Help! I Can’t Let It Go!

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Mary Jo Shannon

Mary Jo Shannon
Mary Jo Shannon

My friends think they are supporting me. I consider myself a victim and them, enablers. No, not a victim of some rare disease or affliction. A victim of an uncanny ability to see a second life in refuse – and a compulsion to save scraps others sweep into the trash without a second thought … to a degree that exceeds normalcy and becomes an addiction. I suppose recognition of the problem is the first step toward cure.

My enablers clean their homes and bring me bundles of magazines, empty spools, bottles, remnants of cloth and other attractive junk.

“I hate to throw this away – I know you’ll find a way to use it,” they say.

Sure. They hate to throw it away – but they do, because they hate clutter more. I can’t throw it away because I see its potential – and the clutter at my house spreads like wiregrass!

Although not life-threatening, symptoms of this disorder cause distress. For example: anxiety when passing collection bins in front of business establishments. Once, years ago, I humiliated my teenage son by retrieving perfectly good mat board from the trash bin of a picture framing shop. He was mortified; he refused to walk beside me, hurried ahead, pretending not to know me, while I lugged my booty to the car. Ironically, the largest piece was just what he needed for his science project.

I can’t bear to see fancy plastic cups and plates trashed at church socials. I gather them to wash and reuse for crafts with my Sunday School class. When I prune my plants, those straggly stems dangle in a jar of water, growing roots to begin a new life.

I’m drawn to yard sales like fruit flies to overripe bananas. You never know what will show up.  I usually buy the box of junk nobody else wants, eager to see what is inside.  Even if its use is not obvious immediately, I know someday the very thing I need will be there, awaiting reincarnation.

Women’s magazines are full of articles on recycling — how to give new life to found treasures. But my addiction oversteps the bounds of such creativity. My labeled boxes contain scraps of wire, wood, film canisters, styrofoam packing materials, scrap paper from print shops, buttons, yarn and sawdust. As a kindergarten teacher, I did find such items useful.

Now and then I read an article that stresses the importance of clearing clutter and restoring order. I gather courage and vow to turn over a new leaf, especially since I’ve retired. But then I’ll be asked to help with Vacation Bible School, or my grandchildren will say, “Let’s go to the basement and make something, Nana.” And then I’m thankful I didn’t discard the resources I need.

I haven’t located a support group yet, but I’ve considered starting one.  What I fear, however, is increasing rather than eliminating my symptoms, should a bunch of pack-rats get together.

Determining the etiology of this disorder has been challenging. Is it the result of social conditioning? I grew up during the depression, so that theory has some validity. Perhaps the mantra “Use it up, wear it out; make it do or do without” was so firmly ingrained in my personality that I cannot bear to toss away perfectly usable scraps.

On the other hand, this may be a genetic disorder. My parents found uses for every bit of waste on the farm. When we butchered, my dad used every bit of the pig except the squeal. He even blew up the pig’s bladder to make a lightweight ball for us. But those were depression days, so the genetic theory could be disputed.

Recently however, new evidence came to light when I visited my grown son – the one who disowned me when I raided the trash bin. He could hardly wait to show me his “new” exercise machine, constructed from parts of a broken bicycle and scraps of wood and pipe.

“Mom, you won’t believe what some people throw away!” he said. “Look at this chair someone put out with the trash. All it needs is some glue and a coat of paint.”

It’s in the genes.