Sometimes I watch the A&E show Hoarders to feel better about myself and to prove to Dan that no, despite the sorry state of our back porch recycling, I am not a hoarder. Nothing validates your own housekeeping like seeing a man forced to sleep in the tub because his own bed has been overrun with back issues ofPopular Science.
Over the holidays, Dan and I were terrifically terrified by this one episode, which featured a middle-aged woman whose fiance had been killed in an auto accident years earlier. She was what I coined “a late onset hoarder” (I like to invent my own psychiatric terms while watching mental health shows). Basically, you got the impression that before experiencing this devastating loss, she was a believer in more conventional storage methods: shoe organizers, for example, or a place for your hair bobbins that isn’t your dining room table. You got the sincere sense that before the crash, she didn’t need to hold onto firecracker wrappers. But because she hadn’t been able to control her fiance’s death, her compulsions began overcompensating as a means of restoring order. She soon associated “things” with the memory of him, and by hoarding these trinkets and trifles – and a bunch of other stuff that he probably never cared much for, like shampoo samples – she was reclaiming power over her life. She might have had to wade through her kitchen, but she felt safe. Clutter became a kind of talisman against pain.
I’ve suffered from anxiety for as long as I can remember. It’s not something I really talk about, and even those closest to me don’t always understand its effects. I work hard at mindful living – which entails a deep habituated focus on the present, and a deliberate rejection of worry and self-doubt. At the risk of coming across as a freak – although, I used to time celebrities in the bathroom – I think it’s easiest for me to offer an example of the kind of compulsive worrying I do. When I was a freshman in college, my mother gave me a small satchel purse, you know, the tie-dye kind you wear across your chest and maybe keep your Dave Matthews tickets in. I really liked this purse. But I became obsessed with the inevitability of its fraying and ultimately falling apart. As a result, I couldn’t stop messing with it. I feigned absent mindedness while twirling the clasp, but in reality, I was actively destroying it. I now understand that, much like a hoarder, inherent in me is a need to control disappointment – not through accumulation, but premature ruin.
In Donald Barthelme’s short story called (oddly enough) “Rebecca,” he writes:
Very often one “pushes away” the very thing that one most wants to grab, like a lover. This is a common, although distressing, psychological mechanism, having to do (in my opinion) with the fact that what is presented is not presented “purely,” that there is a tiny little canker or germ placed in it somewhere.
I’ve come to realize that I strive for a fantastical perfection, and hence, knowing it won’t reach fruition, seek some modicum of control over its demise. But what anxiety can teach us is that pernicious thoughts aren’t always bad. When I’m really afraid, it’s just my way of acknowledging value. If I have compulsive thoughts about swerving into the next lane, that doesn’t mean I ever would swerve. Rather, it means I love this life I lead, and the thoughts arise as a testament to that love. Very often one pushes away the very thing that one most wants to grab.
I guess the larger issue is why some people need control, need answers, and some don’t. There’s a trade-off to everything. I’m a better teacher because I over-think, but a worse flyer. When Barhthelme observes that what is presented is not presented purely, I flash to the Jewish tradition of breaking the glass at a wedding, which serves as a reminder that embedded in any celebration is a canker of sadness. It’s learning to honor that sadness, rather than control it, that brings peace.