Live Through This

These Precious Things

I’m not a hoarder—I’m just nostalgic. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Illustration by Kelly.

Illustration by Kelly.

I’ve been a packrat for most of my life. Before my age even hit the double digits I had accumulated so much stuff that my bedroom strained to contain it all. The jewelry box I started filling in fourth grade was heaped with broken necklaces, single barrettes, and solitary earrings. My sock drawer was stuffed with mismatched (and often hole-y) socks, because those black cat socks were the cutest thing on earth so I couldn’t part with them even though they were worn threadbare. And I wore those Bubble Yum earrings, like, every day for all of fifth grade; even though they were kind of faded and I hadn’t worn them in years, they were imbued with serious memories, and I couldn’t bear to part with them.

By high school, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to grow much more, I had even more reason to hold on to every item of clothing, because what if I decided I wanted to wear them again one day (even if I hadn’t worn them in six months)? My tiny closet was soon crammed to capacity. I was told to “make room” in there every fall before we went shopping for new school clothes, but I was never very successful.

Every once in a while my parents would ask me to get rid of some things at a neighborhood garage sale or with my mom’s regular donation to the Purple Heart Foundation; they’d try to bribe me with the promise of new stuff, but I’d resist. “God, you have to keep everything,” my mother would say with an exasperation that I didn’t find entirely convincing—after all, she was the one with more photo albums than I could count, a scrapbook from her teenage years, and something she called the Memory Box.

The Memory Box was an actual physical box where my mother set aside stuff that she thought we should get rid of, but that we weren’t ready to. This was supposed to be an honor bestowed only on our most precious and special things; the problem was that I thought everything was special—the black sweatshirt with neon swirls that I’d worn on picture day to fifth grade, the T-shirt I’d bought on our vacation to the Apostle Islands, the Disco Sucks T-shirt that my uncles had given me when I was a baby (I was born the day after Disco Demolition Night in Chicago).

Unbeknownst to me, my mom also maintained a second box: the Letting Go Box. This was a kind of object purgatory, where everything we gave her for the Memory Box would sit until it seemed safe to assume we wouldn’t ask for it back. Then my mother would decide what deserved to be kept— the rest was donated or thrown away! I literally just found out about the Letting Go Box in the process of writing this story! I feel a little bit betrayed, but since I never actually missed any of that stuff, I know my mom was right.

My room filled up as the years went on. I saved all the notes and letters my friends wrote, and I also collected clothing (especially vintage dresses) and books, since I’ve always been an avid reader.

A bin of letters from my friends.

A bin of letters from my friends.

In junior high I got really into music and amassed tons of CDs and vinyl records. I really loved Nirvana and Hole, so I bought and saved every magazine I could find with them in it. I started making a Kurt Cobain collage between the windows in my bedroom, and added postcards from my friends, pictures of other musicians and celebrities, posters, and images I thought were just plain cool. By the time I graduated from high school, my entire room, including the ceiling, was covered.

My wall.

One of my high school bedroom walls.

It was a painful day when I was heading off to college and I had to select which posters and magazine clippings would accompany me to the place where only one wall was mine. Fortunately, my music collection—two crates of records, over a hundred CDs, and three cases of cassette tapes— and the clothes I wore regularly all fit into my dad’s car when he drove me to my dorm. Everything else would remain safe in my room at my mom’s house.

Then my mom moved. It was time for me to clean out my room. The whole situation was painful—the move was bringing up bad feelings about my parent’s divorce, and my mom was confronting her own packrat habits. Emotionally, she and I are a lot alike. When we are sad, we look for reminders of happier times—and an old birthday card, letter, or favorite shirt is the perfect reminder. Since she was moving to a smaller place, she was forced to let go of some of her reminders.

I dismantled my bedroom collage, put all the pictures in envelopes, and loaded those, along with my remaining boxes, into my car. My new place had three bedrooms, so there was plenty of space for all this stuff, and in this time of distress I felt like I needed it. The guest room of my house would become my new time capsule.

I know a lot of you are thinking hoarder. That’s a word I have resisted attaching to myself. But when I try to pinpoint an origin for my packrat tendencies, I come back to the year when my family moved from St. Louis to the Chicago suburbs. I was eight years old, and I never felt like I really found my place in our new city. Every time I made a good friend, she moved away. Everything seemed impermanent, liable to be snatched away from me at a moment’s notice. It was right after that that I started hanging on to things that reminded me of happy times so I could look at them during times that weren’t. When I think of “those people” on those hoarding shows, my first impulse is to distance myself from them as much as possible: Those people have a problem. I am just nostalgic. Then I think about how the voiceover on those shows is often like “Sue’s husband died and now she can’t bring herself to throw anything away” and I’m struck with a feeling of recognition. I started keeping things after an emotional trauma. And while I’m a long way from keeping the bodies of deceased pets in my freezer, I have to admit that saving every single thing I’ve ever read, written, or worn has something in common with that. It’s like a baby version of what is, let’s make clear, a serious mental disorder. I don’t envy anyone whose hoarding has made it difficult for them to live a normal life. And when I stop trying to distance myself from them, they become cautionary tales, showing me how important it is to get a handle on my own…OK, hoarding, and to adopt a healthier attitude toward my things. I got the opportunity to do just that a couple of weeks ago, when my husband and I moved from Chicago to Seattle.

I have been in love with Seattle since I first visited the city on spring break when I was in college, so I was really excited to finally get to live there. But the move also created major inner turmoil. I knew I needed to lighten my load for practical reasons—my new home is smaller, and it costs a lot of money to move things across the country—and I also just wanted to make a fresh start, to stop needing to own so many things.

When I walked into the guest bedroom—my “time capsule”—with the intention of purging its contents, I broke down crying.

Some of my magazines featuring Nirvana and Hole.

Some of my magazines.

Part of the reason I’m a writer is because I want to preserve ALL THE MOMENTS. I’m afraid that if I let the things go, I’ll be letting the memories and lessons go with them. When my friend Marcel died, I was so glad that I’d saved the tiny doodle he’d made on the corner of a menu and taped to the ceiling of my car, so I could get it tattooed on me (I still kept the doodle though).

Change is scary, and moving is always hard. But I had the extra bonus of being terrified to get rid of all the objects that have helped keep me grounded for most of my life. To make it easier, I sent precious items, like my old zines, typewriter and vintage clothes, to friends who would get actual use out of them, and the rest went to thrift shops, completing a strange circle.

These VHS tapes went to the thrift store. The cat came with us to Seattle.

These VHS tapes went to the thrift store. The cat came with us to Seattle.

In the end, I’ve allowed myself one Memory Box of my own—a large plastic bin—and I’m also keeping my old letters. My mom, fellow packrat, actually came over to help me. She was able to be less sentimental than I was, since perhaps because she’d already gone through this process with her own house.
She wouldn’t allow me to have multiple versions of the same item; I had to choose one: That cardigan, for example, belonged to my grandfather, so I kept it and got rid of the one I’d bought for myself. Going through all of these things reminded me that I’ve survived these changes before. And when I texted friends and family members photos of notes they’d written long ago, or posted pictures of my old combat boots online, I saw that the memories would outlast the physical objects.

I’ve only been in my new home for a couple of weeks now, so I can’t say definitively that I’m perfectly fine without my stuff, but I think I will be. I have to remember that I’m a lot better at coping with things now than I was at 12 or even 18. I don’t need things to make myself feel better. I can make myself feel better. ♦

23 Comments

  • Youmna July 15th, 2013 8:30 PM

    I’ve got the same problem… somehow this is just what I needed! :)

  • pohtaytoe July 15th, 2013 8:37 PM

    I love this! I identify soo much. Old t-shirts have been a big packrat problem for me in recent years. I have so many band tees or shirts from vacation that I know I’ll never wear again. SO I just started making a big quilt out of all of them and it’s going awesome so far! My dresser drawers are emptier, and in the end I’ll have something that I can actually USE!

  • Tangerine July 15th, 2013 9:18 PM

    I relate to this! I’m something of a borderline hoarder, also, of books, clothes and letters/doodles/notes. Every year or so, though, I purge at least five boxes or bags of things to the local thrift store. I’ve made it a mandatory ritual, as near to a spiritual cleansing as my atheist soul goes. I also have this wonderful little pin that I keep near eye level on the wall behind my desk that reads “More fun, Less stuff.”

    A little suggestion to the t-shirt hoarder- Consider making a t-shirt quilt! You can save all the cool designs of shirts you know you no longer wear.

    • Tangerine July 15th, 2013 9:19 PM

      Derp, too bad I can’t edit. That’s exactly what you’re doing. <3

  • sepiawriter July 15th, 2013 9:35 PM

    Just like you, I like to keep things because of the memories they bring with them. For me, it’s kind of like reading old pages of a journal, and it feels very nice.
    But I have to admit that keeping all the little notes I passed in class with my friends and clothes I haven’t wore in 2 years is not something good, but I’m working on it.

  • bibliovore July 16th, 2013 1:53 AM

    I have a lot of feelings about this topic. I find the relationship between people and objects fascinating, but I also am completely guilty of squirreling away too many sentimental items. For now, they bring me comfort and I don’t feel that they really impede my life. Maybe I’m too caught up in the past or just long for childhood again, but I think everyone feels that in some way.

  • elliecp July 16th, 2013 2:09 AM

    I used to keep so much stuff that I felt had significance to me for some reason. I’ve started to try and be more ruthless when it comes to possessions, but there’s still at least four bags of my old things in the spare room that I haven’t managed to part with yet. Oops.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • giov July 16th, 2013 3:37 AM

    Stephanie! Happy belated birthday! we’re birthday twins, and also nostalgic hoarder twins, I hear it’s a very Cancerian thing to be. I just cleaned out my closet and forced myself to actually throw out some stuff, even if I have a lot of memories attached to it. I figured the memories will stay anyway and if not I’ll make some new ones? Good luck in Seattle.

  • Cecelia July 16th, 2013 4:55 AM

    I’m the completely opposite. I absolutely despise clutter and have to throw away things even to the extent of throwing away things I in fact need.

    • Ella W July 16th, 2013 10:35 AM

      Same! My nan (my dad’s mum) hoards EVERYTHING, therefore my dad throws away EVERYTHING, and that habit has kind of passed onto me. There are some things that I can’t bring myself to throw out though, like my old diaries.

      http://gorillalegs.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Sophie ❤ July 16th, 2013 6:02 AM

    I’m just like you- super fond of keeping everything, especially stuff that brings those good old memories. This was so helpful!

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • dragonfly July 16th, 2013 9:25 AM

    gahh yes throwing things out :’(
    this is great <3

  • soviet_kitsch July 16th, 2013 10:33 AM

    can i just say that HOLY SHIT i am jealous to the moon and back of all those old magazines

  • queserasera July 16th, 2013 1:47 PM

    when people tried to buy some of my stuff during a yard sale i told them “wait, i changed my mind, that’s not for sale” i have a serious problem with letting go hahaha

    http://televiseddinner.blogspot.com/

  • Collagingcolors July 16th, 2013 1:50 PM

    great article! I’m in the oposite side I throw away everything I dont use in six months or a year,and I don’t care too much if it has memories inside !!!

    also I need you guys i’m doing a gallery about what makes you unique !
    for more information:loveufashion.wordpress.com/

    Thanks

  • monsterserenade July 16th, 2013 4:44 PM

    I love this. I have pretty much the exact same damn problem and it makes me insane! Although after several years of recognizing and dealing with it, I have definitely gotten so much better at throwing things out/letting things go. So much better. Also, this fall I am moving away to college, and I am determined to weed things down until I am left with just what I love and need. Honestly, once you start towards that point where you no longer compulsively keep things, it is just literally the best feeling ever.

  • Monroe July 16th, 2013 6:24 PM

    Agh this is so me.

  • kendallkh July 16th, 2013 9:21 PM

    this is exactly me, i used to actually keep things on one side of the bed beside me while i slept and would get upset when my mom tried to clean them or move them (origami swans, my favorite dvds, hairbands, etc)

    especially this “Part of the reason I’m a writer is because I want to preserve ALL THE MOMENTS” the other day i was talking to someone about how i have the compulsive desire to document EVERYTHING so i can remember the feelings and surroundings attached to that thing or event and they said “ah you sound like a writer” and i was like ???? those…are…related??? and everything made much more sense

    luckily i have reduced my hoard to a few shoeboxes and binders under the bed and can now clean my room without getting teary-eyed! congrats to us both!

  • Kal July 18th, 2013 1:15 AM

    I related to this post almost too much, makes me feel like I should probably clean out my cluttered room a bit. I actually have a bored in my room that has layers of, well layers of useless junk tacked to it.

    Although I must admit, I don’t think we hold onto these objects because they are better than the real memories themselves, I think we keep them as reminders because it isn’t everyday you remember that one time you failed your very first quiz and thought your life was over (yes, the 67 quiz from my 8th grade geometry class is tacked to the board). I don’t know if I’ll ever learn how to properly part with these pieces of my life, but I commend you for taking the beginning steps to doing so, you are already miles ahead of me!

    zymurgyprocess.com

  • siobhanoleary July 18th, 2013 5:05 AM

    not only do i have trouble with letting go of these things, i also give them personalities and feelings which makes it that much more horrible to give them away

  • barbroxursox July 22nd, 2013 5:35 PM

    Wow, you were basically describing me. My mom and I both like to hold on to a lot of things (albeit she is much worse), and I even live in St. Louis!
    But anyways, I’m moving to college in… holy shit a little less than a month. I’m actually glad that I get to leave so I don’t have to be overwhelmed with all the stuff laying around the house. But I still don’t want to part with the stuff, especially the clothes. I always tell myself there’s not enough room for my stuff because I live in a really tiny house (and I do!). But recently I’ve been much better about getting rid of things, and I think I got rid of about 5 trash bags of stuff, mainly clothing for Goodwill over the past year. And I am doing perfectly fine with the clothes I still have! Obviously my stuff isn’t doing me very good if it gives me anxiety and makes me want to leave the house. I’m kind of just tired of having all this stuff around me, so hopefully in the next month as I get things ready for college, I’ll be able to get rid of a lot of it!

    http://lizard-onawindowpane.tumblr.com

  • GlitterKitty July 28th, 2013 11:44 AM

    I am exactly like this. I just want to keep everything. But I try to cut down on stuff because my room is very small and there is already so much of my family’s stuff in the basement. I find it helpful to use cardboard boxes for specific things. So I’ll say this is the box for old birthday cards and posters and this is the only box you get for them. So therefore I have to be selective and only keep what really deserves the space in the box. It’s also more fun to make decorated memory boxes so it seems more like art and less like hoarding….. Maybe I’m not as good as I thought haha