The Process of Purging: Holding Memories and Releasing Possessions
The post is part of Mindfully Spent's December Series "Doing the (Seemingly) Impossible." The story and photos are courtesy of Guest Contributor Katie Stephens.
For years, I dreamt of being buried in my belongings, and it was cozy there. The feedback of the possessions all around my body’s perimeter felt like a hug. It felt like protection. It felt like family. Until it didn’t anymore. The vision that had provided me comfort for most of my life, started weighing heavily on my chest, stealing my ability to create a home for myself, and making it difficult to move forward.
As a kid, when I got myself ready for bed at night, there were often so many stuffed animals neatly lining the head of the bed that there was not room for me. No one could be left out, and I needed my stuffed kinfolk around to lead me into sleep. Just a kid anthropomorphizing some stuffies. Very innocuous. Then I learned that everything had meaning. Everything had a history. Everything was precious because it had a story and to not honor that thing and its story was to not honor the item’s original owners/gifters/creators. I am not sure what inanimate object’s history initiated this lesson, but it grabbed hold and held tightly.
While there was some comfort in knowing the uncle who died while my mom was pregnant with me once wore the jean jacket I was wearing, it was also a responsibility that sapped my capacity to truly live in it and enjoy it without fear. And if everything has meaning and a story bigger than its purpose to entertain or clothe me, what happens if I wear it out? Or I lose it? Or I tear it? What does that say about me and my place in the ecosystem if I can’t preserve all the memory capsules effectively?
The connection to the storied pasts of my belongings and the desire to be submerged in them was encouraged by childhood trauma and later PTSD. We all develop coping mechanisms to navigate the tough stuff, and those tools work great to get us through the acutely painful periods to a time when we aren’t in the thick of the mire and can begin to reassess. From the time I became in touch with the reality that my things were no longer serving my growth into who I wanted to be, it took me 7 years and a pregnancy to finally be ready to let go of them.
Once, when I was a kid, my mom told me I was to come home and clean my room after school. She wasn’t going to be there, but she expected it to be on its way to done when she arrived. Like many kids, cleaning my room wasn’t my strong suit. I would spend hours working on my desk, struggling to catalog every piece of paper for posterity's sake rather than throwing anything away (recycling was not a thing yet). On this particular day, my mom left me a note: “Don’t forget, everything has a place.” I was ten. Everything did have a place. I kept this note and still have it today. I would refer to it well into my twenties when things didn’t all have a place anymore and I desperately needed them to.
And then people started dying. First Grandpa, then Auntie Rosie, and then Grandma. I took everything no one else wanted. Boxes of books I would never read from Auntie Rosie’s floor-to-ceiling library. I wouldn’t just not read them because I wouldn’t get around to it, but because I had zero interest in reading them. I had such clear memories of fingering the spines of books I wasn’t supposed to touch and snooping deep into the nooks of Auntie Rosie’s eclectic house, and these picked over books represented that time. Then there were paintings done by these incredible pillars in my life when I never even knew they had picked up brushes. So, for every mildew tinged mystery novel from the 1950’s that was taking up space based on a memory of a place I once existed in, there were these illuminating art pieces made by the humans I loved with a creativity I hadn’t known they possessed. There were love letters between Grandma and Grandpa, as well as leftover, personalized Christmas cards from 1967 that couldn’t be re-purposed. There was Grandpa’s Underwood typewriter as well as every key he’d ever come into contact with. Every piece carried an equal weight of importance, and, inevitably, an equal weight on my sternum.
Eventually, the burden was heavy enough for me to want to get rid of things, but the emotional tie that was knotted at one end around the objects and the other end around my throat was much harder to cut.
I went through intensive trauma counseling in 2012 and for the first time vocalized the shame and guilt and regret and pain in an entirety to which I had not been previously able. During that process, I was able to tap into a new vision of my best self, a self that was not smothered under the piles that had calmed me prior. The vision was of a deep breath. My best self is a deep breath. The moment I found out I was pregnant was the moment I knew I had to become that deep breath. I could not help my son grow without being able to breathe deeply myself. It took another year to follow through with the act of getting rid of things. By that point, they no longer held me at all. An incredible group of friends came to support me and filled their cars with the detritus of the shed layers. It was indescribably liberating. Now, I feel like I can’t get rid of enough. I am in the process of downsizing into a smaller home, and I can’t wait to behold the next mountain of things I am not taking with me.
My loved ones would never have wanted me to suffer while trying to hold all of their memories by carrying the weight of their things. Living that way did not honor the way they loved and cared for me. I could not move forward with being my best self until I realized my core was laboring under coping tactics that were created by a 7-year-old-self and reinforced by a 16-year-old-self. The power of that recognition, paired with the act of letting those who love me help me cross over into this new existence, has left more room for freedom. Simplifying the things that I carry into the next phase of my life leaves more room for love and play and creation, and I can’t wait to see what I do.