Conquering The Valley Of The Dustbunnies

From September to November, I spent a lot of time decluttering my flat, especially the bedroom. But once I made the deadline for the bulky trash collection, my enthusiasm and energy dwindled, and I did not get back at the task for the entire month of December. And now it was another deadline of sorts which got me moving again: my sister bought a new bed and I “inherited” the old one.
I had never before owned a bed big enough for two people to sleep in, and so my husband and I had no other choice but putting our mattresses on the floor – buying one of our own simply exceeded our budget. In the beginning, we joked about camping on the floor, but after a while it got really old, especially since our mattresses are of different heights. A friend offered us her bed when she gave up a rented studio, and at first I accepted – but the problem with the mismatching mattresses, the difficulty transporting it home (my car’s boot / trunk was already permanently locked then), lack of time due to uni projects, and rising depression spoilt the plan.
We spent two days emptying all bookshelves in the bedroom and dissembling the ones which were mounted on the wall above where my desk used to stand. We moved the freestanding shelves to that wall, cleaned them and put the books I want to keep back. Since there will be no replacement for the wall-mounted units, the archaeology, geosciences and geography books  will have their place in the living room from now on.

There is a sense of accomplishment which comes with having your books sitting neatly in clean shelves; especially if it has taken you years to get that far. My husband is a much faster worker, which is rather frustrating because it makes me feel so inferior, but I insist on handling certain things alone, even if that means it will take significantly longer to get everything done. I still have to sort through every single item and arrive at a decision whether to keep it or not, and where to store the pieces which do not end up in trash. Making that decision itself has become easier, though – it is not nearly as agonising anymore as it used to be just a few months ago. Partly that might be simply due to there being fewer and fewer possessions left which are still “unexamined” at this point, partly because I have experienced that discarding them only hurts temporarily.
My method may not be the most effective or stringent, but it is the only one that works for me, and I am almost done with the bedroom. I think from next weekend on, we can sleep in our new bed; my husband is really eager for this to happen and I certainly feel the same way. However, I want to make sure that I have gone through every last item before we move on, because I know from experience that stuff left for “later” will still be around after years. Then, I want to give the room a thorough cleaning, because once all the heavy furniture are up, certain areas will become as good as inaccessible. And, final reason, I have a therapy session on Thursday, which means that a) I am going to be out most of that day thanks to much longer commuting times without a car, and b) I will most likely want some time for reflection afterwards. But the weekend should be a realistic goal.

Fun Facts:
The most common finds in my bedroom were bobby pins (just how many can a single person lose over the years?), literally thousands of paper pieces – notes from class, drafts for letters or uni papers, transcribed poems, cash receipts etc. – and a wild assortment of pens and pencils.
The most unusual find so far was a kitchen knife in one of my handbags, the blade carefully wrapped in paper towel fixated with sticky tape – must be a leftover of some brunch we had at work, or a long-ago Christmas party or something in that direction.


Decluttering: Part II

In the last post, I mainly focused on recounting a chronology of events; in this entry, I would like to highlight the emotional and psychological background of the decluttering process I am still going through (even though I must admit that I’ve been slacking on that front since I wrote the last entry – it’s definitely time to get back in gear).

My household chores consist of cooking and grocery shopping as well as doing the laundry and, once in a while, cleaning something. My husband is responsible for most of the cleaning / vacuuming, he does the dishes and makes the beds. I am now in a state where I can fulfil my share regularly, at least preparing our meals and shopping. The laundry and cleaning get put off sometimes, unless it is really urgent, but overall it is not too bad either and never for longer than a day or two. I actually enjoy the cooking and grocery shopping, which undoubtedly helps a lot.
Decluttering, on the other hand, is a highly stressful process. Every box I open contains a plethora of keepsakes, memorabilia and knickknacks which are ten to fifteen years old: fountain pens, postcards, key rings, fashion jewellery, notebooks, candle holders, foreign coins, bookmarks, rubber bands, hair clips, dices, and pebbles. There are a lot of pebbles and pieces of rock in my flat – picked up at various destinations of my travels as well as just in my home area. This might sound odd to some people, but those pebbles are not only souvenirs, but also bring me aesthetic pleasure. I like looking at them and the way they feel to the touch. However, I got to the point where I just had too many of them and they were sitting on too many surfaces. There are only a few I will keep, but 90% are in a plastic bag now, which I’ll empty into the local river one of these days.

The popular advice to put something into a box and throw that box away unopened after a year if you have not missed any of its contents just does not work for me – it actually creates anxiety for me. Instead, when I “attack” a new box or pile, I have to take a look at every individual piece in it and decide whether I want to keep it or not. It is almost like saying goodbye to the objects that won’t make it.
The more personal the item, the harder it is to let go of it: for example, I had two pieces of rope tied into nautic knots which I had made on a sailing trip to the Netherlands in 1996. They served no purpose, not even a decorative one, anymore. They took up space. They actually bothered me, I wanted them to be gone. And yet I could not bring myself to throwing the ropework away. Doing so just felt wrong. For several minutes, I stood there, holding them in my hands, remembering the day I made them and the time which has passed since, until finally I tossed the rope into the trash bag. I had gotten so stressed out over the process that I had to take a break for half an hour, and that is what it is like every day that I actually find the energy to organize.

Just where does the sentimental attachment come from? In some cases, where we’re talking about souvenirs from vacations, the answer is obvious: they are tokens of happier days. But just as often, they are just remains from the past and don’t evoke particularly fond feelings – sometimes even the opposite happens. Like with the retainers I had to wear as a teenager, which only remind me of all the physical pain they brought and the scars left inside my mouth by the braces and retainers.
The only explanation I can come up with regarding why I kept all those objects is that I tried to keep an inventory of my past. As if little parts of me would cease existing if there was no tangible proof of them. My wish of becoming an archaeologist could just as well be interpreted as a diagnosis – I tried to chronicle my own life.

Decluttering: Part I

Even though there are symptoms which the vast majority of people with chronic depression share, everybody’s got their own personal “bouquet”. In mine, lack of energy features very prominently. To the non-depressed reader, it might sound either very lazy, or pleasant even if I write that I don’t have the energy for anything but sitting on the sofa and watching TV, or browsing the internet, or playing computer games. The truth, however, is that these occupations are not thoroughly enjoyable, but merely a way to pass time. Plans one might have harboured when going to bed suddenly appear impossible to fulfil, turning into insurmountable obstacles when waking up.
There’s hardly a person who does not feel tired and worn out once in a while, consequently putting off all chores. But, for the non-depressed person, these feelings usually vanish quickly, and they go back to vacuuming, cleaning, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn or doing the dishes. For me (and many others out there), nothing changes after a day or two of rest… In fact, it can be like that for weeks or months even.

For about 90% of my adult life, I have lived with the dishes piling up in the kitchen, my entire desk hidden under stacks of paper from the previous year(s), and the bookshelves covered with thick layers of dust. Both my flat and my behaviour lived up to the stereotype of the messy, absentminded professor.
I don’t really like living like this, but whatever little energy I had usually went into whatever was the most necessary at that moment. The last time my entire flat was neat and tidy lies a good ten years back in the past. After my husband moved in and there was someone to share the chores with, things improved visibly, but there still are piles which I have not touched in years.
About two months ago and after a particularly lethargic summer (completely drained from the exam), I found Cynthia Ewer’s “Cut The Clutter” at my local library (the book appears to a more fleshed-out, printed version of the author’s website, It did provide the inspiration and motivation so bitterly needed, and a few eye-openers. For example, it never occurred to me that chaos can be described as resulting from put-off decisions – definitely one of my weak points.
Of all the personality types Cynthia Ewers mentions in her book, I have elements of every single one in me: because I’m sentimentally attached to many of my possessions, I have a hard time throwing them away, even long after they’ve stopped being useful or important. Because I tend to think that I might need something later, I’m afraid of getting rid of it. Perfectionism gets in the way of organizing, because I am under the impression that I need a faultless system before I can get started. I feel bad about throwing out items which once were expensive. And a tiny part of me still is in rebellion against my mum telling me to pick up my room, even though I moved out of there a long time ago.
Four out of those five reasons I can overcome with rational thinking: even if an item used to be expensive, its worth usually decreases over the course of time. It’s more important to get chores done than to slavishly follow a predetermined plan. Most of what I was saving for later use could easily be obtained at the time I actually would need it, so holding on to it is just a waste of space. I am a grown-up now and do not need to rebel against my mother – having a nice place should be more important.
That leaves sentimental attachment as the only reason where pure logic alone does not help me changing my behaviour.

The decluttering process began as a rather assessable project, with re-organising my pantry. Certainly not the most pressing matter, but it promised quick results and little risk of running out of steam before completion and thus adding to the long list of problems. I finished within two days and due to instant improvements when cooking (ingredients were so much easier to find), it gave me the motivation to tackle a bigger challenge the following week: sorting out my wardrobe / closet, which I hadn’t done since the day I moved out of my parents’ flat (throwing away individual pieces does not count). By the time this was done, there were two big and four small bags of clothes as well as a bag of shoes waiting for the trip to the donation containers. For the first time in years I was able to move the hangers on the rack – another instant improvement.
Over the following weeks, I would finally put an old glass-showcase outside that had been sitting empty in my flat for at least three years, because I never got around to taking it apart, and then I’d move on to weeding out all the books I’d never read again, with the intention of selling them online. To this date, I have made just over 90 euros out of 87 books sold, with about 100 more titles I hope to sell eventually too. There were about 30 shelfmetres worth of books in my flat, and while I kept the majority, now there is actually enough space to put every single volume on a shelf.
The last week was dedicated to decluttering my desk, because I intended to put both the desk and my swivel chair out for the bulky waste collection. While the collection is free here in Germany, you have to call in and register in advance if you want it picked up, because in the past scavengers used to tear the piles apart, making a lot of noise and strewing the discarded items all over the neighbourhood. In my community, there is a collection every other month and you can order the service twice a year , meaning that you’d better have the bulky trash ready once the date rolls around.
The swivel chair posed no problem, because both armrests had been broken and resisted any attempts at repairing them in the past. It was utterly unusable and actually a minor threat of injury. The desk had two drawers, one of them unfixably broken, but otherwise it still was in a good condition. Had it been smaller, I’d have kept it – however, with dimensions almost as large as a single bed, it was too big for our bedroom and we could not keep it. Decluttering the desk was not as difficult as I thought since it was mostly paper, and after about two hours I was done.

This is the status quo; since I want to move some furniture in the bedroom and change a couple of things, I reckon that I am about half done now. I will keep reporting on the progress.