Step 1: Accumulate. Until reality sets in. Step 2: Begin to declutter.

As a child I loved everything I had and couldn’t have enough.  I was the only child in my nuclear family, and I was the only grandchild until I was 10.  I remember getting MOUNTAINS of presents at Christmas, and even more 1 month later for my birthday.  Over the years it actually grew because my parents each split and re-married (though to split again…) so I had multiple families.  Once I get some images scanned, I’ll show you just how much stuff I would get.

I also understand why I got so much.  Sure, I was the only child.  Sure, when you’re little the presents are less costly so you can have a larger number of them.  But really I think it’s that my family tried to show their love for me with items.

Case in point: we went to either Roses or Wal-Mart when I was maybe 5 and Papa (mybmaternal grandfather) said I could have one thing.  Well, I picked up a coloring book.  Reasonable choice.  But, I also had crayons in my hand too, because, what good is a coloring book without crayons?  Then it turned into a Barbie doll as well.  I don’t remember how many items I had but it most certainly was not one.  I remember roaming the aisles with him, knowing I had pulled over some sort of scheme.  I was already conditioned.

I have countless stories like that.  Another one that is particularly telling explains my relationship with money.  Again I was at a big store with my mom or Papa and there was something I wanted.  Somehow not having money came up and I said something like “well just write a check!”.

I also remember as an older child having my own room at home, with a toy box in the closet.  Over the years the contents of that box would change, but it would always spill out into the room.  Every drawer I had would also be over-flowing.  I have a distinct memory of having so much stuff that I literally could not see the floor.  It was an everyday occurrence to me, invisible even, but one day I would just notice it.  And whenever that would happen I would clean.  It was almost like a binge-purge cycle.  It would take hours, days even.  I would take all of my clothes out of the closet and drawers.  I would put everything back either hung or folded neatly.  Some I would even get rid of.  Then I’d move onto the next thing…maybe it was my nightstand drawer(s).  Then my cd collection: I would either organize them by artist, or genre and then artist…(I sorta liked organizing.  Maybe I just really liked organized chaos).  I remember going through items in that toy box and later it would turn into a collection of papers from school, not just currently but also from when I was younger.  Yearbooks.  Notes from friends folded into origami-like shapes.  Everything I wanted to keep would be put up neatly into stacks, only later to topple over themselves with the weight of other items being thrown in too.  Then I would re-arrange the furniture.  I don’t really know why…maybe I was always in search of the perfect arrangement.  Maybe I just wanted a change.  But this became routine.

One day when I was a teenager I was able to get control of the hoard but I was still a purveyor of clutter.  And lets get something straight.  I was not a “pack rat”.  I was a hoarder.  I cannot tell you why though admittedly it was at least partially due to laziness and not wanting to clean.  I was too young at the time to self-reflect so I won’t even attempt to do so now.

I will say that my school notebooks, however, were always meticulous.

When I moved to England after high school these tendencies followed me.  And again when I moved back to NC, then when I lived on my own, through college.  In medical school things got a little easier, mostly because I was always studying.  But I would get lazy because of all of the stress and things would quickly pile up.  I still have that problem today.

Along the way I did declutter.  I would toss out elementary papers.  Multiple copies of photos.  Movies I thought I’d no longer want (though now I REALLY wish I had kept my VHS tapes of the original Star Wars trilogy before “he” attempted to…ahem…improve on them with digital technology.  Possibly my only real regret).  Clothes would go.

In residency I really started to get into the tiny house movement and dreamed of it.  I even looked up companies that I might be able to use to build a house.  I downsized my DVD and CD collection extensively.  My closet morphed into a capsule wardrobe.  When I moved to my current apartment my dad literally said “so where are all of your clothes?” and was dumbfounded when I told him that this was it.  I still thought it was a lot.  He saw practically nothing.  I would also take little challenges or breaks from social media, and delete Facebook and Pinterest, huge black holes of time, until I no longer felt the twitch to check them and waste hours.  Needless to say I became more productive.

I also found Marie Kondo and the KonMari method of decluttering which is what really helped.  I never made it all the way through my home but I was able to significantly downsize what I did own.  Along the way, of course, accumulating more items at holidays and on my own.  Makeup was a particular problem for me as I loved it, the creativity it allowed me, and the fun I got from making blog posts and YouTube videos.  Oh, and did I mention picking up stuff that my mom had saved of mine for years and taking it home since she didn’t really want to hold onto it?  Baby blankets my grandmother had made.  Crochet items my great-grandmother had made.  Cards.  Photos.

After moving to a new place with no-one around that I knew, and having a greatly increased income, I began to re-accumulate.

The unthinkable happened during medical school.  First Papa died, followed swiftly by Grandma.  Then my mom got sick. Months later she too died.  We had to stay in Durham to pack up some of the stuff at the temporary apartment and take it back to the house, but once there, her husband made me go through her closet.  I was devastated.  It felt like he was trying to get rid of her.  I could barely process what had just happened, but for him the decluttering couldn’t happen fast enough.  Literally, the day after we got back to their home, I had her closet and bathroom cleared out thanks to friends of hers and family members.  It was heartbreaking.  My thought was, maybe it was just too hard for him to be around all of her things as well as the house that they had built together.  The rational part of me thought that, and that she was not her things, but the emotional part was…broken.  I don’t like to dwell on this because it still feels so acute, not even two years later.

Now I had been trying for years, and over several attempts, to help mom declutter her closet and we were never able.  Every time we moved, we would do this.  Even on summer trips home she’d want to tackle the closet in the guest room that held her dresses since the one in her room was already overflowing with shoes, purses, and other clothes.  I would beg and encourage her to get rid of this dress that doesn’t really look good on her, has been out of style for years, and that she hadn’t worn.  Her reaction was “but now I have this new job, not a lot of money, and may need a dress”.  She gave a lot of ‘what if’ excuses, but it wasn’t “a” dress.  It was 10 or more.  Now I look back and smile but still feel a twinge of torture because she would literally have to try on every. single. item.

After she died I ended up slowly accumulating more things that were found later and boxed up for me.  Her antique china tea set.  Photos.  Stuff from her work and home office.   I also accumulated some old VHS family tapes.  3-4 plastic bins worth of Christmas decorations (which was our special thing, decorating during the holidays, watching The Grinch and reciting every line).  I had a bin of her old photos.  A set of china.  Another set of crystal antique glassware.    If you’d ever like to discuss or read about how I dealt with, and am still dealing with these items, I will write about it.

After my employer was bought out by a rival hospital system and I was laid off, I had a lot of free time on my hands.  My anxiety level had slowly but steadily been ratcheting up, along with the small items in my apartment.  I had also taken on a side business selling clothing and wold have those items strewn around the place as well.  It just seemed like a depressing place to come home to.  Then, one day, I looked around.  Instead of seeing the stuff, I saw myself.  My own emotions and problems had literally spilled onto my dining room and coffee tables.  I knew that buying more boxes to store things in was not the solution.  Ikea was no longer a viable option.

The solution came in the form of iTunes and YouTube; a documentary called Minimalism and a channel by Rachel Aust.  That lead me to a website, http://www.theminimalists.com, then The Minimalists podcast, and then books and even more YT channels. I devoured the audio books.  I also began to meditate again, and binged in a single sitting on a book by Dan Harris.  I began to declutter my home.  Knowing that I am going to have to move is also GREAT motivation by the way.  Want to clear out stuff?  Move.

I am still struggling.  It never fails that things get worse before they get better.  I have small items all over my dining room table and coffee table still.  This is why I am sitting in a Starbucks instead of at my desk or dining room table; seeing all of the visual clutter stops me from being productive.  But, I have donated two bedside tables and a kitchen rack to a friend who is getting her first home.  I have consigned some clothes and accessories.  I have simplified my iPhone and the apps I use and donated books to the local library. I am still attempting to make changes daily to make my home cleaner, tidier, and simpler.

I am not perfect.  I still have loads of items, and I am seriously considering a packing party (future blog post to come on just what that is).  I am also considering getting rid of the internet at home, at least for a time.  I know that if I sit down on my couch and just turn on the Apple TV to watch one episode of The Daily Show, that will then turn into “what’s that new show on Netflix? 13 Reasons Why?  Oh, and that other one, The Handmaid’s Tale, oh and I have all of these other shows I need to catch up on too like Scandal”.  As I type this I am made even more aware of just how much television is taking over my life and holding me back from being able to move forward.

Boom.

Reality set in.

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