Standing in the way of control
Sometimes when I’m feeling just the right mixture of self-indulgent and self-deprecating, I like to watch Hoarders. You know, the A&E show where people’s lives are ruined by the massive amounts of shit they’ve collected that lead to impending eviction?
Part of me selfishly enjoys watching it, because it makes me feel better about whatever disaster of the week I’m dealing with in my own life, but part of me also finds it informative in the way that only passing judgement on people you relate to can be — it’s a precautionary tale of sorts, a how-to in how-not-to. I relate to these people in their compulsions rooted in self-punishment and, above all else, a desperate need to control, but I don’t want my life to get so out of hand that I lose my dead cats underneath it all, you know?
I’ve always been messy (my mom will attest to this). Much of that mess has been centered around both obsession and over-sentimentality, the two sides of my very impulsive coin. I’ve always been a collector — of things, facts, people, memories. I was endlessly curious as a kid; I wanted to know everything about everything. I once missed music class in elementary school, because I was too focused on memorizing how to identify the difference between chimps and bonobos and forgot to leave the library. I would sit there for hours and read about all sorts of things, from birds to constellations to Ancient Egypt, and store the facts away in my mind where they would almost never become useful. I taught myself how to draw an anatomically correct gorilla. Totally normal, right?
I’ve never been able to know or possess something superficially. When something interests me, it consumes me, which is why when I was little I could never just like My Little Pony or Trolls. I had to have all of them, or else it would mean nothing.
This is pretty standard behavior for kids, I think. They want and want until they grow tired of it and move on to the next thing. The problem is I never moved on, I just kept adding more. As I got older, I gravitated towards things that fueled my intense need to base my self worth on owning more of something. To this day, I still have a hard time convincing myself not to buy every single piece of Pokemon or Star Wars or whatever it is merchandise I see, because knowing that it exists out in the world, but not in my house, makes me feel like I’m dying a slow death on the inside.
But that’s the hoarder-lite part of me that I think is more relatable, at least intellectually. You might find my vast collection of toys weird, but at least you can look around at your baseball memorabilia and think, well, okay, I sort of get it (sports: the only obsession ever socially acceptable for adults!).
There’s the other part of me, the over-sentimental, arguably more unstable part, that will do things like not throw out her class notes from middle school, because they are a tangible connection to a time in my life that I can’t find it in me to part with. It’s the part of me that has an entire box of pens that don’t work anymore, because I have vivid memories of them sitting on my desk when I was 10; the part that keeps every greeting card, every half-used eraser, socks that I wore when I was six, the paper flowers I stole from the school cafeteria. If given enough time and motivation, I could probably reconstruct huge chunks of my life just through sheer force of stuff accumulated, build a pre-teen gollum out of old bus passes, notes from my friends about boys, and pipe cleaners.
A lot of the time on Hoarders, the person’s inability to throw things out is rooted in some sort of trauma, a deep sadness that permeates the bones and physically manifests itself in the disaster around them. There’s often a scene of the hoarder climbing over their mountains of stuff, the ground underneath them as unstable as their insides must feel. I’ve often found that the more out of control my life feels, the messier my room/dorm/apartment/house becomes, the more I try to control that by buying more things: more action figures that I will refuse to take out of the box, more books I will never read, more prints I will never get around to hanging on my walls, or notebooks I will never write in. Just more. More, more, more.
It makes me feel as if I’m controlling something by making a choice, but at the end of the day it all just sits on the floor and constantly reminds me that I have never once felt in control of my life, not ever, and least of all in this moment.
Luckily most of life is lived in degrees. While I have no good (read: acceptable) explanation for the pile of mail that stretches back to 2007, at least I can see the majority of my floor.
Schadenfreude, am I right?