I have a problem with my household.
It’s full of too much stuff. Sometimes I dread walking in the front door when I get home from work because I know the house will be so disheveled that it gets me down. It’s mostly not my stuff, but the belongings of the other members of the family – my husband and my teenage kids. It’s like they can’t throw anything out, and get angry and upset if they catch me throwing things out. These items are not treasures by any means: my daughter has saved every stuffed animal she ever owned, and has this gigantic pile of stuffed animals taking up a whole corner of her bedroom. The rest of the room is similarly filled with piles of crap up to the eyeballs. Another daughter, now almost twenty years old, insists on keeping a whole series of tutus that would fit a six-year-old that she wore in her childhood ballet classes. Her room is also up to the eyeballs in other unsorted belongings. My husband is no better; he has kept every piece of anything that his mother ever gave him –
complete junky tchotchkes purchased in souvenir stores. In our house, every space, including the garage, is packed with junk, most of it unloved, worthless crap. Nothing is organized. Everything is a mess. It’s depressing. It makes me physically and emotionally ill. No one seems happy, and tempers are frequently frayed. Sometimes I fantasize about moving away so I can have my own restful, ordered space.
House of Hoarders
Dear House of Hoarders,
The objects you selected to illustrate your problem reveal your own analysis of it: a six-year-old’s tutus, a child’s stuffed animals, and silly gifts from your husband’s elderly mother. These childish objects have an active, visible presence in your family’s life, suggesting they offer some kind of reassurance from a fondly remembered past, when each person’s role was more child-like. You have also endorsed this trait by allowing the (then) six-year-old to hang onto these objects, now for many years it seems.
No one knows why people hoard things. Your problem is composed of a host of emotional elements that are difficult to define or act upon. Instead of trying to analyze that whole ball of hairy wax, focus on your goal: peace of mind. You have already identified what conflicts with that goal: an overabundance of objects and a lack of organization. Let’s address each of these separately.
Overabundance of objects
Consumer culture glorifies the new and novel, and it values accumulation of multiples, even if they’re shoddily made or mass produced. We buy a lot of stuff, and then we feel guilty discarding it because ‘there’s nothing wrong with it.” You may have unwittingly encouraged these ‘preservation’ characteristics of your family, and they may actually see positive traits in their hoarding, such as frugality, recycling, preserving memories, etc.
Downsizing after divorce
A friend who had to downsize from a large house after a divorce adopted the following tactic successfully: She bought her two kids one large plastic storage container each. Into this one container she said, they could take with them only their most favourite treasures from their rooms. Anything they could squeeze into the storage container they could keep. All the rest would be donated or thrown out. She also bought a similar container for herself, and together they spent an afternoon working together on building the new life that awaited them. Your husband’s tchotchkes warrant similar treatment: in the New World Order you are installing, he must care for these precious objects appropriately – in a newly purchased curio cabinet. Anything that fits into this cabinet he can keep, and the rest he must let go.
The disorganized mind
The situation you describe is not just one of accumulation, but one of disorganization. The definition of clutter is a mass of objects with no homes. Help the homeless! Get organized!
Organization does not come naturally to everyone. A disorganized person needs to have everything in view because their mental filing systems are so haphazard that if they put anything away, they will likely lose it.
So, find homes for everything. Start with one item that they are constantly losing, but need every day, as in, “Always leave your glasses in the cupboard by the piano.” “Your running shoes live in that shoebox by the back door.” Another good place to start is shared items. Disorganized people are made crazy by other people moving things. Collaborate in identifying ‘homes’ for shared items, and insist that everyone always store them there.
If you get any push back, my friendly advice is to haul out the big guns. Tell them the truth: that you are literally sick from the condition of the house. Describe the mysterious physical ailments that you are certainly experiencing: Difficulty breathing? Sleeplessness? Heart palpitations? Do you literally have pains in your neck? Never underestimate how literal your body will be in trying to teach you about an unbearable situation.
If you ‘come clean’ you may find that your family have been feeling the same way, and are relieved they can finally shed all that old baggage.