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The Story of Stuff

Why is life worth living? Not because of the things around you but because of the people around you. So when you allow the things to get in the way of the people, you know you need to change.

Case in point. A person who we will call Coleen decides to retire and move out of her rented house. She has so much stuff she literally does not know where to start. Her house is full of mostly unnecessary things. Seven teapots, five outdated atlases, two hundred shoes… You get the picture. So what does Coleen do? She spends a month sorting her beads.

I don’t want to single out Coleen. We all have the tendency to collect junk. We are all addicted to stuff. Addiction is a helpless compulsion to self-sooth. Part of our brain is demanding our body to never leave a beach without a rock or stick as a souvenir; never leave a used bookstore without a rare-find; never come out of an antique shop without a glass vase that remind you of your grandma. But there is also the other part of our brain, the rational part that asks: “Where are you putting all these? Don’t you have six vases already? Does that item really spark joy?” The rational brain keeps us in check. However, if that part of the brain is shut off or damaged through physical or emotional trauma then all hell breaks loose.

Coleen immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was young. On the train to come here her father started throwing part of their belongings out of the window, citing they were not needed in the new home. We can only imagine what this did to Coleen’s young brain. Coleen’s mother also practised draconian housekeeping rules like your forks cannot be out by more than 5 degrees. So Coleen rebelled, right up to her own old age. Her house is always full of things. Every flat surface is covered. All shelves are full. Very few things have a permanent place and she spends a large part of her off-work hours looking for things.

You may say: so what if Coleen wants to collect. It is her freedom to do so as long as she doesn’t infringe on other people’s happiness. Here are some points to consider. Coleen spent so much time and energy on sorting out her house she didn’t have the time or energy to savour her time with her grandchildren before moving away. Coleen gave up on sorting and left the mess for her husband to deal with, the extra stress almost killed him (her words). Coleen and husband stayed with one of their relatives and the amount of her stuff created unnecessary tension for them. When they were leaving, once again they didn’t have the time or energy to say proper goodbye.

At this point, Coleen can say: “My life is difficult, I just have to chive on.” or she could realize a part of her brain is not fully functioning. This disability to control her impulse to hoard is preventing her from living a full and happy life. The sooner she realizes the fact the sooner she can look for help.

If she does not do anything her life will continue its downward spiral. Recently, she claimed she cannot afford rent, then she bought books she never read and had to throw them away. The cost of the books plus the cost of storing the books plus the cost of dispose of the garbage all adds up. When you multiply this seemingly small cost by how many unnecessary things Coleen accumulated over the years you can understand why Coleen is always struggling financially. Of course financial stress has a way of transforming to physical stress and health problems. Today, Coleen is plagued with a multitude of illnesses and ailments.

Again this is not a target practise on Coleen. She is a victim of a disorder called hoarding. She literally builds a wall of stuff to shut herself in from the world. In her space she believes she has control but the truth is she is a slave to her things. Inanimate objects can never give us the satisfaction of dancing with your grandchildren; or sharing a meal with loved ones; or spending time with family over tea. Coleen knows that, but that part of her brain is often dismissed. Even after all her sufferings from hoarding she said to me: “What I need is a barn to house all my stuff. Are there any barns for sale here?” I was rendered speechless.

Let Coleen’s life be a lesson to all of us. Holding on to things, people, emotions, memories, stories and beliefs that no longer serve us is very costly. It will staunch your growth as a adult and literally transplant you into a seat on a train watching your father throwing away your belongings. You will live the rest of your life trying to collect all that was lost. I hope Coleen and all of us can grow past our generational challenges and move from Surviving to Striving.

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