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Prime Time | Sue Bruns: Escape from a near-hoarding experience

By Sue Bruns

As I packed up boxes to move from our old house to the new one, I sorted as I went. Some sorting was simple and quick. At other times, there were moments of indecision. Do I keep this? Will I use it? Why have I hung onto this for so long?

I came across a stack of articles I’d clipped from various magazines over the years. (Rather than hanging on to the entire magazine, clipping “to-be-read-later” articles was certainly a great strategy, right?) There were recipes, articles clipped from education journals; articles about raising children, gardening, health; pages of exercises to improve my abs, core strength, upper torso; and some helpful hint articles on everything from getting out stains to reducing clutter.

“How to Reduce Clutter.” Hmmm. Should have read that one a while ago.

Once I’d boxed up everything in our office, I tackled the closet. It housed various things from clothing never worn to items saved for crafts I might make someday to a plastic three-drawer storage container of small gifts I’d picked up on sale in case I needed to give someone a little present and didn’t have time to shop. Unfortunately, I can almost always find time to shop, so, on numerous occasions, I’d picked up specific gifts when needed and more “emergency gifts” for the future. My gift drawers were FULL of decorative journals, photo albums, picture frames, costume jewelry, little gift boxes, scented candles, seasonal hand towels, and magnetized note pads.

As the boxes started piling up in the office, I thought about an episode of “Hoarding” I’d watched last week. Was I just a step away from having a house with cat urine-soaked carpets and narrow winding pathways through mountains of accumulated stuff? NOOOOO! Well, not the cat urine-soaked carpets, anyway, because we had neither cats nor carpeting. But the mountains of accumulated stuff? Was I on the narrow winding path to being a hoarder?

Immediately I blamed my mother. She saved virtually everything. Certainly I’d inherited this affliction from her. Having grown up during the Great Depression, she saved anything that could have a practical application: used-but-still-good (UBSG) paper and plastic bags, bread twisties, various sized plastic margarine containers with lids, UBSG scraps of fabric, pieces of string, tin foil, rubber bands, hardware, and wire. You never knew when you might need these items.

She also saved things that had sentimental value: broken Christmas ornaments, chipped saucers and items that had belonged to her grandmother or aunts, like fancy, embroidered handkerchiefs or tablecloths that were much too delicate to use. Toward the end of her life, she’d tried to give me some of these sentimental items, but I’d declined with, “I’m just not a collector, Mom. No room for ‘stuff’ at my place.”

Now, here I was with a house full of “stuff” I’d accumulated with little help from my mother or anyone else.

Occasionally I’d come across something my husband had held onto. What’s he need this for? Why doesn’t he get rid of that? It’s always easier to see the uselessness of someone else’s items. But as I made trip after wheelbarrow-filled trip of items from the old house to the new one just a hundred feet away, I started to question my own sanity.

What had I been thinking when I bought/saved/made/clipped/salvaged some of these items? I knew I wasn’t ready to be featured on the hoarding show, but might I have a pre-hoarding condition?

I moved essential items into the new house – kitchen items first: pots, pans, dishes, groceries, potholders. Next, same idea for the bathrooms and bedrooms. Then we moved in, cooked our first meals in the new house, spent our first nights there. After a few days, I realized I didn’t miss any of the “stuff” left behind.

I thought about a friend whose house was virtually ascetic compared to mine: no toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, or razors on the bathroom countertops; no drying rack with dishes, no blenders or other appliances on the kitchen counter; just clean, bare spaces with occasional, strategically placed tastefully decorative items.

Even inside her bathroom cabinets (I peeked), she had just two cleaning items and one spare roll of toilet tissue. How could she allow all that storage space to go unused? My cabinets were stuffed with extra towels and washcloths; cleaning supplies for countertop, glass, toilet, tile, floor; extra plastic razors and toothbrushes (new, for guests, and old, for cleaning); six to eight extra rolls of two-ply toilet paper; and an assortment of first aid and health items that would serve us well if a civil war were to erupt in our backyard.

OK. Time to scale down. I moved the non-essential and duplicate items into our little cabin. I would sort through them later. Soon the little cabin was filled with mountains of accumulated stuff with a scary little winding path.

The new house is now comfortably filled – not to overflow, but the cabin has become the poor little “worry basket” of items I don’t want to think about. Still … I’m calling it progress.