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Why the Reason I Hold Onto Objects Isn’t What You Think

Recently, I read an article that hit home. Literally.

Objects don’t just have practical value for people; they have a symbolic value as well. Infants and young children cling to transitional objects — blankets or teddy bears, for example — for reassurance and comfort. As we grow older, we’re able to keep in mind people we’re close to — family members and friends — and feel comforted, although we still appreciate tangible reminders of them, such as pictures, gifts they’ve given us or heirlooms we’ve inherited from them.

Additionally, people have been collecting symbolic items for centuries, if not millennia: coins or stamps, action figures or Beanie Babies, model cars or model trains, antiques, buttons, etc. There must be something profoundly satisfying about searching for, acquiring and possessing specific things, especially when they fit into some kind of predetermined set. A sense of order and completion.

But not everybody collects with a conscious purpose. What if your daily life is low on affectionate interactions with other people? If you’ve outlived or estranged most of your loved ones? Then you might start accumulating things to comfort yourself, and you might have a lot of trouble giving them up.

This quote from the article cut me to the heart:

“Humans need to be connected physically, socially, and psychologically to other humans. This need is just as important as the need for air, water, food, and shelter. Loneliness negatively affects our health and is a risk factor for early death. Understandably, when we feel devalued or unloved, we seek out closeness. When our need isn’t met by humans, objects may serve as a substitute.”

I’m single. I go on dates, but so far none have led to a really solid and supportive relationship. I have a ton of friends, but I keep in touch with almost all of them on Facebook and Instagram. At work, I generally keep colleagues at a distance. I want them to know that even a skilled and experienced clinical social worker can struggle with mental illness, but I’m afraid if I tell them, they won’t respect me. Stigma is real, even among mental health professionals. So I don’t see people I love on a daily basis.

And after I realized my mother’s boyfriend’s behavior hadn’t just been inappropriate, it had been emotional incest — I went no contact with my mother. Which led to going no contact with most of the rest of the family because they don’t believe my trauma was any big deal.

In a nutshell, I am very lonely. And I collect things. And I can’t let them go.

I live in a small Manhattan studio apartment with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and way too much stuff. Stuff that has no value, that I couldn’t sell if I wanted to. Stuff I haven’t used or touched for years. Stuff that covers my futon, my bookcases, my entertainment center and linen chest and nightstand. Books, clothing, cassette tapes (remember those?) and CDs. Handouts from conferences I attended years ago. Tax documents much older than the seven years the IRS recommends you keep.

I collect things purposefully, too. Especially when I’m stressed out. I’ll decide I need a new assortment of essential oils for aromatherapy or a few new shades of eyeshadow. Online shopping is my go-to for a brief hit of dopamine. Recently I went through an incredibly difficult and frustrating negotiation with my insurer. The stakes were very high. I was very anxious. Trying to think about anything but health insurance, I mused, “I don’t have any rose gold jewelry. I should get some.”

I love jewelry and have quite an extensive collection — so extensive it’s difficult to justify adding to it. Coming up with a unique category was a good workaround. So, I started shopping. Soon I’d ordered two pairs of earrings, a bracelet and a necklace. I was scouring the Internet for a good deal on a rose gold watch when it occurred to me I might be creating more problems than I was solving.

For a long time, I thought my overcrowded apartment was the result of my depression, but I’m not always depressed. I judged myself for not keeping it in better order, for not getting rid of things I don’t need and never use.

Now, I have some insight into why I don’t just throw more stuff out, or haul a bunch to a thrift store. Because having all that stuff comforts me, even as it keeps me from having a neat and orderly space to live in — which I do ultimately believe would make me happier.

Now, I need to stop shopping for more jewelry, more clothing, more shoes, more books and start saving up to hire an apartment organizer — to help me get rid of what I don’t need and organize what I want to keep.

But I’m still glad I started a collection of rose gold jewelry. Because owning, seeing and wearing beautiful things does give me a bit of joy.

Photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar on Unsplash