Fionnuala Jones on the struggle of being a hoarder who wants to declutter…
If moving house was the most traumatic thing to happen to me in 2020, of course, I’ll take it. Despite my gritted teeth, it is of course a huge privilege to be able to move from one (extremely overpriced) house to another.[restrict]
I anticipated the stress that a move would bring during a pandemic. What I didn’t anticipate was the self-inflicted stress brought about by the mountains and mountains of stuff I had managed to accumulate over three and a half years.
Some background on me – I would consider myself to be a sustainable person. I am frequently kept awake at night thinking about the ice caps and the earth inevitably going dark on mankind.
I don’t buy fast fashion.
I’m conscious of plastic.
And yet, here I was surrounded by bags of stuff that I had no recollection of buying, yet must have had enough of a connection to at the time to keep. At my old house, I was blessed with bedroom storage – cavernous wardrobes that wrapped around the room, perfect for throwing stuff into and immediately forgetting about.
In my new room, space came at a premium. After endless car trips, all my belongings now sat in the space, threatening to engulf me with a simple misstep.
I tried to laugh about it with my Mam when she visited, two months after the fact, as a miscellaneous drawer of wigs, socks and swimsuits almost drowned the pair of us upon opening. She did not laugh.
The thing was though, I wasn’t really embarrassed about the length and breadth of my trash, until other people cottoned on to the extent of my hoarding crimes. I love stuff. I love having things, just in case. The comfortable feeling that ‘having’ brings … I could get philosophical about it, read deeply into my actions, compare my fortress of faff to a shield that protects me from opening up and letting people in.
It’s not that deep – I’m lax when it comes to saving, enthusiastic when it comes to spending and inanimate objects do in fact spark joy for me.
How do we, as people, end up with so much stuff?
“There are so many reasons,” writer and professional organizer Emma Gleeson, whose book Stuff Happens! published next February, explains. “We live in a capitalist society and have been taught to see ourselves as consumers. Marketing people are really clever – you might think you’re immune to advertising but you’re not.
“As humans we adapt so quickly to things, so the thing that you’ve been saving up for for months that you think will complete you, you think “ok my stuff will be complete then”, actually we get bored so easily and move on to the next thing.”
Having previously worked as a costume designer, Emma is no stranger when it comes to the process of hoarding and having.
“I was someone in my early life who hoarded a lot of stuff, vintage clothes coming out the wazoo, very indulgent parents who didn’t mind.
“When I moved to London to do my masters and got into the ethical fashion movement, I started to care where everything came from, and care about the stuff I already owned.”
Emma had always used tidying and organizing as a way to manage her anxiety. Soon, she began doing it for her friends. With that, her holistic approach to organizing was born.
One thing she is not, however, is a minimalist. Like myself, she regularly has feelings that are completely at odds with sustainable practice. We are both well aware we should all be making do with what we have, creating less. I realise that buying endless amounts of charity shop clothes that I don’t need is, in a way, as bad as buying mass produced clothes that I don’t need. I pride myself on recycling, but it feels counter productive when you’re practically building a new housing development out of boxes in your kitchen.
Not to mention the fact that my job does not allow for minimalism. I am constantly sent shite to look at, squeal about, photograph. I refuse a lot, only to find another random package shoved under the doormat “for my consideration”.
I’m trying to be more ruthless. I’m on a spending ban (unless I can immediately eat or drink it). I’ve promised my Mam I’ll acknowledge the miscellaneous drawer at some point, but I don’t think I’m strong enough yet.
Actually, I know I’m not strong enough yet – I still have a picnic basket full of birthday cards, festival ribbons and concert tickets lurking behind my coats. Watching my Mam frantically attempt to clean around it, I concluded she was definitely experiencing some kind of silent, rage episode that she would tell my siblings about on the phone.
How else can we break the chain of wanting, buying and hoarding?
“It’s about trying to step off that treadmill and it’s about slowing down and looking at your stuff, appreciating it, thinking about where it came from,” Gleeson says. “I know it’s a bit hippy dippy but that’s what I advise.”
The hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them. In simple terms – no matter how much eyeshadow you buy, the journey there will always seem more satisfying to us than the reward.
It’s a process, Gleeson says, but it is absolutely possible, even for the most cluttered among us.
“Stopping buying things will happen gradually. Changing habits is hard; if you fall off the wagon, it’s ok. We’re all going to make mistakes all the time, it’s just about reminding yourself that buying new stuff will not make you satisfied.”
In speaking to her, I began to understand why I had ignored my gluttony for things for so long, and why it isn’t just as simple as hurling things into the bin.
“Decluttering can bring us shame which can be hard. You feel guilty about getting something expensive and not using it. Not using something that’s “useful”,” Emma says. “It’s not just about, “do I use this? Yes or no?””
She explains how the paradox of choice can make streamlining stuff like clothes and makeup particularly difficult.
“The more choice we have, the more dissatisfied we will be, always. Consumer choice is touted to us as amazing freedom but it makes us anxious and dissatisfied. There are so many forces at play.
“When it comes to clothes and makeup, so much of it is about our identity – the fashion industry has taught us that clothes shape our identity, and they do. But because we have so much choice we get bamboozled. The constant need to express yourself fully through your clothing, with the hope that someday you’ll reach that thing where your identity clicks for you … It’s exhausting!
“Decluttering is a symptom, but shopping is the root of the problem.”
Where do we start then? Emma has some advice.
“Start off with a small easily achieved task like sheets and towels – clothes can be too overwhelming – it’ll spur you on. Even set yourself an hour – you don’t have to finish! Just do what you can in the hour.
“If you are organizing, try and say to yourself ‘ok I’m going to figure out what I actually like and pay attention to it’ – fewer options will make it less confusing.
“I also think taking before and after pictures helps remind you of what you’ve achieved.”
Having a belongings-related epiphany as we head into the festive season WHILE STILL ENDURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC hasn’t made the process any easier for me. What would I like for Christmas? There are plenty of things I would LIKE – things to capture my attention briefly like shiny stars in the palm of my hands. These things rarely line up with my list of needs – and let’s face it, nobody ever wants a present that they need.
And despite her silent screams during my room’s extraction process, my mother also has no interest in gifting practically.
“What do you want from Santa?” she asks, having seemingly forgotten how a Bag For Life filled with mismatched electronic wires almost impaled her a week earlier.
How have they not invented a real life version of cloud storage yet?, I thought to myself. Make it as easy as pressing a pestering notification on my phone. Yes, I am aware my life is overflowing; yes, I am willing to pay 99c a month to never see it again.
“Nothing,” I said. “Sure I don’t need anything.”
Emma Gleeson’s (@stuffhappensemma) new book Stuff Happens! is released February 25, 2020