We are getting ready for a trip to the US and Canada. I haven’t been to North America since the 2012-2013 New Year. So in preparation, I had to sort through my very organised box of foreign currency. Oddly, however, this handful of coins now seems exotic to me.
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Yesterday to celebrate New Years, I took S. to see a movie. On our way there, I did my habitual reach towards the necklace D. recently bought me and there was nothing there. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I remembered seeing the necklace the day before on the vanity in the bathroom. But yesterday morning I had zealously cleaned and had thrown everything into the sink so I could clear the countertop. Had it gone down the drain?
I couldn’t do anything until I got home, at which time I drove D. and S. crazy as I mentally envisioned everything I had done since I last saw it. I remembered holding it, examining it, and especially seeing it on the counter. I went to the bathroom and began tearing everything apart – even finding things I had long forgotten and knowing I had not seen them recently. I found another necklace I do not even remember receiving.
I proceeded to take apart the pipes under the sink – nothing but a nice clog cleared. And then I remembered that in the morning, the rug on the bathroom floor had been rumpled up like the cats had been digging around. In Australia we have floor drains and that drain is usually covered by the bath mat. My only hope was that the cats had been playing with the necklace and dropped it down the drain – and that my cleaning fury had not washed it away.
I opened up the drain, used tongs to blindly dip into the murky water at the bottom and after about four fruitless scoops, up came the necklace. I am nothing if not determined when I have lost something – especially something I love.
Chained to my computer today while I revise an article under a tight deadline and desperate for distractions, I just had an epiphany about my research. I have been working on the concept of hoarded memory of the Algerian War for a few years already and I’ve been overwhelmed with the sheer volume of testimonial and pictorial debris I have to sift through. Often it is one author who produces an excessive number of volumes about his or her past.
Why does it only occur to me now that I have been trained for this my whole life? I am trying to make sense out of that layered, piled up story of a traumatic past, just like I have always been sifting through my dad’s stuff to reorder it, to pare it down, to make it accessible to those who live with him. There is some good stuff in his metaphorical curio cabinet, but it is getting destroyed and obscured as more is layered upon it.
I’m a terrible digital hoarder. I had something ridiculous like 6000 unread messages in my inbox until last month. This was mostly spam or things I had read that I wanted to go back to, or things I had just forgotten to look at. I have known for quite some time that the organisational system I adopted when I started working in Australia was not working at all. I could not trick myself into going back to the so-called new messages because I knew I had already read them. So they accumulated. Before school started this semester, I spent a few hours and deleted all but 3. Now I’m back up to about 8, but I know what is in there. On the other hand, I have more than 16,000 messages in my inbox.
Somehow digital hoarding is not something I can overcome. My computer has so many files on it, even from my student years, that I feel I may someday need with urgency. They have come in handy when giving talks about now defunct websites that deal with memory or in dredging up old teaching materials, but honestly, most just lie there dormant cluttering up my hard drive. They are innocuous because I do not see them, they do not hinder me from moving about, and my computer behaves as if unfettered by their weight. But I think the burden of that endless archive may catch up with me and entrap me like a snowball gaining momentum on its downhill journey.
It’s fall trash pickup time here in Brisbane and we have been sorting items we want to discard. We put a bicycle and a stroller out to the curb and both were snatched up almost immediately by one of the many roving trucks that make daily trips through the neighborhood looking for treasures. Some houses have massive piles of junk out front that have been well picked over and look like a junk yard.
Yesterday I cycled into work and past the hoarding house I keep my eye on. Sadly I recognized all sorts of new junk piled in the front of the yard and onto the back of two trucks. I have watched this house for the past two years and I know that these items are not going away to good use any time soon. Children’s toys and plastic garden chairs topped off the mounds.
At least in our house some purging is happening. We scrapped an old barbecue, we’re giving away the bike trailer S. used to ride in, and I’ve been putting our old t-shirts to good use. I’m making D. his own rug. So far it contains seven tees, with number eight balled up on top.
From Zynga with love to the hoarder. This can have no good outcome.
While not able to fall asleep last night, my mind raced through details trying to calm itself. I wondered if my upcoming counseling appointment is perhaps weighing more heavily on me than I thought. There is a fairly large sense of guilt looming over me for not being able to manage things by myself. Objectively I see counseling as an intelligent activity: there are experts to help with that. But personally, it falls in the same sort of shameful indulgence as having a cleaner come do my house. I just can’t permit it though I do not judge those who do. In fact, I envy them.
So I wondered why I feel such shame in asking for help. I should be able to manage my own house and my own emotions. But the reality is sometimes otherwise. It’s just hard to stay on top of it all.
And then I wondered if perhaps my parents shamed me for asking for help at some point. My mom and dad went to a counsellor named Sheldon, I think, when I was ten or twelve and they were beginning to separate. My brother and I saw him once. He asked us what we thought was wrong or what we thought might help them. My clear childlike answer was “Money.” They were financially wrecked and we bore the aftermath of that for years. I expect they set the example for me: they dug themselves out of that mess without declaring bankruptcy.
I will ask for help sometimes. I have been known to ask a bus driver for help finding my stop. I will occasionally ask for advice from someone I deeply trust or about something that seems inconsequential like, “what types of birthday presents are appropriate for 4 year olds?” At work I have no trouble asking questions about policy and formality. But if I am stuck in any situation I perceive I have put myself into and there is anything remotely shameful about it (i.e. I’m lost), I feel it is my own responsibility to bail myself out or suffer the consequences. Asking for help is hard. Very very hard. And when I do ask for help, if I sense I won’t get it, I quickly retract my request. “Fine, I’ll handle it.” I will whinge but I will get it straightened out eventually. That’s not very efficient, but it has required me to be resourceful.
Back to the situation at hand, though, I wonder if other COH (Children of Hoarders) have this same problem. How hard is it for you to ask for help? Did our parents, especially the narcissistic ones, teach us not to ask? I’d rather chew off my own arm than ask my father (HP) help me get out of any situation. He would probably be only too happy to help me — well maybe, he might also knock me over the head for it — but I would never hear the end of it. “Look what I did for you!”
When I was a child, my dad (HP) would run cleaning drills. They would often start in tears, probably as a punishment for something we had done wrong, continue in tears, and inevitably end in tears. He would bark orders at us, have us completely under his control, and follow us around the house inspecting and telling us where we had missed something. Basically we were made to feel useless, incapable of even cleaning the house to his expectations. I do not recall if my mother was there or if she helped. I know she was the one who bore the brunt of his anger and did most of the household chores throughout my early childhood though.
Fast forward to today. I’ve only recently realized that I start cleaning the house when I’m upset about something. I specifically tend to wash dishes or clean the floor. These are tasks I loathed in childhood. They were the ones that were most noticeably done wrong. Somehow all that crying while cleaning became normal. Now when I cry, I just start cleaning as if to console myself.
What a mess.
My HP father has an uncanny memory. If you can get him talking about the past, he will tell you vivid stories with amazing detail about what it was like growing up. He hoards memory like he hoards newspapers and hunting magazines.
My career is based on studying what people say about their pasts (nostalgic and traumatic), but more particularly, I’m interested in how they say it. I have thought for at least a decade already that there is no way to validate memories – memories change, different ones emerge at different times, and maybe there is no true memory. For that matter, I have less faith in a concrete memory that reappears each time in the exact same form than I do in one that may reveal something different each time.
But variable as memories are, you cannot argue with someone about what they recall. How would it help me to prove to my father that his dad was not wearing plaid the day he did x, y or z. Or for that matter, what does it matter if my grandfather did not do x, y or z? What matters is my dad remembers it. He has held onto that scrap of information, however useless it may seem to me, and he has carried it around because it matters to him to retain it. He is telling me more about himself today than the reality of the past he may have lived.
Frost and Steketee have established a link between hoarders and memory (each item is indispensable because it has attached meaning, and the hoarder has a gift for seeing these connections). But how many of the links are false and corrupt? And does it matter? Because in the end, the hoard remains.
How Many of Your Memories are Fake? from The Atlantic, 18 November 2013.