Cyn Kitchen: Confessions of a memory hoarder
Hoarder reality shows fascinate me less for the messes that get cleaned up than seeing the struggles hoarders endure in the process. I don’t face those struggles which I guess means that my curiosity to watch is borne of an inability to fully understand the inner workings of a person who does.
I know this though—hoarders often harbor deep pain out of which the impulse to hoard grows. I am not one to judge. My life’s knocks and bruises have sparked certain pathologies others might find peculiar.
Take, for instance, my impulse to fill my gas tank when the needle falls to half-full. To my mind, half is empty. I know exactly where this comes from—my mom.
She would test the limits of our vehicle’s gas tank, somehow believing that fumes could carry us the 30 miles that we traveled to town every day. More times than I care to recall, we found ourselves stranded along Route 97 waiting for a passerby to have mercy and stop, all the while Mom scratching her head and saying, “I swore we had enough.”
The other day during class discussion, a student made an offhand comment about people who hoard memories. The phrase piqued my interest and since then it’s kept me thinking about the ways we use memories to our own detriment.
Mom often reminded us kids that we were, “Making memories,” and that was usually a good thing. She was right in many ways because I do have good memories of moments that were fun or significant for positive reasons.
But that’s not what this student was referring to. Her comment was aimed at the human impulse to cling to bad memories in a way that allows them to loop endlessly through our minds.
My memory is like a VHS tape, though as I write this, I realize how dated that sounds. I might update that metaphor by saying that my memory is akin to a mpeg file but frankly, I prefer the VHS tape because it’s tangible and I can access the image more readily.
When a memory is triggered, I run my finger down the long shelf of memories stored (hoarded) in my mind, and when I find the right one, I pop the tape into the VCR to loop the sights, sounds, colors and sometimes even smells of a moment. Trouble is, those moments are usually not good ones. I find that most often I replay traumas, regrets, frustrations, missed opportunities, disappointments, insults, lost love, failures—every bad thing.
I admit I became a memory hoarder. Instead of cleaning the house of my mind and sweeping away the detritus of what I no longer needed or had any use for, I collected a mess in the corner along with all the other memories I didn’t need but wasn’t yet ready to get rid of and allowed the pile to dictate my life.
Once it reached a certain size, I began to reroute my way through the house to make more room, stashing new ones into the remaining nooks and crevices. I stopped being able to move unrestricted and let the bad memories accumulate. They took on a life of their own and some of them even began to stink.
The worst part was that I was unable to see it happening. Every time I entered the privacy of my own mind and thoughts, those memories would impose themselves in unruly ways and made it nearly impossible for me to do what I wanted because I was constantly accommodating what I couldn’t let go of.
Increasingly, the garbage I was hanging on to intruded, unbidden. Any possibility of new and better memories grew tarnished in the presence of the old ugly ones taking up too much space.
If I’m speaking of all of this in the past tense, it’s because I had to come to a reckoning with the mess I’d piled up. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fast, and if I’m honest, I still deal with the tendency to hoard memories that aren’t good for me.
As I see hoarders do on television, sometimes I have to hold one in my hand and really think about it. Do I need this thing? Is it adding to my life or taking away? Turns out, it’s okay to let go of a lot of it, to toss them into the dumpster and then scrub and disinfect every corner.
I’ve decided I’d rather have a clean and sparkling niche that’s bare and waiting for something new and special to fill the space than that old growing pile of ugly that served no good purpose.
Cyn Kitchen is associate professor of English at Knox College and a lifelong resident of the Galesburg area. She is the author of “Ten Tongues” and also publishes creative nonfiction and poems.