thoughts and assumptions in this place and time. And, the only way I know to delve into other people’s thoughts is through the process of archiving. Which takes up space and isn’t light at all. I have much less respect for my own stuff than for the really old stuff, although even as I say that, I realize that 200 years from now, someone might be grateful to see how I lived and what I thought about.
It’s wonderful you have such an extensive record! The Holocaust destroyed nearly all my ancestors, not to mention their records, on my father’s side. My mother’s parents came here with very little. Does this mean I don’t know where I came from? Yes and No, depending on the day. But the absence of a decent paper trail and uninterrupted family narrative has, over the years, invited me to question who am I, really? Do I value the few things and pictures that survived? Yes, but how many do I really need to keep? Can other family members keep them, instead? And does keeping them support me or weigh me down? I ask these questions of myself; I don’t believe for a moment that I can answer these questions for anyone else.
I also have given away a lot of my past. A part of me misses it, as “proof” of the person I used to be and the things I accomplished. Just recently when I told my children that I was going to do a presentation at their school for the Great American Teach-In, they looked at me incredulously and said something like “but you don’t do anything!” I was taken aback. They don’t know about my 4 years in college, my 5 years in graduate school, the countries I lived in and travelled to, the people who used to be in my life. I suppose it’s one of the things about having children late in life that you already have so much of a past before they even arrive. Which “you” do they know? How much of “you” is made up of your current actions vs. the accumulation of your past actions? I don’t have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves containing every volume I ever read for college and grad school or shelves of souvenirs or artwork from my travels to show them, as so many people do. Is my past even relevant to them? Is it relevant to me anymore? In some ways, it’s too late–the stuff is gone. How do you, Ilona, create your identity in the present while still acknowledging the past that contributed to who you have become?
Isn’t it amazing how each generation thinks that its parents’ lives began when the children were born? I thought I did a pretty good job of revealing myself to my children as they were growing, but I don’t think they took in much of what I said. They are all well into adulthood now and I am constantly surprised at how little they know about me, or about family connections. I guess maybe my parents felt the same way about me.
Sarah, I love your questions! They are inspiring me to write a whole post about that. Stay tuned!
Great post Ilona, you’ve really struck a chord. I think people all over the world are feeling trapped and overwhelmed by the clutter in their lives. It’s a very liberating process once you begin to sort through the stuff, and work out that all you really need is loved ones and wonderful experiences together. Life is too short to put time, funds and energy into collecting scented candles and salad servers 😉
Funny you mention candles…one of the first things I did upon moving was buying some (mildly scented ones) for my bathroom, office, and for meditation. Lighting candles is something I enjoy, although I don’t need to collect a year’s supply! I also appreciate well-crafted things and believe they add to the quality my life; for me, this process is also about curating and in some cases upgrading or investing, so that I’ll have fewer things that I really will enjoy and keep for a long time, rather than always trying to find a bargain and ending up with stuff that was a “deal” but that doesn’t really satisfy my soul.
Super post IIona. We have moved so many times in our married life that our possessions have been packed up, broken in transit and then repacked to de-clutter. However, having spent a lot of time looking after my mother in her home, surrounded by her collection of ‘things’ – I saw what a comfort they were to her even with dementia. I looked at our own belongings differently when I returned to my own home. I have thousands of photos that nobody else will value, but I do. Every item in our home is a memory of places and people we have met together – the past is part of who we are today – we just all choose to remember it differently.
Thanks for commenting. And I love the vignette about your mother. For me, the issue is whether a particular photo or object triggers a positive memory, a neutral one, or a less pleasant one. As a single person, much of what I have is not connected to a relationship with a life partner, so many of my things are not imbued with joint memories but rather with my own state of mind at the time I bought them. Sometimes I’d rather not be reminded of that state of mind! And after my pilgrimage, where I felt the benefit of traveling light, I see my possessions in a whole new light. I think key memories stay with us whether we have physical manifestations of them or not, or these memories visit us unbidden. I’m not sure I need to remember every moment of my life in order to live the rest of it fully. Others, of course, might disagree.
Ilona, I think you’ve touched on an important distinction here. If I am saving stuff just for myself, it is to please me only, and it can easily be rejected at any time. Especially memories that drag down my spirit- those should be torched immediately!
I am coming from a place of collective memory. I am retaining family stories for the benefit of many others beside myself. To me, this is like tending a garden and finding “volunteers”- unexpected species- springing up in a pleasant rapture of surprise in response to all my watering and fertilizing. When members of younger generations discover something salient about our collective past, that delights me no end and I feel as if my tending is not in vain. I love it when a youngster turns the crank of an old butter churn and comes to understand something of the quality of a much earlier child’s life on the ranch. Those are experiences that come through the sense of touch and then enter our thoughts- much different from reading about the experience, or not ever having contact with it at all.
Beautifully stated! And I agree that experiences that enter through the senses are so much different.