How I became a borderline hoarder

And how I got better

National Geographic
(Image credit: (CC BY: eggrole))

The other day, I was dumping two empty condiment bottles into the recycling bin. My 18-year-old daughter said, "We should save those. We could paint them and turn them into cool vases." I suddenly felt that old familiar sizzle in my gut, that heat of possibility...

But a voice inside me that knew better intervened. "No! They'll end up in a box somewhere. We have enough vases. And way too many boxes! Recycle it!"

"Geez, Mom," my daughter said. "You don't have to freak out. I'm just trying not to be wasteful."

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"That's how it all begins," I said with a ferocity that surprised me. "One minute it's condiment bottle vases, and suddenly you're saving every shard from every plate you've ever broken to turn your shower stall into a three-sided mosaic!"

"I think that'd be kinda cool," she said. "We shouldn't just get rid of stuff if we can use it somehow."

That's when I realized that I'd passed on my most secret affliction: hoarding. So I decided to deliver a chilling retrospective of my childhood, like one of those car wreck films they show you in Driver's Ed. Both for her and for me.

"Sit down. I've got something very important to tell you that might save you years of weird-ish woe."

We sat at the kitchen table. That's locational code for Mom means business.

"I come from Depression-era people," I said. "People who stood in line for bread and gas. Their biggest splurge was a Sunday drive, okay. They didn't have recycling. Why? Because it was woven into society. You finished the milk bottles, left them on the stoop, the Milk Man replaced them and brought the empties back to the factory to wash and fill. That era's catch phrase was: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!"

"A lot of people in your grandparents' generation refused to get rid of anything. And I mean anything. My father had a pair of socks that my mother knit for him in 1950 when they were dating… that he wore for 50 years. I bet you've never heard of darning, never mind a 50-year-old pair of socks. It's commendable, until it's just plain gross."

"It's all good in theory and practice…until you wind up with 50-year-old socks in your drawer, that you never wear, and an attic full of National Geographics that go back to 1949 because you think your grandchildren might need them someday for a Social Studies project. Grandchildren who don't even exist!"

"We have more National Geographics than the ones in the living room?" my daughter asked.

"Boxes and boxes of them."

She was starting to look worried.

"Don't get me wrong. Being frugal is a good thing. And that era was all-pro in this department. You would never consider grocery shopping without a list and you would never add something to your cart unless it was absolutely 100 percent justified."

"Geez," she said. "That would put Target out of business!"

"We're not consumption junkies like most people these days. I'm proud to carry that torch into the 21st century. But not of what I keep, as if the world might end tomorrow. The Depression-era philosophy can lead to a lifetime of quasi-hoarding. And that's not good. It can be a burden. A 1,000-pound monkey on your back."

And that was only too true in my own life. Boxes of things I'd saved from move to move, littered not just in my attic, but my garage, my eaves and crawlspaces, my closets and pantry. It was time to take that monkey to the thrift shop. I hadn't seen it until my daughter held up the mirror. And I did not want this for her.

So I decided to go for shock factor. "Sure it's noble to borrow books from the library instead of buying new ones, or use fake flowers instead of ones that die in a few days, but if you go to your grandmother's house and look in the garage, you will see, and I'm not kidding, the door mat from my childhood. And the dust pan. The last time I was there, I found a half-full 1950s baby oil bottle. And yes, I actually thought it would make a 'cool' vintage vase. But I left it alone. That's the goal. Not to accumulate stuff. Be resourceful, but do not become a hoarder. Get out of the mindset that scares you into keeping things just in case. The sky is not falling, the world is not at war in your backyard, you do not need a three-wall mosaic in your shower stall. Shed the stuff. Live free!"

"My father used to say, 'Use your ingenuity.' It was a challenge I loved to take. But is it ingenuity that means you use the same hairbrush your entire childhood? Once a week my mother would gather up all the household hairbrushes and soak them in ammonia. Ammonia and white vinegar were housewives' best friends. I could have had a new hairbrush every week with the amount of money my mother spent on ammonia and vinegar."

This inspired a look of downright disgust. I had her where I wanted her.

"And wrapping paper. God forbid we were allowed to rip open a gift. 'Save the paper!' they'd threaten, which sort of ruined the whole fun of Christmas and birthdays. And don't get me started on tea bags. Your grandmother uses the same tea bag for five cups of tea! I mean, if you're going to have tea…have tea! Not darjeeling-flavored water!"

"You do the same thing, you know," my daughter said. "With wrapping paper. And you're right — it sort of ruins present opening."

"Well at least I throw away lipstick. Those women would never dream of throwing out lipstick — even if every last bit has been scraped out and applied with a Q-tip. Never. Sacrilege. Still might get something out of it if they dig deep enough. It warps your mind."

"It's insanity! When my parents sold our childhood home, I was totally in crazy-town. I took things like the little crystals on the ceiling light fixtures. Might make cool jewelry. Old windows might make a cool frame for future tomato-growing. Bricks from an outdoor fireplace? I could turn those into needle-point-covered door-stoppers, of course. Like my mother had. I could have started a salvage shop just on the contents of my parents' home alone!"

"You took bricks?" my daughter said. "From Chicago to Montana? That is crazy."

"I'm not saying to be wasteful. I'm just saying: Don't become overly attached to things. Learn to give things away. Donate to the Salvation Army, the Food Bank. Utilize hand-me-downs. Don't save things for grandchildren who don't exist. Sure, maybe the special stuff, but not every party dress you had because you think the fabric might make a nice quilt one day. Unless you really like making quilts. I don't. Which means I need to get rid of a few mostly-forgotten boxes marked Fabric in the attic!"

My daughter looked like she was suddenly very, very scared. "You really saved every party dress…to make quilts?"

Proof was better than words. So we did a tour of the house — the pantry, the garage, the closets, the attic. And box by box, I let her into my mania.

Finally she put her hands on my shoulders: "We need to load up the car. Now!"

I can't say it felt good driving away from those thrift shops with an empty car (we spread the "wealth"), but I can say that if you ask me to list the items in those boxes with any level of detail, I wouldn't be able to describe much of any of it. And if the time comes when I really need to make that quilt, I'll go to a thrift shop, find other fabric from someone else's life, and call it good. Quasi-hoarder no more.

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