I’m wondering why my relatives who coulda, woulda, and should have thrown out the trash chose to hang on to it? I just spent yet another weekend in my hometown cleaning out my mom’s cousin’s house. Although I thought I’d already emptied all of the bags and boxes that have to be slowly sorted, I discovered I was wrong!
There were bags behind a chair, boxes under the dresser and the beds, and piles on top of the cedar chest. There’s unopened mail from 1987 mixed with family photos, used Kleenex, financial records for still active accounts, pharmacy bags with prescriptions attached, and pill bottles filled with quarters all in the same box or bag.
In the past 3 years, I’ve been tasked with cleaning out two houses and a 3000 sqft storage building filled with similar mixtures of trash, recycle, shred, keep, and donate. Trash, recycle, shred, keep, donate. Trash, recycle, shred, keep, donate.
I can quickly think of four relatives no more distant than second cousins who have stopped throwing things away. They don’t shop compulsively. They are proponents of recycling. They pay their bills. They have active social lives. And they keep trash. And they mix trash with non-trash. And they leave the trash casserole for someone else to deal with.
This weekend I was joined in the cleanup by my psychologist cousin who thinks this is a form of hoarding or obsessive-compulsive behavior. Of course, my first question was, “Is it genetic?” According to Dr. Nancy, there is most likely a genetic component, but no specific marker has been identified. I know I came home with a compulsive desire to get rid of something.
In my mom’s house, there was an identifiable point in time at which filing and organization stopped. Prior to that, she saved a lot of things, but it wasn’t unheard of for her to pare down. There is an identifiable year when things changed in her cousin’s house as well.
While the cousin’s change in habits seems timed to correlate with the loss of her mother, my mom’s appears to correspond with her marriage to her second husband. I guess the commonality in the two is significant life change.
Logically I understand how loss might trigger a desire to hang onto things that belonged to a person you lost or that hold fond memories of a person lost. It’s interesting that it might trigger hanging onto junk mail or ceasing to file.
I think it’s possible that a triggering change can cause a freeze response that manifests in an inability to take care of yourself in some way. Perhaps it interrupts your maintenance of your environment or perhaps you struggle to feed yourself.
Saying it’s a triggering change implies a previous wound or a latent biological response. Obsessive-Compulsive disorders and Eating Disorders are closely related to anxiety. Anxiety is at its most simple, distress.
Distress can come from old or new feelings of terror, grief, sadness, helplessness, humiliation, danger, distrust, rejection, invisibility, shunning, defectiveness, and unloveability. Old incidents of neglect, abuse, or cruelty sensitize us to anything that feels the same.
All of these feelings can be so powerful that we can become overwhelmed. Pushing ourselves gently into action may seem like the straw that will break us. Of course, the reality is that the only way to heal the distress is to find a way to feel then release the feelings.
Hopefully most of us will find a way to do this instead of ceasing to throw away trash. Living in the midst of clutter weighs us down. The dust collected can irritate allergies. Piles can create a falling or fire hazard.
Neglected kitchens and bathrooms can pose other health risks. During my weekend, I observed that canned vegetables can sit unused long enough that the can begins to disintegrate and leak thick, black tar-like liquid that runs out of the cabinets and drips onto the countertop. I’m not sure I can describe to you how gross this is!
I donned a mask and gloves, but I felt like I needed a full hazmat suit to dispose of the cans. An antique Kerr jelly glass with a metal lid accidentally tumbled into the contractor bag along with a can. I did not go after it. I realize they sell for almost $20 on Etsy. It still wasn’t worth the dive.
Yesterday, I drove the three hours home wanting nothing more than to wash the day off of me and go to bed. Now that I’m back, everything in my house is suspected trash! I’m looking to see if there’s anything I coulda, woulda, or should have thrown away by now.
I sometimes feel like taking the position of my mom’s cousin Jimmy. Jimmy had a barn in disrepair that he wanted to tear down. The barn was located on the original homestead and contained some family heirlooms. Jimmy tried to get the family to come claim those treasures so he could proceed with demolition.
Instead, they stalled, lobbied, guilted, humiliated, and generally made him so miserable that for 15 or 20 years whenever someone mentioned that barn he’d just shake his head and say, “Light a match!” That was almost 40 years ago. He never demolished or torched the barn.
In fact, he finally sold the land to my dad and I now own the repaired, refurbished barn. I have no idea what’s in it. Maybe I coulda, woulda, or should have, but I’m afraid to open the door!
…Light a match?