I sometimes watch A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive (namely because it motivates me to catch up the laundry and dishes), but after watching some episodes recently, I was struck by several things that a couple of ladies said–things that are very disturbing.

Everything that comforts me and brings meaning to my life is on paper.

It protects me and reminds me of good times. We haven’t had any good times in a long time. There’s nothing good except for those papers.

Some of the things are impossible to part with. They’re part of me. Part of my heart. Part of my soul.

To me, it’s a very disturbing idea that something material–something easily lost, stolen, or destroyed–something which is inanimate and incapable of giving or feeling love and affection–can become that intertwined with your eternal, God-given soul and your happiness on earth.

But what’s almost as disturbing was the realization that “there but for the Grace of God, go I.” Or, as one of the organizers said, “We’re all just 4 or 5 decisions away from shitting in a bucket.”

Growing up, a lot of emphasis was placed on having nice things. And my mother has (to me) an unnecessary sentimental attachment to some things. However, we always had a nice house. Our individual rooms and the garage could get messy, but the common rooms were never allowed to get messy, and we were never more than one day away from having a completely clean, organized house or garage (which, more often than not, we parked at least one car in, sometimes two and even a pop-up camper). In other words, our household was average–not OCD clean, but not chronically messy, much less hoarded.

However, my room and/or playroom was always the worst room in the house and almost always a mess–simply because I had more things than my room was really able to hold. That, too, is typical of most children (especially in America today where most people have more than they need or use). But I placed a lot of importance on my things and came to the conclusion that some of my things were valuable. Like my mother, I began to collect things which I saw as valuable or which would one day be valuable.

When I went to college, I took a lot of stuff with me and filled up my tiny, single dorm room. I kept it tidy simply because I couldn’t have moved in it if I hadn’t kept things put away, but I certainly could have had more living room if I had had fewer things. I took a lot of stuff with me (that I never used) simply because it was comforting.

A couple of years later, after my roommate moved out, my apartment became chronically messy. I always waited until I had no more clean clothes before spending an entire day doing laundry. A lot of the clean laundry ended up on the couch because I’ve always hated putting away laundry. That, and it didn’t really seem that important to put things away. I took the trash out and threw away food as soon as it expired, so the apartment wasn’t nasty, and that seemed good enough.

Then I read a book calledClear Your Clutter with Feng Shui and it completely changed the way I looked at my possessions. I went from sometimes imagining what I would take with me if I had to evacuate in the event of a fire, to not caring if everything got left behind and burned up, because it’s just stuff.

I also came to the realization that all of the things I thought might one day be worth money (collectable Barbies, for the most part) weren’t worth 1/4th of what was paid for them… much less more. The fact is, most things labeled as “collectable” are mass produced only to a slightly lesser extent than things which are not collectable, which means that many people still have one. More than that, many people carefully save up this collectable item, so their numbers continue to stay high. Hence why they don’t go up in value. (Things that become valuable are rare–things that are produced for the purpose of collecting are rarely rare.)

Throughout the second half of my senior year in college, I decluttered my apartment and made it look really nice. For the first time in my life, I kept my living space clean on my own–no nagging or help required. I even put away my clean clothes regularly. While I spent several years after that living with other people (namely family), I kept my clutter and mess to a minimum.

Once I moved in with my husband, though, I started to notice myself slipping back into old habits. That’s when I realized that, deep down, I’m a chronically messy person and I will always be a messy person. I enjoy having a clean, organized place to live, though, and that is ultimately what drives me to clean up and try to stay cleaned up. But it’s a constant struggle.

And then it struck me, while I was watching Hoarders, that I could have so easily ended up going down the path of those people. My mother’s habit of collecting and putting a lot of sentimental value into an object, combined with my natural tendency to be messy (and creative), could have resulted in hoarding. All of the elements were right to brew up a hoarder.

Just last night I was sitting outside, petting a stray cat. My husband and I have two cats that we got from the animal shelter, and we’ve recently adopted a stray. Now there’s a another cat which has shown up (the word is out: our house is a good place). And as I was petting him last night I thought, “You know, it wasn’t a joke when I told my husband that I could become a crazy cat lady, if left alone.” I could definitely see myself having too many pets. While I don’t like to see any animal go hungry–and I will feed the neighborhood dogs when they come begging (because they’re clearly undernourished)–I respond to cats and kittens better than I respond to human babies; I can’t stand the sound of a cat sounding distressed.

It’s kind of shocking to realize that, if I had not had the sort of epiphany that I did, when I did, I would almost certainly be a hoarder or a hoarding time-bomb. So many people who end up hoarders get that way when they lose someone in their life. I might have been only one serious loss or setback away from going down that road too.

Pretty scary.

Not my project table, but it bears a striking resemblance to it.

The other thing that struck me, as I watched the shows, was that a number of people had “project” clutter. They had started out wanting to make or repair one thing, then a few things, then a dozen things, and eventually their house, garage, and outbuildings were filled with projects that it would take more than a lifetime to complete.

That idea was pretty stinging after so recently coming to the same realization myself: I have too many projects going on at once, and none of them are getting completed. I had to limit the number I’m going to try and tackle this year, put some aside for next year, and start narrowing my focus, simply because there’s only so much time we’re given on earth, and I will never be able to try–much less master–all of the things that I would like to try and do. (Luckily for me, I believe in reincarnation, so there is, literally, always the next time around.)

Here are a few of the revelations that I’ve had which have almost certainly kept me from descending into hoarding:

  • We do not own anything; possession is just an illusion. In reality, we don’t even own our bodies; we just rent them. One day, we’ll have to give them back. Why obsess with owning things when, one day, you’ll die and everything you own will belong to someone else?
  • Things are not people. I can get rid of things that people have given me without giving away their love or memory. Likewise, I can get rid of something without getting rid of a memory. (Although I’ve recently come to the conclusion that not even every memory is worth keeping; it’s okay to let some of those go too.)
  • Only keep things that you absolutely love. Things that you don’t like will make you feel worse than not having the thing at all.
  • Things never have any monetary value (look in a thrift store or at a yard sale to see what your things are really worth to other people); they’re only good for making your life easier or more enjoyable. If you want to make money, invest in proper investment vehicles, like stocks and bonds. While people may point out that a certain object is worth a lot of money compared to its original price, 1) collecting just the right thing to make a large amount of money on is rather like picking a winning lottery ticket, and 2) if you had invested the original purchase price in the stock market and kept it there for as long as you’ve had the object, you will almost always have a lot more money from the stocks than from the object.

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