How to Throw Your Life Away

Cleaning out the stuff that's been kicking around a parent's house has become a rite of passage. But what are you really getting rid of?

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

The ceiling in my childhood bedroom is so low, it’s like I could jump and hit my head on it and knock myself out if I really wanted to. The room itself is small, too, as if the walls are closing in. Part of that might be the way that everything in the home you grew up in seems smaller when you come back to it as an adult, but it’s also probably because when the room was built a few hundred years ago, people didn’t have as many possessions to hold onto forever as we do now. The guy who built the place was a son or a grandson of the first governor of Plymouth Colony, and there’s a big rock out back with a plaque on it to commemorate the occasion. Unbothered by history, I used to climb all over it when I was young, standing on top and looking out at the farm next door. It had one horse and one cow, and it always seemed like the loneliest farm in the world to me, but maybe it was just an exceptionally efficient one.

Every year, around the start of spring, I get a call from my mother asking me to come contend with the entire history of my youth, which has been jammed into this room for almost 20 years. It’s like the persistent alerts you get on your phone saying you’re running out of photo space and it’s time to upgrade your iCloud storage, but even phones don’t (yet) have the power to guilt you into action like mothers do. And so finally, this year, I gave in. I was in the neighborhood already to celebrate the March birthdays of my niece and sister, two people at various stages of object accumulation. I trudged up the alarmingly steep and uneven staircase, the wood having warped under the pressure of centuries.

Inside, the bedroom was a mess. I discovered box after box filled with the detritus of youth: old comic books my mother insisted must be worth some money; projects dating back to elementary school; high school and college essays; and morbid poems, including some in an unrecognizable scrawl that I’d bound together into a book with a flowery wallpaper covering. I must have recently read Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” for the first time, because one verse was clearly a rip-off, and I laughed, because at least it was proof to me that I’ve remained consistent in my miserable, brooding identity. I also found a treasure trove of cassette tapes, some I’d even listen to right now—Dinosaur Jr., Liz Phair, Alice in Chains—and some I wouldn’t, such as a Hootie & the Blowfish live bootleg from 1992. I don’t know what to tell you, man, the ’90s were weird.

There were also postcards from girls I no longer remember and long, desperate letters from ones I do. Pictures of friends whose names are lost to me and pictures of friends who I still see all the time; posters of concerts I’d been to by bands that haven’t existed in decades; and posters of Keanu Reeves looking beautiful with great hair—evidence that at least some things never change. There were Boy Scout badges, and photos of me and my friends looking like we were in a ’90s boy band, and photos of my dead friend, who actually was in a ’90s boy band, and photos of people I’d thought at the time would be in my life forever and, of course, would not. I found my old shit, in other words, which feels like an appropriate term because I found it all foul.

By coincidence, I wasn’t the only person staring down a personal history. A former high school classmate came to visit me while I was going through my old things—I’d found a mixtape he’d made me in the pile—and he showed me his latest project: thousands of archived emails that our group of friends had sent, beginning in 1996. At first I was thrilled about the prospect of being able to read what we were talking about back then, and I jumped into the messages, but the excitement didn’t last long. Here was someone writing under my name in a voice that no longer exists, and what was worse, speaking at length and with no shortage of emotional conviction about things I no longer remember caring about. I felt the same way about the dusty boxes of memories, a strange dissociative feeling like none of this had ever happened, or had happened to someone else, someone who wasn’t me. Reading some of the old letters felt like eavesdropping on conversations that I wasn’t meant to hear. It all engendered a sense of revulsion.

Throw it all away, I told my mother. I don’t want any of it. It’s not mine, I said, which hurt her feelings—something I seem to be very good at doing, much as I don’t want to. Why wouldn’t I want to dig through it all for hours and pick out the things I want? she asked. The honest answer is, I don’t know. At least not yet.

The repugnance I felt for my belongings seemed off to me. Based on what I gather from Marie Kondo’s famous Netflix show about organizing, which I haven’t seen but have read roughly 10,000 posts about so therefore am an expert on, it’s supposed to be hard for people to let go of their sentimental clutter, right? I asked around.

When I reached out on Twitter, Cara Hogan of Malden told me she’d been tasked with a similar project by her parents recently. She rediscovered an old Walkman with her first cassette (Whitney Houston), a pair of vintage white Vans she says she’s going to start wearing again, and some old Bath & Body Works raspberry perfume. “I took one sniff of it and flashed back to being an awkward 13-year-old,” she says. “But best of all were the folded-up, triangle-shaped notes my friends and I passed back and forth in school that I had saved.” She laughed at the notes, took photos of them, tossed things like band T-shirts purchased at a now-defunct mall, and texted old friends she hadn’t talked to in a while. She tried to be brutal, but had trouble letting go of things such as letters her friends wrote her from summer camp.

She didn’t share my disconnect, she said, but the process of digging through those belongings did play weird tricks on her brain. “I felt like every small, odd artifact I found opened an old door in my mind that I hadn’t opened in years,” she says. “I do feel like part of me is still that awkward, shy girl who spent most of her time reading…. I may be getting older and gray, but I can appreciate where I came from and where I’m going now.”

For others, sorting through old things can make their memories feel more fragile. A couple of years ago, after a move to Ohio, Nick Maggiore’s mother came to Watertown to drop off a station-wagon load of his stuff. There were school papers dating back to third grade and tapes from 1988. “I went through everything and tried to remember the stories of these things,” he says. “I tried to think of the reason my mom would have kept them.” The more he looked at the things, though, the less real his memories actually felt.

Broken instruments and tapes went into the trash, he said, and old toys went to thrift stores in the hopes that someone else might be able to make new memories with them. He sold enough Magic cards to fund a vacation to Italy, which makes me think I might have screwed up just now by throwing all of my collectors’ items away. I really should listen to my mother more often. Still, Maggiore put fliers from old rock shows into a binder that now sits above his computer, and has a pile of role-playing books that he can’t bring himself to toss. “They remind me of old friends and of nights spent rolling dice and drinking Mountain Dew,” he says. “Part of me is afraid that if I give up those talismans of my youth, I’ll forget.”

Of the people I asked, only Henry Druschel, who now lives in DC but grew up in Boston, seemed to share my general ambivalence when it came time to clean out his childhood home. “It did not all feel familiar, which I imagine is why it was so easy,” he says of his old things, most of which he happily threw away. His sister, though, had gone to college a year earlier and really agonized over what to do with her stuff. “I think she ended up getting a storage unit near her college, which was, and is, bonkers to me. I did not have nearly the same level of difficulty dealing with my belongings and that made me wonder if I was supposed to.”

That’s a good question. Are we supposed to?

People keep stuff for all kinds of reasons. Some do it out of loyalty or feel that getting rid of something would be a break from the past that they don’t want.

Developing attachments to things is a normal part of the human condition. It varies across the developmental stages of life, says Jerrold Pollak, a clinical- and neuropsychologist at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but by and large there’s nothing all that peculiar about it. “We can easily get attached to many things that other people would say are irrational and ridiculous,” he says. “A lot of attachments are irrational fundamentally.” But the process, he says, serves certain psychological needs—it helps us cope with and adapt to the world.

People keep stuff for all kinds of reasons. Some do it because they feel loyalty to the person who gave it to them and think throwing the item away would be a sort of betrayal, or they feel that getting rid of something would be a break from the past that they don’t want. This impulse to retain a connection with the past, Pollak says, is about giving us a sense of continuity over time: where we came from, our roots, and our identity. In general this is fine, even healthy, though there are other hazards to clinging to the past. “In some cases,” he says, “these are not possessions so much as albatrosses around their neck, but they don’t recognize it.”

A smaller number of people go in the exact opposite direction. They want to erase their past and leave absolutely no evidence of it. They get rid of everything. That’s not quite me. I don’t want my past to disappear; I just don’t want to have to spend too much time thinking about it. I’ve got just enough psychological damage in the present to keep me busy. “People who literally incinerate their past, that’s probably a defense against a lot of bad feelings about their life and maybe a kind of almost-revenge against family and experiences from their childhood,” Pollak says. “I think some judicious holding on to certain basic things is important.”

It’s about balance, then, which is always the boring answer when it comes to anything having to do with psychology. “I think there’s a hierarchy of what feels important and is important and that can evolve over time,” Pollak says. “At 20 you might keep something that had to do with your childhood, and by 40 you know this is just not relevant to you anymore. It means nothing to you, and you’re sort of unloading.”

In other words, going through old boxes can mean unburdening yourself of feelings that you’ve kept inside for a long time, and if that sounds like psychotherapy, there’s a good reason. Which is why people often seek help from folks such as Carleen Eve Fischer Hoffman, who has been a professional organizer for 20 years and runs a business called the Clutter Doctor, based in East Longmeadow. Her three-step approach for clients—examine, diagnose, prescribe—tries to drill down beyond emotion into more-practical terms. Take ancient school papers, for example. Rather than holding on to all of them, pick out the ones that could be useful in the future, papers relating to a degree or with professional value. With other items, such as old books, she tells people that if they can find a way to let them go to a good home—churches, schools, veterans’ groups—it can make the transition a lot easier.

None of that means you need to obliterate your past in one fell swoop, says Laura Moore, another organizing expert who runs a business called ClutterClarity, in Concord. Her approach incorporates emotional-management skills. Most of her clients feel crushed by some kind of impending pressure, be it a move, a death, or a divorce. “That’s enough to flatten most of us,” she says. “There’s a misconception that we declutter one time, once and for all. But you should declutter and organize as your life changes.” It’s not that the inherent value of an item has changed over time; it’s that we, ourselves, have changed.
Disassociation of the kind I mentioned often exists, she reassures me. “It can be a form of resistance,” she says, “but it can also be a form of saying, ‘This doesn’t belong in my life anymore.’”

A few days after I sifted through my childhood belongings, I called my mother back to ask her if she’d thrown everything away yet. Don’t, I told her. There are a few more things I want to keep. I needed to return to take another pass at editing down my story. I’d already taken some photo albums with me, and a scant few books, including the Emily Dickinson that had inspired my young doggerel and most likely helped trigger my eternal melancholy.

My mother is a quilter. When someone dies, his or her family often brings leftover possessions to her—T-shirts, sweaters, and so on—to stitch together into a blanket that they can wrap themselves in, weaving together the literal fabric of a life into something tangible. Often times, there’s simply too much, so decisions must be made. It’s similar to how we have to deal with our own lives as we go along: You can’t hold every memory in your head at once—it would be maddening. Instead, we pick and choose which memories to keep, sometimes subconsciously, or sometimes by deciding that a certain day, a certain interaction, a certain smell, or a handful of objects among hundreds will be the ones we think we will want to remember forever. And then we put the rest in a little box somewhere and bury it in the earth. And then one day we crawl into the box, too.

Luke O’Neil is a writer from Massachusetts. Subscribe to his newsletter Welcome to Hell World here