Thursday, July 30, 2009


For someone who neither drinks nor has her act together mentally or emotionally, I am weirdly obsessed with watching Intervention on A&E. I'm also addicted to VH1's Celebrity Rehab. I remember saying to Dear Butcher one time, "There's a part of me that wishes that I had something that was this easily identifiable. 'Ten weeks rehab, one year sober living, live like this, and off you go!' But instead I'm just dealing with all the crappy stuff under the surface that makes people go get stoned to hide from."

Dear Butcher said, "That's really weird. But on the other hand, I know what you're getting at. That if you were able to stand up and say, 'Out of my way! I have X!' then it would be easier somehow." After a bit of a pause he added, "Thing is, all that crap you're working on, all these people don't even know is there. So maybe you just skipped a step and they don't know they've got decades of work ahead of them."

"Well that's depressing."

"Yeah. Why do you watch this stuff again?"

I guess it's cathartic. Or dramatic. Makes it all look easy and doable. Like a cooking show. I am never going to make ANYTHING I've ever seen on a cooking show. Ever. I've never looked at a recipe from the show online and I'm never going to. But I love the chopping and the stirring and then the reaching into the second wall oven to ("Here it IS!") pull out the finished cake/casserole/roast/dessert/glistening object. The addiction shows are like this. The whole show is a slow parade towards that second wall oven. (Is that why people used to put two in a house, so that the cooking show fairies would come live in the second one?)

I've stumbled now onto another show which truly gets under my skin. Alarms buzz and elbows sweat and the back of my neck gets tingly. It's the show, Obsessed, a spin-off of Intervention. Oooo, that hits a lot closer to home.

Look, I know I've got chronic depression. I've been depressed most of this year, and suffering from various forms of anxiety or panic attacks in the years leading up to this one. I know my grandmother had mild OCD, I've heard that her grandmother spent the last months of her life on her hands and knees scraping out the cracks between the floorboards with a toothpick. I know my mother obsesses and ruminates. I ruminate and pick fights with voices in my head. I know there's a strong tendency towards hoarding in my family. My aunt had eight saddles, about twenty bridles, countless collections of books and ceramics and iron work and letters and, of course, the horses.

My mother has a hugely cluttered house and way too many pets. We counted them all up once when I was a kid -- 93. Let that number sink in for a sec. 93 pets in a three bedroom Dutch Colonial in the suburbs. She hired help, so there were never piles of things preventing entrances into rooms, no clutter on the floor. For a bit there she went down to no animals, and slowly she started acquiring parrots -- I've lost count. I think there are twelve or fifteen now? Anyway, a significant number.

I've tried to keep the number of pets low, and for the most part I've succeeded, but my bugaboo is clutter. Piles of laundry. Piles of mail. Piles of "things that belong to the kids". Piles of "things that don't belong in this room." Piles that have been sorted. Piles that are waiting to be sorted. Piles of lethargy. Piles of guilt.

But the house is always workable. Unpleasant, but workable.

Now here's where I put in my big disclaimer on the rest of this post, because it's important here to note that recently I've gone on a Huge Purge of my things. I separated the 30 odd paperweights I don't want anymore from the rest of the collection. I took my old rug out of Phebe's room and replaced it with one that fits, even though I don't have room for my childhood (and honestly quite unattractive) rug. This means I'm seriously considering selling it because I don't need it or want it here. In the past month, I've taken at least twenty of garbage out of the house. I dropped off three dollhouses to Goodwill, along with four boxes of outgrown clothes. When I get my butt in gear, I can organize, toss, sort, and move on. It's just hard to ramp the engine up that high. OK, having said all that....

Last night I went out of my way to find an Obsessed episode on "On Demand" cable featuring an extreme hoarder. The sort who can't enter and leave his own house and is in danger of getting evicted for health violations. He doesn't have feces or trash on the floor, but he's filled his space up with antique store finds and clothing and objects that remind him of his mother. He sleeps on a mattress stuffed in a doorway because he cannot get to his bed. His electronic keyboard is in the bathroom. There are no visible chairs or tables anymore. You get the picture.

Poor weepy, pathetic, paralyzed Russ. How could he let it go on year after year? As he enters therapy camera follow him to an antique store where he buys *another chair*, another OBJECT, to stuff in his house. The chair will be used in celebration when therapy ends as a truly comfortable place to relax. It's a symbol of future success and companionship; purchasing it fills him with hope. It's so pathetic and so sweet somehow.

We see him struggling, with the help of a very sympathetic therapist, to give away a strange stuffed snowman with teeny stick arms, a giddy expression, wearing a lilac and lime green winter hat. It's obvious even to him that this object is not necessary, but he can't quite bear to part with it. After much discussing of his anxiety levels, the importance of this object, etc., he starts talking about why this particular stuffed snowman holds meaning for him.

The purple on the hat reminds him of his dead mother.

It was given to him when he was lonely. To give it away would remind him that he could be friendless and lonely again.

To give it away would be giving away some part of his mother all over again.

Oh crap. Breathe, Suisan. You are not like this. You do not have stuffed snowmen you are clinging to. You are not face down in the gutter reeking gin and flop sweat.

Typing this now I'm a whole lot more rational. I used to not be able to see any wood on my desktop. I used to not be able to move the keyboard a millimeter in any direction as it was held in place by mounds of mail and printouts and I-don't-even-know-what. Today I've got Hobbes' glucometer kit, two pencil holders, one coffee mug, a notepad, a Zorro figurine (Hello, Zorro.), a printer, and a rolodex on my desk (along with the monitor, keyboard and mouse). Wide expanses of wood abound. I can even put the glucometer back in the drawer and gain more space. I'm clearly not drowning in crap, and I've never been quite as paralyzed as this poor man.

But I completely recognize his impulse, his need to hold onto objects because they are like people and they are not as dangerous as people.

Many years ago, I gave away my grandmother's sewing machine. It was an awful avocado green thing in a rickety table, and I rarely used it. I knew it had to go elsewhere. But I had a terrible time giving it away. (Oh lord, just thinking about this process makes me start wringing my hands.) I was filled with guilt that I didn't appreciate it. My grandmother had loved it, I loved playing around on it when I was a kid, she gave it to me, knowing I'd love it and I really didn't use it at all. What a screw-up. She wanted me to love it. She wanted it to make me happy. There must be something wrong. If only I dedicated myself to making something with it, then I'd rediscover my love for the sewing machine. So I did. I made stuff. And discovered that I don't really like sewing. What the hell was wrong with me? I should like this. Thousands of women all over the world like to sew. What's wrong with me?

Eventually I worked through all that and said, "Screw it. Grandma would be horrified if she knew I was doing this to myself. Come to think of it, she used to curse this thing out. I'm not sure SHE liked it all that much either." I unscrewed the legs from the table, put the whole thing in the car, drove down to Salvation Army and donated it. And then I got back in my car, hugged my steering wheel and cried. I ended up asking my grandmother to forgive me for not enjoying her gift; I can only assume she did so because the tears dried up just that quickly, and I drove away from the sewing machine.

I'm not paralyzed by hoarding -- I mostly have a cluttered house. I know how to self-check and I know how to purge.

But it is odd and slightly scary to watch someone else express thoughts that flutter through my head. It means something. It reminds me of her. I won't be so lonely if I can hold it. At least they flutter through my head and don't take up permanent residence.

1 comment:

Lyvvie said...

I know how you feel. I was a hoarder. Husband is a work in progress. His parents are hopeless hoarders. Not 93 pets though - that's still not sunk in.

I'm currently in a very empty house, with the meanest of essentials; a bed with no headboard, a sofa and dining table, simple desk with no drawers, hi-fi in bits on the floor as we don't have a unit to put the component in yet. I'm constantly struck by the space - the open space. I can walk a different path to get from A to B and not get in anyone's way, or maneuver around something. It's awkward and blissful.

My anxiety starts to peak when I think about the ship on its way, with 32 boxes of stuff I'll have to accommodate within the space I'm beginning to love.

Love space, cull the clutter and stuff. It's about your peace, not their judgment.