Letting go can be harder than you think.
I've long understood that I have a tendency to hold on to things, but it wasn't until reading comedian Corinne Grant's memoir, Lessons in Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder that I forced myself to admit that one woman's treasure can also be her trash. By turns amiable and moving, Grant's account of a woman literally finding her way out from under a pile of things resonated keenly with me.
I recognised my own habits in Grant's descriptions of boxes that go unpacked long after it is justifiable to lay claim to the phrase "still moving in". I laughed at recollections of countless Piles to Keep made up of possessions long since forgotten but thought valuable once more on rediscovery. I chuckled at finding someone else who ascribes feelings to inanimate objects – stuffed toys, old birthday cards, a sweetly misguided Christmas present – so that the thought of discarding them brings on a guilty grief so terrible that said items are promptly showered in kisses and taken off for a platonic hug on the settee.
I recognised, and laughed, and chuckled. And I suddenly realised how unbearably defeated I felt by my inability to let go of the detritus of my own life.
My name is Clementine Ford, and I am a hoarder.
It's not just the teetering towers of books that form a mini metropolis on the floor of my bedroom, or the constant parade of unfolded clothes that never seem to find their way onto hangers. It's not even the shoes scattered unceremoniously around the bed, some of whose partners decided long ago to pack up their bowling bags and get the hell out of there. These things could all be excused as mildly inconvenient clutter, conquerable with no more effort than an hour or so engaged in the activity of Putting Things Away. And surely everyone's domestic space gets a little out of sorts now and again?
But after reading Grant's confessional tale and then carefully studying the bulbous topography of my bedroom, I realised it's probably a little more serious than that. Unfolded laundry is one thing, but it can't be normal to keep boxes of old university exams stacked on bags of empty picture frames, collected for the purpose of displaying the saucy collages that might one day be created from the pile of '40s-era men's magazines gathering dust in the fireplace.
I don't want to be this way any more, ashamed of my living space and oppressed by the physical manifestation of the rubbish inside my head. But like most hoarders, ridding myself of the flotsam and jetsam seems an insurmountable task.
There are times when it feels as if destruction is the only path to freedom. Be it burglary, fire or a meteor landing on the house, sometimes you just want something to happen so you no longer shoulder the agonising responsibility of deciding whether or not discarding the notes you passed with Deirdre Steadman in year 12 maths will later account for your inability to ever hold down a job.
I wonder sometimes about the kinds of people who live differently. With their neatly turned-down beds and carefully chosen wall prints, these people are unfamiliar with the onerous sentimentality that has you carting around now-unused Japanese tea cups because you once drank flagon wine from them on an Okinawan balcony in a typhoon. You can bet that their underwear collection doesn't boast 53 pairs of knickers because, in the face of a laundry crisis, it just seems easier to buy new ones. They don't wrestle with giving their deceased mother's books to charity because it might mean the same as forgetting her.
While it can be hard for a non-hoarder to fathom the anxiety caused by such a quandary, for a hoarder the thought of throwing things away can seem like blithely dismissing entire chunks of our personal history – and the most ordinary possessions acquire a level of sentimental value that's baffling to an outsider.
Dr Michael Kyrios, whose Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring Group program at Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology helps hoarders overcome their disorder, says research suggests hoarders cling to all manner of things, from clothes to books, records to recipes and even wrapping paper and pens. "With the thinking patterns that people with hoarding have, there's a view that certain possessions will keep them safe, and they feel emotionally attached to certain things."
Hoarders like myself vigorously hold on to the past in sentimental recollection while accruing ever more items for the future. Ordinary objects are fawned over as the artefacts of our lives. They are evidence that we have not just existed, but that we've mattered.
When tackling her own compulsive hoarding, Grant was advised to keep just one item that reminded her of a particular time and place. "My problem wasn't that I attached too much importance to objects," she writes. "It was that I attached the same level of importance to everything. But nothing means anything if you keep it all."
With this thought in mind, I'm learning to let go of the need to bear witness to my own (material) life. In time, I hope to become the kind of responsible adult who buys flowers to brighten up tidy rooms. I will replace them weekly, and never leave them to wilt in their vase just in case the urge to host a petal-pressing activity day unexpectedly strikes. Because if I've learnt one thing from this oppressive, suffocating experience, it's that activity days never, ever happen.