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oozing a train

June 15, 2012

No matter how many times I re-organize my studio, it only succumbs again to clutter, preventing me from doing anything there. I had been thinking that this process was internal resistance to creating, low self-esteem, or some other kind of unconscious issue.

But I’ve discovered it’s something else entirely. It seems to be a mild form of hoarding.


My father’s sister was a hoarder, and my parents and other of her siblings staged an intervention some years ago which did not go well at all.

I worked with someone years ago who was a hoarder.

In both of these cases, no one realized hoarding was a psychological disorder; we just assumed it was common messiness gotten way out of hand.

I’ve just finished reading a book about hoarding – Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. (I highly recommend it.) As I read it, I almost immediately realized that it applies to a lot more people in my life than just Aunt M and HD.

My mother’s father kept so much stuff in his standalone garage that I never saw a car parked in it. When he died, it took months to go through all of it. Partly because my mother had trouble deciding what was important enough to keep. She had always derisively described this aspect of my grandfather as being a ‘pack rat’. Most of the stuff in his garage was obviously junk, and yet… It was important enough to him to keep, so it couldn’t actually be worthless, could it? Also, my mother had a lot of unresolved issues with her father, and somehow holding onto his stuff – even obvious junk — was comforting to her. I think now it may have made her feel like her father was still physically present in her life as long as she kept his old stuff.

I still have a bunch about odds and ends from my grandfather’s garage. And I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to throw them away. (I have tried.)

My father was the executor of my grandfather’s estate, but he allowed my mother to hold onto some heirlooms my grandfather willed to his grandchildren. She told me she was too distraught over his death to even consider giving up these old coins; we kids should be fine with waiting for her death to receive them. I wasn’t fine with it. And since I’ve been estranged from her for many years now, I probably will never receive those coins … that were willed to me in 1978, dammit.

My mother is not a packrat herself, but she is a compulsive buyer, which is part of the same disorder.

“Irene’s upstairs hallway was crowded with shopping bags containing her purchases — things she justified buying by telling herself she would use them as gifts. In her mind, the fact that these were destined to be given away put them outside the realm of her hoarding problem…. Irene’s decision to buy these gifts was influenced by a variety of beliefs. Chief among them was the belief that she needed to be prepared for a situation in which she might need to give someone a gift and not have time to shop for it.” (p. 68)

My mother does that. Except that she buys way more gifts than she could ever use.  And then she has to find people to give the stuff to, even though nobody wants it.

Many many times she promised to give me something I actually needed, but when I opened the box, I found inside something completely different, that was not at all useful to me. But I was still supposed to be fawningly grateful, or else I heard all about my selfishness.

Worse yet is when you open a box that is supposed to contain an expensive item that you could never afford yourself, and instead there something inexpensive, that she boasts about saving money on. “I got a real bargain! This only cost me $10 at the outlet store!!”

“One feature of hoarding that sets it apart from disorders such as OCD is that it can be intensely pleasurable. For most people who hoard, the experience of shopping or acquiring is so overwhelmingly rewarding that it erases all thoughts of consequences. … Shopping helped [alleviate Janet’s depressed feelings], but only temporarily. It was the only time she felt important and respected, but afterward she felt even more depressed and worthless. Post-binge, the conflict at home [because of her overspending] intensified, making it that much harder for her to resist her shopping urges: a vicious cycle. ” (p. 65, emphasis mine)

This could have been written about my mother. But also about me.

I have had dreams where I spent a ridiculous amount of money on things I don’t need. One recent one was $7000 on designer fabrics. Even in the dream, I almost immediately had buyer’s remorse, wondering how on earth I was going to pay that bill, and could I possibly return everything? (Cut fabric, though, is never returnable.) I woke up in a cold sweat, only to realize it was just a nightmare.

Before I was married, I got deeply into credit card debt. I borrowed money from my grandmother to pay it off. And while I was still paying back the loan, I had already gotten myself into another hole. By that time, I was living with my grandmother to save money, but I was spending more than I was making.

After I got married, and paid off the debts, I went through the entire cycle of huge debts slowly paid off another two or three times. Spouse went through it, and I paid off his debts two or three times. Intellectually I knew this was extraordinarily destructive and something I needed to find a way to stop doing, but it was really really difficult.

Reading this book, though, I realized that behaviors I had learned to manage are actually part of a much deeper problem.

Hoarding is often comorbid with ADD, but I’d already been thinking as I read that all of this sounded like neurological problems with executive functions. Reams of data are coming into our bodyminds all the time. ‘Normal’ executive functions organize this data, and disregard most of it, or shunt it off to unconscious processing. What remains was deemed important, and is dealt with accordingly.

Hoarders think everything is equally important, which quickly becomes overwhelming.

Executive functions are top-down, hierarchical. I don’t grok hierarchies. I think these things are related.

Now I’m starting to wonder if my entire life has been seeking some activity or group of people to give my life meaning – an external locus of control — because inside of me everything is chaotic. And I don’t know how to prioritize anything internally, even though I’m an introvert. Because I was raised by extroverts, whose inner organization was in similar disarray.

Maybe this is why nothing feels right for very long. So I walk away, looking for something else. But nothing persists.

Without a job or career, I feel largely disconnected from the entire world. So I’ve been looking for ways to reconnect, and hoping to find a cause to join. I’ve taken classes from a variety of places. I joined Meetup. I tried Facebook. I’ve joined organizations.

All the stuff I’ve read about creativity counsels you to ‘listen hard’ for your own inner voices to tell you what you really want. But that assumes that some level of organization and prioritization has taken place, filtering out everything that’s irrelevant. If my brain can’t do that, I will hear a cacophony of voices, telling me a million different things. But none of them seem to ‘add up’ to anything.

No wonder I’ve been feeling depressed and overwhelmed about how useless my life seems! Because so far it’s been a jumble sale. But without a job, or someplace to go regularly, I literally have no purpose whatsoever. (Or, more accurately, I have thousands of purposes, many of which contradict each other.)

If this is brain ‘chemistry’, then it can’t be ‘fixed’, only managed. But I don’t think I would want to ‘fix’ it either, since it also seems to be the source of my divergent thinking and creativity. Without that, I wouldn’t be me.

So what can I do? I’ve been coming up with workarounds, not realizing how deep the issues went. Not seeing how they were all connected.

I’m an artist, and more than that, I’m a writer. Writers edit, often ruthlessly. Otherwise, meaning is obscured by irrelevancies. And I’m a good writer. So it must be possible for me to do something that works, because I do it in my writing all the time.

I need to think about this more.



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