I can’t pinpoint the exact year, day or second I realized I had a problem with things.
It must’ve built up over time, much like other addictions or mental health issues where we often only take them seriously when they become extreme.
Even though there was a gentle gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right, the giddy sensation I’d get from buying, the rush of owning something new or the comfort in the familiar always far outweighed any desire to de-clutter.
I was not a hoarder, I told myself; I was a collector of beautiful clothes and other trinkets. They surrounded and encompassed me with their promise of great things to come. Trying to navigate leading a “successful” life left me winded, and I convinced myself that my things were a safety net, a refuge from the anxiety of the world and the people in it. I could be anything with them around.
Over the years there were nights where I’d pour a glass of wine, put on some music and try to sort it all out only to end up sobbing and tipsy beneath a teetering pile, overwhelmed and angry with myself. I was often embarrassed to have people over, especially love interests, worried it might put them off.
But I could just as easily pretend to myself it was fine when a sample sale or charity shop was nearby. I didn’t identify with the hoarder stereotypes: I didn’t have to climb over mounds to get into my home, and there weren’t rats or terrible smelling piles. I could simply vacuum-pack my things away and just about move around my room.
“It was only when coronavirus, and lockdown, hit this year that I couldn’t run away from my things any longer.”
It was only when my landlord decided to sell the house I’d rented for years I felt the full weight of what I’d built up. Opening up the hundreds of suction packs to go through them, I felt shame in myself, in the looks of the friends who came to help me move, and in the sharp intakes of breath from my parents.
I managed to get rid of over 400 things before I left. I held a sale over two weekends, meeting some absolutely lovely people; a lot of women dropped by who didn’t like shopping on the high street, who liked the idea that I’d built up this wardrobe and had a story attached to everything. Trying to tessellate the rest into the moving van it was obvious things would have to be left, so I laid out a few bags of clothes and bits of furniture, put a note on them and they were all taken.
Although this was all a great achievement, it didn’t seem to scratch the surface. I vowed to sort myself out and sell more. But in the following years of (pre-pandemic) life I would work in coffee shops, libraries and bars. I was often away, back to London and other cities for work, to visit friends, or stay with family. There was an ebb and flow to the suffocation – I didn’t buy anywhere near as much, but I didn’t shed myself of anything much either.
It was only when coronavirus, and lockdown, hit this year that I couldn’t run away from my things any longer. I was forced to exist inside what I thought were my ideals for myself – and instead realised they only brought me misery.
Most of the clothes were bought in smaller sizes for when I’d eventually lose weight. I could never find specific items when I looked for them. I had no energy to read or work on some new writing – the things I wanted to do, because I had no breathing space to think about anything outside of work and my stuff.
Though painful, it turned out this time was exactly what I needed. I began working through things with a therapist, who helped me acknowledge I had obsessive compulsive disorder, which manifested not only in this hoarding but also in intrusive thoughts that would leave me paranoid and exhausted.
“It has felt freeing to not be tied to the impulse of needing new things… I doubt I’ll ever be a minimalist, but I know something has shifted.”
I stopped buying clothes – at first because I couldn’t and then because the desire left – and since March I’ve only purchased a £4 swimming costume to have an impromptu swim in Penzance. It has felt freeing to not be tied to the impulse of needing new things, and just buying things when I need them. I doubt I’ll ever be a minimalist, but I know something has shifted.
Being with my things has forced me to finally confront them. Before, I couldn’t let go because I believed I would be letting go of the person I wanted to be. But in reality I’ve made more moves towards that person this year than any other year in my life.
Though I have a long way to go, just starting the process feels galvanising. I’ve cleared a little area for myself to write. I ignore the feeling of failure as a reason not to try. I’ve had an offer accepted on a small flat of my own.
And most importantly I am starting to feel like, as lovely as they may be, I am enough without my things.
Laura Horton is a writer, campaigner, publicist and the new Plymouth Laureate of Words 2021-22. Follow her on Twitter at @LauraCHorton