A House of Cards

By May 4, 2017Blog

I’m preparing to move at the end of the month. I’ll be staying at a friend’s while I await placement with the local Housing Authority. I’ve lived in my current apartment for eleven years. The task of uprooting myself for what will ultimately be two separate moves has been daunting. Moving is hard work for anyone, but it’s made more troublesome when dealing with a mental illness. As if living with schizophrenia weren’t enough already, the myriad chores of moving are compounded when I factor in my symptoms of anxiety and fear. This process of preparing to move has high-lit these aspects of my mental health. I’m dealing with more than I bargained for, and I’m embarrassed to talk about it. Such is the power of stigma. Regardless, let me share this with you.

I count things. I collect things. And I hoard things. It’s a coping mechanism. Like anyone facing upheaval or great challenge, I seek out ways to handle difficult situations. Sometimes my problem solving methods are counter- effective, and I find myself stymied. Ofttimes, I’m no further ahead than when I started. I trap myself in a maze of anxiety. It’s overwhelming.

My bedroom is like a storage unit, unlivable for the better part of six years. I have a wall of unpacked boxes that I’ve managed to stack shoulder high and into corners such that getting to anything in that room is a chore. I can’t imagine moving them, and yet I fret over what’s inside every box. I know that I need to empty some of them out, but I grow anxious when confronted with the job. I spent a month handling every piece of paper going back fifteen years or more that I had collected in over a half-dozen banker’s boxes—junk mail, bills, pay stubs, receipts—before running them through a shredder. When it was over, I’d managed to create an all new filing system and a sense of accomplishment along with it. The strategy worked, but not without some effort. Letters, notes, and memorabilia all went through the blades as well. It was hard to let go.

My possessions are not randomly packed into those stacks of boxes. They are meticulously organized, as are my clothes and media collections. My things are like tangible memories, standing in for the real deal. Without a photograph I have no proof that anything I’ve done ever happened. Without a toy I have no context for the high points in my life. Being that I have little to no attachment to people due to reasons beyond my control, I learned to focus my attention on inanimate objects as surrogates for actual love. Toys for all the good girls and boys. The elves don’t make gifts—they make substitutes for attachment. Is it any wonder that purging these boxes is causing such an uproar in my system? I’m dismantling my life to live in a basement filled with spiders and a season of uncertainty. With every item I discard, another piece of me disappears. For the sake of practicality, I am becoming the Invisible Man.

The fear is obvious: my world will fall into ruin. My solution is to collect things and to organize them. Outside my apartment, I count to myself the number of words decrypted from the names of streets on roadsigns. In an unfamiliar room, I’ll count the floor tiles and books, the leaves of houseplants. I count the rivets on the crosstown bus. These rituals keep me safe when my mind wants to tell me I’m not.

At home I breathe freely when my collections are in order and everything is in its place. Moving disrupts the continuum. It pitches calm into storm, which in turn requires more organization and more cataloguing. Anxiety tends to paralyze me, save for the adjustment of my neurotransmitters through my SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), allowing for some enhanced calm and objectivity. To put it mildly, the whole experience has me vibrating.

I have a need for symmetry. I keep it in check through counting and collecting. Investing a lot of energy into maintaining collections of basically useless stuff would seem easy enough to disengage from, but it’s not. The photos really are my memories, the toys my landmarks. Purging resulted in five carloads to the Goodwill. I have to purge more in order to create enough space to complete packing other collections for the move. It’s a room full of mirrors in a house of cards. I can’t wait for my new digs and the chance to settle in uncluttered, to create balance once again. I need that sense of permanence. I need to call it home.


  • smileandrelax says:

    Eek, that sounds really, really hard. I wonder if, though, you can begin to attach more deeply to people as a consequence of what you realise to be true?

    Consider this using a different scenario. A young woman has a fantasy of falling in love and getting married. She meets someone and goes through all the motions, dons a diamond ring, has the big party, the honeymoon, etc. Wakes up soon thereafter to the reality she does not really love her husband. She has all the STUFF and none of the FEELING.

    Our American culture can get very distorted and have us ALL pursuing substitutes for emotional connection. Taken to an extreme, in your case, but not a phenomena unique to people with schizophrenia. To a lesser degree, objects are enhancements of friendship and love, serving as tokens of affection that are reminders to one another of times and feelings we have shared.

    I like in my own life to think of disposing of old stuff as a way of creating space for new stuff. Old memories and attachments fade in significance and new memories and attachments are made; only a very few are able to last an entire lifetime.

    Keep the faith, I want to say, but it feels all wrong to suggest that when you’re going through such an intense transition. I’ve moved a lot over the years with a variety of results, not all good or happy, but one thing remains consistent, and that is no matter where I make a home, I manage to meet friendly people who are willing to lend a hand.

    All the best.

    • Henry Boy says:

      Hi, s&r.

      I’m working closely with my therapist on the attachment issue, and seem to be making some headway, slowly but surely. It’s pretty deeply rooted.

      Insofar as my collecting goes, it’s more like hoarding, so the purging I’ve been doing is almost forensic in nature, but there’s a silver lining there, too: I gain more open space and I learn something more about myself. It has been hard to donate portions of my collections, but I’m of the belief that only good can come of it. Moving twice this coming year will aid me in filtering my hoarding “instinct” (symptom) and put me in a more objective place, I think.

      My first move at the end of this month will see me living with three roommates, something I haven’t done since college. All friendly mean that I’ve known for a while. And like you note, they’re willing to lend a hand.

      Nice to hear from you.

      • smileandrelax says:

        Cool. I’m thinking of how brave you are, your friends are, I am, my friends are, and in short, how together we are all bringing about a better world in the future. 🙂

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