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I Collect Things… And I Realized It Explains My Depression

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I hate to collect things. It doesn’t stop me from doing it, mind you, but I resist being labeled as “the dog, frog, teacup or whatever-odd-thing-I-might-fancy lady.” Then, my identity is wrapped up in the collection. From the moment it is known that you like something, you begin to get bombarded with that something. Then you need “something shelves” and have “something T-shirts” and “I Love Something” bumper stickers on your car. None of this is wrong — I love a good piggy bank collection as much as anyone — but I do not want to be labeled even if the label is warranted and accurate.

So, at the risk of being labeled, I’m going to tell you a secret: I collect sad irons. I know, sad irons? What even is a sad iron? It sounds, well, sad. A sad iron is just an iron used for clothes before the use of electricity. The “sad” part comes from the Middle English word “sad,” meaning solid because it was often made of solid iron. With an attached handle, these irons were heated in a fire or on top of a stove and used to smooth wrinkles on clothes the same way we do today. Although they used them much more frequently and with more scorch marks than their modern-day granddaughters. I say granddaughters because they were most associated with women and women’s work. There are those pesky labels again. Funny enough, women’s work is one I really don’t mind. After all, some of the hardest, most dedicated workers I know have been women. My great-grandmother, for instance, was an incredibly hard worker who supported her seven children in the middle of the Great Depression. She knew what hard work was and she had a pair of sad irons, the ones I played with as a child.

That’s where it all started, as most collections do, with a fond memory. Grandma Pack placed the irons on her little wood-burning stove. She placed some cotton rags and some doll clothes on her old wooden ironing board. She poured water in a glass Coke bottle and topped it with a sprinkler head. Then she showed me how to sprinkle the clothes with water (in her day there were no steam settings or spray bottles). She explained why there were two — one would heat while you used the other. I spent the rest of the day pressing all of her rags and all of my doll clothes. I now own those sad irons and several others, enough for a collection, most of them passed down to me.

Recently, I read a quote online: Rearrange the letters in “depression” and you get “I pressed on.” Yes! That’s exactly what I had done, pressed on! Many years before, I had struggled with debilitating depression and suicidal thoughts. Now, after so many years of hard work in recovery, the phrase instantly resonated with me. When something seems to repeat itself over and over in my life, I have learned to pay attention and try to discover what it is trying to tell me. Now as I read the quote, all the sad irons in my life spoke to me. They said, “This is what we are symbols of: pressing on.”

As it turns out, a sad iron is a perfect metaphor for my recovery. It is made of solid iron, so it is strong, hard and heavy, just the kind of tool I needed for the hard work of pressing out my tough, emotional wrinkles. A little sprinkling of tears helped. It was heated, a trial by fire if you will, so I could become useful and smooth out the past. And this helped me begin anew on a fresh, clean, wrinkle-free sheet.

Though I’m uncomfortable being a collector, collections are merely tokens of ourselves. They are carefully, perhaps unconsciously, curated to reflect our personality, our memories or our values. My collection, unknown to me, had reflected the hardest work I had ever done: pressing on to happiness. Perhaps the label of “the sad iron lady” wouldn’t be so bad on a T-shirt after all. So, if you happen to be driving along and see my “I love sad irons!” bumper sticker, give me a wave. I’ll have silver hair and, ironically, a smile on my face!

Getty image by jasoncheever

Originally published: October 22, 2019
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