Moving day

On being a borderline hoarder

I've always been a cluttered person. For that, I blame my mother.

She calls people like us “collectors,” and between her seed packet collection, her vintage board game collection, her midcentury advertising kitsch collection, her Santa Claus collection, her cat whisker collection, her Fisher Price Little People collection, and all of the other various things, she's been running out of room in her house.

I tend to think of us “collectors” as borderline hoarders. Sure, we don't save old pizza boxes and used adult diapers because we can no longer tunnel our way to the toilets. We don't videotape the news every day in order to “archive” it, and we don't have stacks upon stacks of boxes full of fondue forks and jugs of Windex we bought on sale. But we do acquire faster than we purge, and we do very easily form emotional attachments to things.

I admit this fully — I'm a borderline hoarder, too. I have a typewriter collection, a pencil collection (which even non-collectors are pretty impressed by, might I say), a cufflink collection, more than 100 neckties, and many other little groupings of stuff that interests me.

On the surface, this is intriguing, right? Collections show that their collectors are people with an interest, a passion. There is a dark underbelly to it all, though.

I borrowed my mother's minivan to haul something, and when I was taking the seats out, in the backseat, I found a box. In that box was a container full of doll heads (creepy) and about 15 mismatched dinner plates. She had no explanation for it.

Speaking for myself, I once convinced myself that I needed to save every newspaper I've ever read. I had a couple of months' worth of newspapers saved up before my then-girlfriend (now-wife) pointed out to me how ridiculous that was.

And if you noticed that there isn't a whole lot of difference between this and those stacks of videotapes of the local news — don't worry, I notice that too.

Of all the mental illnesses in the world, I can relate to hoarding the most. I can't relate to compulsively drinking to the point of self-destruction. I can't relate to the compulsion to use hard drugs over and over. I can't relate to how severe OCD sufferers have to, say, flick a light switch on and off multiple times before entering a room. But I can relate to the need to acquire and acquire, and then feeling burdened by those acquisitions.

I just moved into a new house, and never have I felt that burden more acutely than when I had to sort through all of my stuff, put in a box, and lug it with me to the new place. I tried to go through the process of evaluating if I still wanted each item, or throwing it away, but at times, it was extremely painful. It's hard to throw things away.

And I know my mother is the same — she's admitted to harboring secret fantasies of burning her house down to relieve herself of all of her stuff.

I don't want you to think that I live in squalor — our house is clean and organized. But in the basement, in boxes, lurks my collections. Notebooks from college. Children's books I loved decades ago that I can't bring myself to sell or give away. Little knick-knacks collected since childhood that, while not on display or present every day in my life, are in my consciousness and connected with an experience.

I think I'm getting better. For the first time ever, my new living space is smaller than the one before it. I've managed to sell a lot of it at garage sales. I gave away my grandfather's old dilapidated bike to someone who is interested in restoring it, instead of keeping it in my garage to further fall apart. I'm getting a new, smaller desk so I won't keep as much crap on it.

I'm relying on friends and family to call me out if my car is looking cluttered, or if my workspace starts to look like a Salvation Army outlet. I need to constantly audit my belongings and monitor how often I use, or even think about, something. I need to read books and blogs by people who travel light, and get inspired by people like No Impact Man.

It doesn't seem likely that this would ever happen with me, but hey — shoot for the moon, right?