Clutter: The Long Goodbye

Celia Barbour delves into the messy emotions that come with letting go of our possessions.

I guess I should have realized that something was up with the laundry room. I used to like doing the laundry; I always think of it as one of those mindless household tasks that give me a feeling of accomplishment. The smell of clean towels, the sight of neatly folded sheets and shirts, the knowledge that I've skillfully separated my lights from my darks -- this stuff quietly confirms that all is right with the world.

But over the past few years, I'd begun to develop a sort of subconscious aversion to that room in the basement. I would quickly dive in, do only what was necessary, and promptly exit. I figured it was just because, with three kids zipping from school to soccer to games of capture the flag in the woods, simply managing the chaos required an EMT-like attitude: Ignore anything that isn't an emergency. I assumed I was just overwhelmed.

I was, as it happens. But it wasn't just the muddy blue jeans, mismatched socks, and wine-stained tablecloths that had been doing me in. It was all the other stuff that had begun gradually to accrue in the corners -- things that didn't actually have a purpose in our busy lives but that I couldn't figure out what else to do with.

You don't have to be a pathological hoarder to have a problematic relationship with material belongings. "There's a whole continuum of hoarding," says Fred Penzel, a clinical psychologist and the director of Western Suffolk Psychological Services, a mental-health practice in New York that specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorders. The impulse may be rooted in nature -- squirrels and birds instinctively do it, too. But it can go haywire, Penzel says, especially in our consumer-oriented society, where there's constant pressure to acquire things, and to define ourselves in terms of our possessions.

Who doesn't have a drawer full of makeup in the wrong shade and bath gels they'll never use? A pile of old magazines, a box of abandoned CDs? A friend of mine once opened the door to a walk-in closet in his otherwise perfectly spare house; its upper shelves were packed with hundreds of boxes of Q-tips, tissues, and Band-Aids -- things he felt compelled to buy in bulk whenever they went on sale. My younger sister claims to need an entire room to stash things for which she has no immediate use.

But even if we have enough square footage to store all our unnecessary belongings, we should be more protective of our mental space. Because what matters more than the room things take up in our houses is the room they occupy in our brains, in the stories we tell ourselves to justify holding onto them: If I'm invited to a party, I might need bright-green eye shadow; if we get another blizzard, we'll be grateful for this 10-year-old can of papaya; if I read those magazines, I'll finally be smart. Getting rid of stuff means having to say goodbye to the sense of security it provides -- security that's largely make-believe but that exerts a powerful hold on us all the same.

For me, the hardest things to part with have always been the ones that come from my family. Even utter junk -- broken art supplies, mildewed books, frayed linens that I couldn't sell for a nickel at a tag sale -- clings to me with a kind of psychic Velcro if it has entered my life accompanied by a backstory. "Your great-grandfather used those pencils," or "We got these as a wedding gift," my dad would say as he handed me something he no longer wanted. I felt like a crazy museum curator, assiduously looking after objects whose sole value was that they had once been meaningful to someone else.

No wonder anxiety, confusion, and sadness flew wildly forth the moment I started to make my way through the biggest pile in the laundry room. It began with a teal-green acrylic throw that my father had given me for Christmas some 30 years ago, accompanied by the information that it had been hand-knit by a blind woman who had no other source of income. I never liked this throw -- teal acrylic? -- but out of a false sense of charity, I'd lugged it with me to boarding school, college, and each of my successive apartments before bringing it here, to my family home. Putting it in the Goodwill bag felt strange; in rejecting it, not only was I deciding to be done with the guilt I felt about secretly hating that blanket, but I had to accept that my father's concerns were not -- and probably never had been -- my own.

And so it went, each item summoning a burst of memories and emotions. What to do with the boys' childhood sleeping bags? The vintage curtains that didn't fit our windows? The down comforter a friend asked me to look after when she moved to England 15 years ago? Everything required that I make a choice, remember, think. In order to part with the sleeping bags, I had to face the fact that the boys' childhood is irrevocably over. Discarding the curtains meant acknowledging that I'll never hem them -- which in turn meant admitting that I'm not the "Little House on the Prairie" homemaker I'd once dreamed I would be. The comforter made me realize that my Anglophile friend is probably gone for good.

No wonder I had postponed doing this -- had, in fact, grown quite adept at ignoring this pile and others like it. It was easier to think, Ugh, can't deal with that today, and readjust my blinders. But then, suddenly, I was finished: one garbage bag to take to the trash, one for charity, and a small pile of textiles to wash and use. Right away, I felt lighter, freer, as if I'd done a mental cleanse.

Before long, I was ready to tackle other messes. The guest-room closet was full of old clothes, a selection I'd already winnowed many times. It should have been easy. But then I put on a well-tailored blazer I'd been especially fond of when I was a rising young editor. It still fit, so I walked into my husband's study and twirled. "What do you think?" "It's nice," he said. "But it's not really you."

"But I love it," I insisted.

He smiled. "Then keep it."

On my way down the hall, my words echoed in my head. Was I really expending love on a 15-year-old blazer? And if so, why was I keeping such a vital emotion sequestered in a dark closet? It became clear that each pile of stuff was a repository of unresolved feelings, and I could sense, almost like a physical weight, how they shackled me to the past. I decided I wanted my feelings back. I didn't want them stuck to material belongings that no longer served a purpose. I put the blazer in the charity bag. The dreams it once embodied had already come true. Discarding an article of clothing couldn't erase that.

Being honest about possessions isn't easy. If it were, half the storage facilities in the country would have gone out of business long ago. But now, every time I waver about whether to keep or toss some once-beloved or I-ought-to-love-it old thing, I imagine what else I could do with that energy if I had it back, what person or object or goal I could devote it to. And as the shelves slowly empty, my heart fills back up with possibility.

Celia Barbour is a writer living in Garrison, New York.

To Have and Have Lots: Tips for Conquering Your Clutter

Robin Zasio, a psychologist and the author of "The Hoarder in You," shares her strategies for clearing out a home.

Don't Fixate on a "System"

Many people think the secret is to get their hands on the right storage system -- whether it's plastic bins or closet organizers. But no object has the power to bring clarity to your home. Make the hard decisions about getting rid of things yourself; then figure out where to store what's left.

Identify Key Spaces

Focus first on high-use areas -- "spaces you need to have clear in order to get through your day efficiently," Zasio says -- such as the bathroom where you primp or the desk where you pay bills. If one of these areas isn't working at full capacity, have at it.

Heed the Dreaded Spots

Next, tackle the places you ignore. If there's a drawer that makes you wince every time you open it, remind yourself that it's probably less taxing to sort through it than to feel frustrated every day. "It takes less effort to tackle clutter than to carry the stress of it around with you," Zasio says.

Think Beyond Regret

It's common to imagine that discarding things will cause deep wistfulness later on. ("What if my aunt's 1950s sweater comes back into style?") Start by unloading one thing at a time, and you'll quickly discover what most people do -- that you're actually relieved it's gone.

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