I am an admitted former hoarder. It’s an embarrassing thing to cop to, but not as embarrassing as still being a hoarder. I was only a moderate hoarder: certainly not a level four or five, but bad enough to feel overwhelmed by it. Some points in my life were far worse than other times; I have filled two story, three-bedroom houses with junk. I have, at times, had too many animals. I have left dishes undone for months. Once I had a Christmas tree up until April. Moving has always been a nightmare, with loads of trash left behind. It was not a happy home.
Finally, in 2009, I had enough.
While extricating myself from a less-than-healthy relationship, I realized that all of my stuff was part of what was holding me back. The rising popularity of television shows on hoarding, de-cluttering, and organizing helped me realize where I was likely headed if I didn’t get my behavior under control. I needed to leave not only my ex, but all the years of baggage behind me.
It wasn’t easy. I had to start slowly. I moved from a rented three bedroom rambler (packed to the gills, including the garage) into two rooms in another person’s house. I quickly realized all of my mounds of stuff would never fit in the two rooms and the part of the basement my new housemate/landlady generously let me dump things in.
I moved in mid-December 2009, but my stuff didn’t fully move out until the end of January, 2010. It took more than six weeks to rid myself of thousands of pounds of stuff, including my ex. Part of the hoard belonged to him, but most of it was admittedly mine: the furniture, the dishes, the art on the walls, the papers (so. many. papers.) I had supported both of us financially for the better part of ten years, and almost everything had been purchased on my dime.
The furniture was easy. I just gave most of it to him. I took some bookcases, my mattress, my computer, a couple tables. He got his pick of the rest.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I unloaded thousands of pounds of stuff. I hired a garbage hauler who took away a truckload of trash: broken furniture, useless do-dads, and more. I held a big sale, gave lots of stuff away to friends, carried several carloads to Goodwill, burned some as catharsis, and let the rest of it go for nothing to whomever would take it. It was amazing what I had in that hoard: tons of clothes I never wore, knick-knacks with little sentimental value, teacher materials that were so out of date they would never be usable again, cards and letters and notes from every human being I ever met on this earth, and enough art and office supplies to decorate a small developing country. Who needs a thousand ball-point pens? Apparently, I did.
Part of this great purge included hundreds of books.
I love books. I happily hoard books: books from childhood, books from college, classics, reference books, novels upon novels, and tons of books I picked up on a whim and never read. I had twelve to fourteen bookshelves filled with books, and more books. I also had books in piles, books in cupboards, books in drawers, books in storage, and books in my bed. I inherited this love of and reverence for books from my parents. It felt like a mortal sin to get rid of a book or to throw it away. I kept books so old that they were rubber-banded together rather than discard them.
My first great purge was quite successful, but not absolute. My two new rooms were beautifully organized and decorated. I managed this by scrupulously plotting out the placement of every item in each room, and then renting a 5′ x 10′ storage unit, which I packed in corner to corner with my goods. I found it freeing to have only two rooms, which I could clean quickly and easily if I had to. Not to say they were spotless; I am a piler, and I will likely always be. In the meantime, I could stay happily in denial about the storage unit full of precious treasures across town. I felt secure just knowing it was there.
In the meantime, I fell in love. I fell in love with an amazing person who is funny, smart, well-traveled, and affectionate. He also lived 150 miles away. After a year of long-distance dating, he asked me to marry him. Two months after our engagement (and two months before our wedding) I moved for the second time.
The look on my fiancé’s face when he saw the enormity of my stuff was both terrifying and priceless. This was after the second great purge where I listed things on Craigslist, donated more to Goodwill, tossed tons of trash, and foisted things on friends. The fact that I was moving into a one-bedroom apartment with a man who already had his own fine collection of things was not lost on either of us. He wondered aloud, and often, why I needed so many books. He’s a workaholic, and not much of a free-time reader. (I know! Horrors!) I answered with the obviously correct answer: “Because I do.”
We rented a new storage unit, this one right in our apartment complex. I filled it, although not quite as high this time. Still, I was ready now to get pretty serious about my stuff, as I needed to effortlessly blend his things with mine. It wasn’t actually that difficult. Since his divorce several years before, my fiancé had been living pretty much a bachelor lifestyle. I had already replaced his plastic plates with ceramic, and added a few artistic touches the previous Christmas, when (with his permission) I “girlfriended up” the apartment. Much of his decor was left over from his previous marriage. I kept what we both liked, and gave away some of what I didn’t. I was able to fit my stuff in nicely, but, as must previously independent adults do when combining households, we had a lot of doubles.
I was proud of myself, in that I regularly culled our extras, repeats, and things that were worn out, that we simply did not need or did not have a place for. I kept the best, and donated the rest. I even gave away several things I really liked. I convinced myself that if I didn’t have a place for it, it wasn’t being loved properly. I gave these things away knowing some one else would love it as much or more than I did. Over ten months, the donation truck came about seven or eight times, each time picking up five or more large boxes or bags. Very few of those bags or boxes contained books.
Then, after those ten months, we moved again. My now-husband changed jobs, and we decided to take the opportunity to move into a two bedroom apartment, which would be a lot more convenient for guests (including his two sons, with whom we have frequent visitation.) This time, I was determined. Again, I pre-planned where every stick of furniture would go. I was determined to reduce even more, even though we technically had more space. Because we planned to buy new furniture (getting rid of the dilapidated remnants from his past marriage) we were able to cast off a lot more stuff, sending quite a bit off to charity and passing a bit more on to friends and neighbors. I even donated about two thirds of my art supplies to my stepson’s school, and used more when I volunteered to teach a weekly art lesson.
The storage unit was a hassle. Because there was still so many things in there, we had to rent another storage unit so that I could clear out the first one, as well as move our packed boxes out of our tiny apartment, allowing us to still maneuver inside. I’m proud to say that, once again, I managed to reduce our clutter dramatically (No one is perfect: there will always be piles.) I even cleaned out my storage unit to the point where I can find and reach anything there that I need. My stuff only takes up about a third of the floor space and is no where near up to the roof. Most of the things in there are seasonal, with only a few boxes of sentimental history, and of course, art supplies.
All of this leads up to this interesting revelation: over this three year process, I rid myself of approximately eleven bookshelves worth of books. The only way I’ve managed to reduce my book hoard to this level was because my husband, in all his book-hating loveliness, bought me a Kindle. I took the hint. I ruthlessly gave away almost any book that could be replaced with an e-book, keeping only those books that did not come in electronic form, were rare editions, or were sentimental favorites. I continued to reduce upon every move until I finally reached the minimum: three bookshelves plus four small areas: a cookbook nook near the kitchen, writing books over the desk, Books Not Appropriate For Kids in the bedroom, and the pile by the bed. There will always be a pile by the bed.
I still succumb to the occasional book binge. After all, I live near a city with one of the greatest bookstores in the world. However, I’m pickier now that I know I have limited space. I will admit, I have an extra bookshelf secreted away in a closet, but right now it holds other things. In an emergency, however…you never know.
Next on the Daily Dilettante: E-books and the Lost Art of Editing