The Happiness Manifesto Blog

How I Beat the Living Hell Out of Suffering and Made It My Bitch

Lightening the Load

I have lived in the apartment I’m in for over four years now.  It’s a 600-some-odd square foot one bedroom with a balcony.  When I first moved in, I had had a bunch of stuff in storage jammed into my parents’ shed and front closet that was unearthed and moved in with the rest of my things.  At first I thought the chaos was just the natural result of moving, and thought it wouldn’t be long before I had the piles all unpacked and sorted.  I knew I had a lot of junk in there; I had always been a packrat.  But I didn’t think it was too unwieldy.  Eh heh.

Try as I did, I just didn’t seem to have enough space for all my crap.  I didn’t understand how this was possible.  I had never had a whole living space to myself before: I had always lived with family or roomates prior to this apartment.  SURELY after cohabiting with other people I didn’t have enough to fill the whole apartment all by myself, did I?

Oh, my dear Lord.  I did.

And we’re not talking big items, like furniture.  Oh, no.  We’re talking boxes upon boxes of books, piles of clothes that I hadn’t sorted for a donation bin since I was a teenager (I’m 33 now), and obscene amounts of mail/catalogs/magazines that had gotten unmanageable, and in a fit of “get it out of the way,” I had shoved in a box or bag always with the intention that I would “deal with it later.”  Those boxes and bags apparently multiplied like bunnies when left alone in a closet.  Now was later.  I had to deal with them.

For someone who has never been a fashionista, nor ever had much money to spend on clothes, most of my collection having been hand-me-downs or gifts, I sure had a TON of clothes.  I knew I hadn’t gone through those boxes gathering dust in my parents’ closet in forever, but it astounded me how much I had managed to accumulate.  In retrospect, I think I should have dumped every article of clothing I found into one big pile and took a photograph, so that I would be able to have a “before” and an “after” picture.  If I had done so, I could have sent the results to some producer at A&E and they would have thought me a candidate for the show Hoarders.  It was horrific.  I had been in total denial as to the level of my clutter and packrat ways.  If you had given me another decade or two down that trajectory, I might have actually been a candidate for the show Hoarders.

Why the hell did I save all that crap, people always asked me (OK, it was mostly my mother that asked me).  I would get defensive about it at the time and honestly couldn’t have told you.  Insecurity is a big part of the answer.  I do empathize with those reality-show sufferers, because I get that aspect of it.  It’s been hard whittling the piles down, and I’ve had years to work on it; those people have a weekend.  It’s a good thing those producers never saw any “before” pictures from me, because doing it that fast might have given me a heart attack.

On the one hand, I grew up poor.  As I said, I didn’t really have money for clothes and had to make do with whatever I had.  So it was kind of a security thing to hang on to every piece of clothing, because I probably couldn’t go out and buy more.  I had a hard time even letting go of items I had worn into the ground.  By that time it was a favorite object, which brings me to difficulty number two: I get sentimentally attached to all sorts of things.  Favorite old sweater now in tatters?  Sentimental object.  Book I loved but would never read again?  Sentimental object.

So how the hell did I even start to pare it down?  In stages.  At first I just focused on the mail-catalogs-magazines bunny family.  It was easy enough to sort through that, but even there I originally was hanging on to much more than I needed to.  I have since made further rounds into the files I thought I should save at the time and have been pulling more out that I now know is silly to hang onto.

It was about this time that I started discovering a huge motivator: apparently, the stuff at my parents’ house had gotten infested with carpet beetles (or at least, what I can identify as such through Google images).  I am a bugaphobe.  And a germaphobe.  And SACRED BOVINES, BATMAN they were everywhere.  I almost never saw a “mature” one – more often than not I found empty cocoons or squirmy little worm larvae things (ewwww).  But what do they like?  Books and clothes.  What do I own?  Books and clothes.

I can’t tell you how many things that I probably would have tried to save that I threw down the trash chute because it was beyond my willingness to de-louse it from the carpet beetles, or their empty cocoons.  Oh, God.  It still makes me squirm.

And they don’t just stay in one place, either.  They went from clothes that hadn’t been worn in a long time to the clothes hanging in my closet.  I have pulled everything out of my closet and dresser and washed my entire wardrobe because I found one worm on a sweater that was “in rotation” – or a few of them on something else I actually wore – probably three times.  The whole wardrobe, three times.  And again, this is before any clothes purging had even begun to take place, so that’s a lotta laundry.

I gave up on using my closet for clothes, and instead turned it into “storage,” to try and get the clutter and chaos out of my living space and once again hidden behind closed doors.  But that could only work for so long.  Even with the closet stacked high with boxes and bags of random crap, my space was still clutter-mania 2000.  My mind felt just about as chaotic as my living space did.  Oh, and I wasn’t going to get rid of the remnants of the #(&%^*$(& carpet beetles by stashing things away instead of cleaning them and sanitizing like my name was Mr. Monk.  So, the purge progressed.

While the progress was painfully slow in the beginning, the more I purged, the easier it got.  And it not only got easier – it started to feel great.  Every time I tossed a box down the trash chute or a bag of clothes in a donation bin (yes, there was washing), I felt a little bit lighter.  My mind felt a little bit clearer.  OK, I thought.  Once I get all these clothes I don’t wear sorted I will feel SO much better.

But it started to progress from clothes.  I started to give away other stuff, too.  Dishes?  Jewelry?  Books?

Oh, yes, the books.

When you’re as huge of a bibliophile as I am, AND a former borderline hoarder/packrat, you save every book your grubby hands have ever managed to own because they are PRECIOUS GEMSTONES OF KNOWLEDGE AND HAPPINESS.  Or something.  Even in my wildest purging dreams, when I was celebrating and posting Facebook updates like, “I threw out three bags of stuff and four bags of clothes in the donation bin this weekend!!  Yay!!!” (because I have a wild and interesting life, don’tcha know), I never thought I’d be able to part with books.  Any of them.  At all.  Ever.  I thought they’d have to make a memorial library with all my books after I kicked the bucket one day, because that collection was here to stay.

I started giving away books.

Now, bibliophiles, don’t freak out, I still love my tomes and am keeping a lot of them.  But I started with little kid books.  Then young adult books.  Then topics I’m not really obsessed about anymore books.  I even gave away some books that were cherished friends but I knew I had outgrown and someone else would get a lot of pleasure out of, so off they went to a new home to make someone else happy.

And for someone that used to stress over sorting a box full of mail, giving away some of my precious books made me actually quite happy.  It was liberating.

Now, I know y’all are thinking, this is a very wordy and very worldly discussion about purging physical items.  Really, is it relevant to a happiness/personal growth blog?

Yes, in so many ways.

For one, having a less-chaotic physical space does wonders for a chaotic mind and spirit.  I feel a lot calmer when my surroundings don’t look like a storage unit threw up in my living room.

For two, less stuff = less work cleaning/maintaining/keeping it free of *^%*&%$^ carpet beetles, and more time to devote to more important/pleasurable activities.

The third point takes a bit of explaining.  When I was a giant stressbucket of unhappiness and worry, I had more rules that structured my life than Leviticus and was terrified of stepping outside of my comfort zone.  Giving away things that had previously seemed so important was basically a giant metaphor for letting go of things in my mind and my soul that had seemed so important, but were not serving me well anymore.  As goes the mind, so goes the apartment.  Or vice versa.  This is why I use the term “liberating” to describe the act of purging material items.  It’s not just “hey I don’t have to cart around as much junk if I move,” though yes, that’s good too.  I was cleaning up interior space at a rapidly increasing rate, and my exterior space was just reflecting that.  The more mental spring cleaning I did of old attitudes and behaviors, the more I was able to clean up my living space.

There is still work to be done.  Oh, boy, is there still work to be done.  But now when I do it, it feels rather lovely instead of difficult.  I am quite happy now that my apartment has no storage space beyond the bedroom closet and a coffin-sized coat closet though I lamented it at first.  It forced me to deal with my issues.  And my mail.

So, purge, my friends.  Purge things in your life that no longer serve you well, be they physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual.  It makes flying so much easier when you’re not weighed down.

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