Tag Archives: anxiety

permission to accumulate

Yesterday we finalized an application on a new place to live: this time it is unfurnished and unequipped. We’ve already struck a deal with the owner to purchase his refrigerator, washing machine, microwave oven and kettle. In our current rental everything has been provided except for linens. That means in the last six months I have only purchased some bedding, kiddy plates, measuring cups, spatulas, a meat thermometer and a cupcake tin. We are moving in three weeks and D. has given me the green light to shop.

After spending the last 16 months in declutter mode, this responsibility is daunting. We want to keep things minimal in case we move again in six months, but at the same time we finally get to make things the way we like them. Do we buy only cheap things, throw our mattresses on the floor, forego a kitchen table and wait to see if we will ship some furniture over from the States? Or do we have an opportunity to make things the way we like them?

As I shop online (we do not have a vehicle here), I had to study the latest Ikea catalogue for options. I’m highly impressionable, and my normal response to Ikea’s marketing is, “My life would be better if my house looked like that.” Only this time, I realized these houses look unusually cluttered, cramped, and dangerously close to something not so beautiful. If one tiny little element (say that gorgeous set of cheapy vases on the make-shift mantle) is out of place, the whole room looks off-kilter. Yet, Ikea has the magic to make me believe it’s possible to have all that stuff in one small space. Look at those rows of books up so high no one can reach them. If they’re that high, though, even I won’t read them. And if I won’t read them – I don’t need them in my home. *sigh*

Maybe this little hoarder is reforming after all, but I still feel like my heart could jump out of my chest as I think about all that empty space.



Last night as I was getting ready to bathe our daughter, D. made a romantic gesture by bringing champagne to the bathroom, offering me chocolate, and attempted to join bath time. I, realizing it while it was happening, had an inappropriate reaction. I was psychologically unprepared for the shift in plans, unable to accept the kind intention, and became uptight about the whole thing. I tried to make it work but could not handle the shift in the ritual and offered to get out of the bathroom. Instead, D. left, and we ended up drinking the champagne, each on our own.

The anxiety at the loss of control startled me. It’s just a bath, after all. It’s the kind of feeling I would have had at age 18 when my days were rigidly structured and any variance left me out of sorts. I’m not certain when the structure began for me, but it was at its height from ages 15-18 when my morning routine was chopped into 15 minute blocks, and I actually watched the clock to make sure I stuck to the schedule. 15 minutes for a shower, 15 minutes for hair and makeup, 15 minutes for coffee and breakfast, 15 minutes for bible reading and prayer, 15 minutes for… and out the door to school which was equally rigid in structure.

Change had to occur when I got to university where schedules vary greatly from day-to-day. The transition was hard on me in a number of ways and I cried myself to sleep more than a few times because I knew I didn’t have time to fit in the studying or sleep that I needed. Today I live mostly without an alarm clock, my schedule still varies daily, but I still have certain rhythms and habits I like to protect. What I didn’t realize until yesterday is how important some of those rituals still are to me. Our daughter’s bedtime routine is like a hameau de paix or a peaceful lull for me in which we play, talk, and cuddle before going our separate ways. It’s as much a part of my schedule as it is of hers.

I cannot authoritatively comment on the links between ritual and hoarding, but I do know that both schedule and stuff cooperate and intertwine to hold my world together. They both serve as anchors, points de repère, that guide me along, especially when I’m feeling lost or forget what I’m supposed to be doing. The challenge is to find coping skills when the other patterns get disrupted. Time, unlike my stuff, is always with me, but I clearly need more flexibility so I can appreciate and enjoy the lovely surprises around me.

long lineage

During our trip to visit my extended family over the past few days, many stories about the hoarders in our family were recounted. It almost made me feel proud that my tendencies are so restrained in comparison. As I posted yesterday, my grandmother is not at all ashamed of her tendency to keep things and to get things for free. She lived through the Great Depression and it was engrained in her, “waste not, want not.” (On a side note– in a difficult moment, she offered me more handmade dish towels that I had to decline.)

In addition to my grandmother, though, I heard stories about her sister Bea and her closets full of collectibles. She had a family free-for-all when she moved into a smaller condo. Everyone was invited to come through the farm-house and take whatever antiques they desired, especially enamel dishes, wooden ironing boards, and old utensils.

My aunt was looking for a moment of solitude over the weekend when she could sneak piles of my  uncle’s things out of the house. Their house, in my view, is quite clean and under control. She said her method is to put unused things in a box. Then if six months have passed and she hasn’t looked in the box, she gets rid of the box. Even she has created coping mechanisms to deal with the clutter.

not my clutter

I think, as I digest all of this, that keeping things is sort of a normal human compulsion. We all accumulate things whether we like to or not. The problem arises for some of us when the anxiety of letting go becomes too great. I tried to explain to D. the other night what a big deal this really is to me. I never realized I had any type of problem with “stuff” until I started writing about it. Now that I’ve had several little breakdowns when asked to throw things out, I know there is a compulsion to hoard at work within me. If I were left alone (and indeed, when I did live alone), I would live in piles of clutter that would get cleaned up only when company was expected. I feel virtuous now for what I’ve been able to shed, and anguished when told it isn’t enough. I know I can live well and fine without my things, but confronting their absence is a constant and difficult battle for me.


Yesterday I had a mini-breakdown induced by … stuff, of course. The mountains of stuff surrounding me in my workspace right now are getting to me, but it was more than that. Yesterday, D. starting asking me about throwing out this or that piece, sell, keep or toss? I felt irrationally anxious and later isolated and sad. I know this is part hormone, part cabin-fever, and then part pure anxiety at the letting go of items that weigh on me. Each time another person from craigslist walks away with our things, I feel a little elated. But I only have to swivel my chair around for a panoramic view of accumulated crap. As each of the cupboards and closets empty, the sorted remnants collect here next to me.

Yesterday I declared, I’ve had enough. I’m tired of selling $3 items on craigslist. I’ve earned enough money for my efforts, in my opinion, and I’m ready to go back to giving away what’s left. That’s what we’ve done for years, but even giving away to needy graduate students was sometimes a difficult task. Had I sold that Pier 1 armchair on craigslist rather than holding it in my garage for two people who said they wanted it but never took it, the third one wouldn’t have gotten it in spider-infested condition (I’m still sorry, M.).

So the collected things around me, listed or not, are being prepared for donation to a charity thrift shop in town. I’m eager to remove this clutter to see what emotion that will induce.

anxiety of space

shelf on Oct. 3

Yesterday I looked up at our bookshelves that used to be crammed full. Each shelf is now approximately half empty. Anxiety washed over me, if only briefly, as I looked at that blank space. Although my reaction somewhat surprised me, the feeling was certainly familiar. Each time I clean off my desk, the same stress overwhelms me. Something in me begs to fill that empty space. It cannot be there. I would prefer to remove the shelves than to see them empty.

Rationally, I can see the space as a sign of progress, but that emptiness provokes a visceral reaction. I fill them up in my mind with other people’s belongings. I’m making space for someone else to live here. But while the shelves are empty, they nag at me, longing to be filled.

shelf today

My feeling towards that space is akin to vertigo. The gaping hole is drawing me in, and only things resting there can stop me from falling.