Decluttering and Denial

I came into this world as a confirmed pack rat. I hated to let go of anything that I thought I might want, need or simply die without in the next, oh, fifty years. Thankfully, I was derailed from my path of finding future fame as a star of Hoarders by the simple act of moving out of my parents’ house and into my first apartment. An entire zoo’s worth of stuffed animals and every book I ever owned were simply not going to fit into a 500-square foot studio.

I am still a zealous convert to the Church of Our Lady of Decluttering. I love the feeling of lightness after discarding useless kitchen gadgets (RIP electric mango peeler) and hideous articles of clothing that I’d like to think I bought while under the influence of psychedelic drugs (nope, I just had reeallly bad taste). And I almost never regret getting rid of things.

Except when it comes to my writing.

Some pieces are easy to hang onto. The screenplays I think are worth a damn and may someday get made. The pretty poetry that I wrote as a child. College essays that still make me smile with their snarky humor and tendency toward clunky overstatements.

But there are also the messy, raw, who-the-hell-wrote-this-sh*t pages that make my stomach drop.

The parts of me that I don’t think are fit for public consumption. Musings on thoughts, feelings and situations that I don’t want to own or acknowledge because they scare or sadden me. Or maybe both.

When I was in my mid-20s and still living in Southern California, I found myself in the midst of the perfect storm. My brother was hospitalized with viral encephalitis and not expected to survive. My mother flew out right away, and almost immediately began suffering what we thought was gallbladder-related pain. She was admitted to the same hospital as my brother and ultimately diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Mom began chemotherapy and I moved out of my studio and into a small condo that we would share for the next year and a half while she went through treatment.

I was also starting a brand-new relationship (with the man who is now my husband). While I was happy and excited, this love brought its own set of stressors to the mix.

I tried to hold all the facets of my life together, but was wildly unsuccessful. I couldn’t eat, sleep or focus on anything to a reasonable degree. The pressure of my tightly coiled anxiety was relieved only by periodic bouts of crying that rapidly became more incapacitating than cleansing.

Because I was living with my mother, it was impossible to hide my behavior from her. She worried about me, and I kept telling her I was fine. Thankfully, she ignored my protests and got a reference for a therapist from her best friend. At her insistence, I made an appointment to see this woman. And she changed my life.

What I thought was going to be a session or two to help me cope with caring for two sick family members turned into a relationship that lasted nearly three years. My therapist was a professional through and through, but she was also one of the most compassionate and generous people I’ve ever met. Instead of just having me sit in her office for 50 minutes and then signing off until next time, she encouraged me to write out whatever I was dealing with and drop it off at her office so she could read it before our next session (this was before email was in full-swing). I always felt better having gotten things out of my head and down on paper, knowing we would hash them out later.

Eventually, I stopped seeing her for therapy, but we remained friends. And after Paul and I moved to Arizona, she sent me a beautiful crystal butterfly to symbolize how far I had come (I still have it on my dresser to this day). But she also sent me something else.

A box full of the letters I had written to her during our work together.

I was awed by the sheer volume of pages that I’d turned out. Line after line of angst over things both important (“I’m afraid my mom is going to die.”) and inane (“I wrote Paul a poem. He must think I’m a total cheeseball idiot.”). I read through it all, and while amazed by some of it, I was mostly horrified by what I perceived as missives written by a needy, terrified, broken lunatic who brought obsessive-compulsive thought to a whole new level.

I kept the docs for a while, but then worry took over. What if someone found them? What if I died and this pile of craziness was how I was remembered? So, I waited until Paul wasn’t home one day and I shredded the whole batch. And I felt relief…at the time.

But now, I so wish I had those letters back.

I could tell you that I want to see them again to generate writing ideas. Use the situations I’d been through for story fodder. Glean emotional insights for character development.

But the truth is, I want to see a glimpse of my old self again. To tell her that she was stronger than she gave herself credit for. That real feelings aren’t something to be mortified by, but rather to marvel at.

Today, I could look at the young woman who wrote those pages with compassion and love instead of judgment and disgust. I would congratulate her on a journey from being the girl who would analyze the nuances of a casual phone conversation for six days straight to someone who rarely loses sleep over the multitude of questionable blurts that tumble out of her mouth on a daily basis.

But those physical remnants of her are gone. So, there is only one thing left to throw away.

My regrets.

I wasn’t ready to accept my imperfection back then. But now – thank God – I embrace it. Though I’m not saying that’s always easy (my inner critic is still alive, well and mouthy AF). But the only alternative is to hide from the world until I can tick all the boxes on some sort of mythical Fabulosity Checklist.

And I don’t have that kind of time or patience.

I hope you don’t either.

Your gifts reside in your brilliance, but also in your brokenness. Love them equally. Let the world see both.

And don’t leave us hanging. We need what you’ve got. 

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2 Comments

  • Reply R.Dahlgren May 15, 2019 at 9:18 am

    Food for thought Mary. No, words for thought. Me too keeps stuff I’ve written years ago. Most of my rambling is preserved in five eight-by-ten blank books…naturally mostly fly fishing stuff. My writing treasures are my hand written legal pad notes and three IBM Selectric versions of D&J, and a hand written blank book version of Es. Why do I keep them? Egotism maybe. I will soon have two published versions to go with those manuscripts. Great for a class room study of the metamorphosis of writing a novel. Sheesh. The first drafts were written in hand in the 70’s.

    The ones I miss the most were daily love letters sent to my girlfriend (the model for the one who broke my heart in D&J) and receiving same each day from her.

    • Reply Mary DeRosa Hughes May 16, 2019 at 6:47 am

      Those are amazing treasures! And your “ramblings” have turned into some wonderful books. 🙂

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