Before I get to the profundity of “Anxiety and Despair Part 2” — which I’m putting off because I’m worried about how upset it will make me — I’d like to write about something more fun and, importantly, more immediate.
This holiday weekend I participated in my second Declutterthon. What is a Declutterthon? you may ask. Simply put, it is a phone marathon dedicated to decluttering. Many people call it a “Declutter-a-thon” which is incorrect, and then, grammar snob that I am, I get angry about how wrong they are and ask myself how they could possibly make such a stupid mistake. Then I reflect that “declutterthon” is not a real word anyway and so people may as well say what they want. It’s not as if they are pronouncing the word realtor as “real-a-tor” which is appallingly common.
Ah, my judgmental side, constant companion from language to death. They say that my grandmother would have corrected your grammar before she would have saved you from drowning. (Sadly she couldn’t save herself, but that’s for another post.) So these language issues are in my genes. I can’t fight it. But I can laugh about it and write about it. And count students down for grammar mistakes (though not too much because I don’t want to flunk them).
Anyway, the Declutterthon comes out of one of the amazing 12 Step Fellowships I’m in called CLA or Clutterers Anonymous. There are a few weekly meetings in my city and I love the one I usually go to. But beyond that, this Fellowship has a very active phone life. They have at least one phone meeting a day if not more and various check-in lines so you can share your goals, progress, and get encouragement about de-cluttering. On holiday weekends they have the line open from 12-7:30 for four days. It’s continuous meetings, progress reports, goals, discussion of focused actions, affirmations, quotes, reading from CLA and AA literature, and more. The first of these I ever did was July 4th weekend. It’s nice how these events give you community and camaraderie around the holidays when stuff is closed. I prefer this to holiday picnics because I am a nerd.
I am a messy person. I am either compulsively focused on a particular task or deeply avoidant. I gravitate to an “all or nothing” headspace. I have trouble understanding what’s in the middle. I feel that if I start a task I must finish it, so I get intimidated, overwhelmed, and, you guessed it, anxious. So if de-cluttering is not my task, I do other things and the mess really piles up. I’m annoyed, ashamed, and pretend to ignore it. My husband has a genetic condition so he can’t help out very much. The energy he has needs to be saved for work.
Eventually I got some clarity on this and realized that I could use more help. I hired a professional and for the most part she has been wonderful, above and beyond, and a great person and friend. I’m relieved to have this help, but also slightly guilty, because I feel that I should do everything myself and not spend the money. Really, though, I know this is money well-spent. Am I a privileged asshole? Sure. But I’m also using my resources to get help that I need and my hubby and I get friendship on top of it. At the same time, I don’t want to only rely on a helper. I also need to make decisions about my possessions and my space. CLA helps me do my part.
Over the summer I dived into de-cluttering with my typically obsessive nature. I had tubs and tubs (like five tubs) of books sitting in my kitchen. These were things I bought cheaply for past doctoral exams. I knew I wasn’t going to read most of those again. So I went through all of them, sorted what I’m keeping and what I’m not, and gradually took all my books in a suitcase to a used bookstore that resells and recycles used books. I made a nice amount of money and got rid of clutter, even after one of my suitcases broke, and the next one didn’t work, and I panicked to my husband. He helped me realize that I could exchange the faulty suitcase and I did. Crisis averted! Small things like this are crises in my life.
In addition, I’ve collected a lot of clothes that I don’t wear anymore. I packed up eight bags and took them to a local center that takes donations. I just cleared out another bag. Besides having more space, I feel relieved by the honesty of it. I’m clear about what I actually wear and what I don’t. I know my sizes, my preferences, the fact that I am always hot and can’t handle thick sweaters, and I don’t need to bullshit around any of it. I keep what I like and what I will use. I don’t play games like my mother who keeps clothes that are too small because she might lose weight and fit in to them. I don’t do bullshit yo yo diets. I just wear my shit. There’s less anxiety in the simplicity and a pride in finding things I like. (I have an unhealthy obsession with the plus size store Avenue.)
My favorite element of decluttering is summarized by the slogans “first things first” and “the next right step.” Instead of being totally overwhelmed, I can practice coming up with short, reasonable goals. Today I reported, “in the next half hour I’m doing some dishes.” I reported “I’m going to take food out of the fridge and throw it out.” This is a lot easier than expecting myself to take care of every cleaning task right away. I do a lot better with gentleness, with slow-ish and steady pacing. This is something I need to work on in every area of life. Instead of seeing de-cluttering as unimportant, in CLA we get to celebrate everyone’s small victories.
This doesn’t totally stop my struggles. What does? I turn on myself. When things are looking good, I get compulsive (surprise!) and look at everything that can be further improved. Then I decide I’ve done nothing and get angry at myself. I get anxious and overwhelmed and despairing. I’m trying to catch this pattern and actually care about the progress I make. I’m also keeping in mind that my husband and I are collectors in a small house and we don’t need to change our personalities to have a nice living space. We actually have clear floors now and other space are clearly delineated for certain collections. In CLA one of the pamphlets talks about envying showrooms and doing no work on your own space. I was stunned not to be alone in this! Sometimes I pass by an amazing, gorgeous office on my way to the performing arts library. I wish I lived there. But how can I compare myself to something so professional?
I had a little more luck with that today. I was reading a blog by an ice dancer, because ice dance is one of my obsessions, and she showed a picture of half of her face against a background that I took to be her livingroom. It looked showroom-perfect and even matched the fucking hues of her face and clothing, as if it were a scene from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg where people’s drinks, outfits and wallpaper are all color-coordinated. Instead of being desperately jealous I was mildly peeved. “I de-cluttered all day and have to see this?” I thought to myself. “There’s no way my place is going to look like that. And I don’t want it to. I have my own place with my own things.”
De-cluttering helps reduce my anxiety. I feel more mastery over my space and rejoice in being able to do simple tasks. I’ve always felt dumb at simple, daily chores and rarely had to do them growing up. I was just expected to study, oh, and be effortlessly brilliant at whatever academic material I encountered. No biggie. Taking care of smaller things like cat litter, dishes, cleaning out the fridge makes me feel more grounded and more at home, not just in my apartment but in the world. Is my anxiety still an issue? Of course. Is it a bigger issue than I’d like it to be? Yes. But this is a new, fun tool I can do with friends, that gives results I can see, and adds some peace to my strange life.