31 Mar 2011

More Stuff Than You Can Shake a Stick at!

In my Car Crash TV moments, I used to sometimes watch The Life Laundry - we're talking 5 to 8 years back. Not sure if all U.K folks remember that programme: not exactly a paragon of upbeat entertainment, culture or TV genius, more like a desperados get-together when nothing else across the 100+ digital TV channels spectrum was worth watching... And that says something.

Think outside the box? Hmm...

Aside that and if I dare be honest, it was certainly a programme I was slightly intrigued about, as a 'sufferer' from a mild form of the hoarding syndrome. I was hoping the series would, if not prompt me to get rid of stuff, at least be inspirational about how to approach it and deal with it.

And stuff is something I could talk about for hours (she whispers shamefully). Not sure about you guys, but I don't just keep useful stuff (that wouldn't be the point)! I also hoard stuff that I might need one day (read: that millennium soirée outfit I haven't worn since well... Y2K NYE, but that I might magically decide to wear in future - not sure how near or distant that future might be, considering one decade has already elapsed...).



I keep stuff others would discard first and foremost: wrapping paper, old Xmas cards, (pretty) packaging, old glossy magazines, newspaper cuttings... I also keep stuff I never needed in the first place, don't need now and will never need: unloved, unworn, unwanted, unused stuff that is usually relegated to the dusty corners of the loft.

Here's some examples: chipped terracota pots, spare clothes airer, those nasty wire coat-hangers from the dry-cleaners, old electronic components, hard hat and overalls (nuke protection equipment?), DIY tools with some mysterious function, redundant hamster cage, empty biscuit tins, mats and rugs, boring board games, cringeing easy-listening tapes from a bygone age (any sane person would cry out for Slipknot after hearing those!), and a general collection of hand-me-down bric-à-brac that got dumped on me because I was too polite to decline.

Clearing the cobwebs: Slipknot (picture source)

So there we are, I was hoping The Life Laundry would make me feel better about my condition by acquainting us viewers to a panel of 'crazy' hoarding extremists who surround themselves with pointless stuff (euphemism?), from endless rows of collector items to boxes crammed-full with junk, controlled by their compulsion to the point where they share their bed, their bath and even their bowl of porridge with it, and whose home has relented on room space, from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling.

A pivotal scene in The Life Laundry was the 'crusher scene', a sadistic moment when the protagonist was summoned to throw a few selected belongings that had symbolically taken over their life. More than a relief, it seemed a painful ordeal to watch as the stuff got crushed to smithereens under the beady eyes of the protagonist. As some sort of redemption, a selection of stuff items would be spared an early grave and end up transferred to new owners via a sale process (someone's junk is someone else's treasure!), while the rest would end up unceremoniously dumped down the skip.



At the end of the process, you got the big reveal: a pared-down de-junked tidied home and its forcibly-smiling owner who'd been through a life-changing 'transformation' episode, shaken to the core in their core values, and stretched and reasoned through a speedy psychotherapy session where they'd been told one thing or two about 'letting go' and 'regaining control'.

The presenter looked well proud of herself but I'm not sure whether the feeling was shared by the ex-hoarder and whether clearance was gonna bring proven benefits to their life. Discarding things in the heat of the moment, as an act of bravado (while cameras are rolling and the presenter's pressing you on) is one thing. How about though when they've all gone home to their stuff, and you are left in that home of yours that doesn't feel like home anymore, with stuff meaningful to you now gone for ever and stuff you were indifferent about now taking pride of place on the mantelpiece... This can only make you want to fill the void by... getting more stuff!



Stuff is a controller. Some of us get satisfaction in the act of purchase: that elusive instant that gives you - the buyer - status, power and a buzz. For some of us (or most of us at one particular point in our lives when we feel vulnerable), want may be completely detached from need, and any act of reason flies out of the window!

Take that retired lady (true story) who lived by herself in solitude and moral abandonment, and who would find fleeting solace in her daily shopping trip down The Trafford Centre (Manchester's main shopping destination), a habit that had been dominating her life for approximately 18 months. Back home, she wouldn't even care to wear her new outfits or get the trinkets out of their boxes. The purchases would remain untouched, bagged up, with the tags and packaging on, and would end up piled up all around the house, and when space became a premium, the garage got taken over, and when it became overrun, the car turned into a mobile chest.

Truth out of the bag?

The lady died afterwards, probably on her way back from yet another pointless shopping trip. The local authorities removed over one ton of untouched purchases still in bags and boxes, with price tags on. She probably was trying to fill the void, that lady, fill that isolation feeling, that hapless helpless retirement she didn't accept, the passing of time, the lack of purpose. That initial endorphin-released buzz associated with making a purchase soon enough dissipated and by then she was going through the motions of hardcore addiction and compulsion.

As tragic as this true story is, it speaks out one stark truth: stuff can't buy you happiness - The Beatles even dedicated a song to the cause - nor can it fill a void or lend a sense of purpose to your life. And material clutter, together with social isolation and family/ relationship breakdown are symptomatic of the trappings of our modern, individualistic, consumerist society.

For a fascinating insight into stuff that takes over our lives, visit Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff Project.

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