Through trash picking I’ve come to better understand the privileges provided by wealth. I was aware in an abstract sense before but some of my finds have really driven the point home. For instance, coming across a container filled with over 56$ in change in Westmount made me wonder about the world in which that amount is considered chump change. I’ve also found lots of jewelry, designer sunglasses, gadgets and electronics, but the 56$ is my favourite example because that was real money being tossed, and an amount that would provide significant benefit to a large portion of the population.
These types of finds are frustrating because it seems obvious that other people would love to have them, and because the effort needed to donate them is minimal. I won’t go into the multitude of ways that the 56$ in change could have been easily donated with very little effort, except to say that even unceremoniously dumping it on a sidewalk downtown would have been a better option than placing it inside a black garbage bag for disposal.
I’m sure some of the people tossing this stuff are self-centered, and don’t consider much beyond their own self-interest. The privilege of wealth comes not just from what one can buy with the money, but also their ability to throw something away without having to give much thought to the act. At the same time I’d bet that many of the rich people throwing out nice things are reasonably cool. I except that some rich people are just so far removed from financial deprivation that they simply cannot conceive of what it’s like to be broke. As a result, they become oblivious to the value their items might have to a person who really needs them.
A couple weeks ago I found something else that was indicative of this privilege. It came in front of a nice house that was recently sold.
Inside one of the bags was this box, which was a fair bit heavier than I expected it to be.
To my surprise, inside was a Macbook Pro!
The laptop was pretty clean, so it didn’t surprise me much when it worked as well.
The computer was password protected when I found it, but after several hours of research I was able to figure out a workaround (basically I created a new administrator account, from which I was then able to delete the other user and all their information). Another issue arose when the old battery – which I don’t think had been used for 2 years – started to bulge, causing the track-pad clicker to stop working. That took me a few more hours to figure out, but once I did I was able to fix the issue by removing the old battery.
I’ve found working laptops before, but this one is by far the nicest and most desirable of the bunch. The Macbook Pro is a coffee shop staple and a favourite among students and artists. In terms of value, mid-2009 Macbook Pros with 13.3″ screens seem to go for around 400-450$, making it a pretty nice find!
I found some more great stuff at this spot recently, so expect some more luxurious finds in a blog post to come!
I saved a few nice art deco light fixtures on a Sunday night trip to eastern NDG .
This chandelier is pretty cool, but needs rewiring and a bit of glue or solder as one of the upper arms broke since I took this photo.
I love the art deco “starburst” design. I’m not sure this fixture is worth anything (it’s not quite in perfect condition either, being not quite flat) but it’s definitely pretty neat.
This hanging lamp might be the most valuable of the bunch. It’s in pretty nice condition, with no notable chips or breaks. I’d guess it was made in the 1940s.
The bottom has a frosted look to it. I listed the lamp on Kijiji for 150$, and we’ll see if it sells.
In Montreal West I came across two golf bags whose best days have long since passed.
More interesting were the clubs, many of which were hand forged in the 20s or 30s. They’re not worth a lot but make for good yard sale material.
This fare was inside one of the bags. I’m pretty sure the Mount Royal Golf Club is the one in TMR that got built over in the 1950s, so that gives you some idea of when these clubs were last used.
I saved a vintage TV (at left – the one on the right was a huge monstrosity) from this pile in TMR. I have a strange adoration for vintage TVs so I took it despite the fact that it was large and weighed probably 40 pounds. I posted it on a Facebook barter page and ended up trading it for some kombucha and coffee beans. Was it worth it? Probably not. I almost killed myself yesterday trying to deliver it to my trade partner, and the amount of effort it took to deal with it didn’t match the return. I’m glad this old TV still exists, but I think I’ll stick to saving smaller vintage TVs from now on.
Otherwise, I saved what looks to be a jadeite glass vase (NDG) …
… a collection of Givenchy Gentleman after shaves (Plateau);
… an Inoxcrom pen set with sterling silver caps (TMR);
… a box full of feathers (Montreal West);
… a busted shale glass box (I left this on the curb, and someone took the top – NDG);
… a nice wooden trinket box (TMR);
… and a collection of hand saws, which I have since traded for four litres of tasty homemade soup (TMR).
51 thoughts on “Privilege”
Love your finds man, I wish I could go garbage finding with you! Amazing stuff. Especially loved the pens and the art deco lamp. Sell those golf clubs to some interior designer that does old-school Scottish pubs or something.
Life is weird! Yesterday I found a Macbook Pro from 2011 in the garbage. It has no RAM, HDD or battery but still 🙂
Lol. Well it could still be worth something for parts if the body is still in good shape!
Yeah, I think I will try and get it running and maybe give it to my mom or something.
I never tire of following your adventures. If you ever get around to writing a book based on your activities, it will be a wonderfully interesting read. Your language is accommodating and your writing style assured. Your criticisms, analyses, elaborations and descriptions flesh out the bare bones of your finds. Kudos to you, and thumbs up to all you do.
Great finds. The vase is quite beautiful.
Those cast celing fixtures will bring you at least 100 for the small one, and $300 for the tall one, even as they are. Lighting dealers scoop them up to restore or use for parts. Super nice finds!
Thanks, maybe I’ll list the smaller one on eBay. The larger one is sort of fragile, and I expect would further break in shipment. It’s not cast iron, instead being made of some kind of white metal which I think reduces its value.
that art deco type chandelier might be more valuable than you think, likewise the Jadite vase
Hope you can find more info on them, or someone can fill int
they both sort of remind me of things I have seen somewhere
I have always thought that sometimes folks put valuable stuff out, including money, to pass on to folks such as yourself you might make use of it.
on a much smaller scale, there has been occasions when I’ve been in a downtown parking lot, and had some bottles or cans in the vehicle, that I set them out around a lamp post. I recall someone who was with me being outraged that I was “littering”, but I assured them there were bottle pickers out and about, and I set them out for these folks.
maybe some of your finds are put out in that vein of thought?
I doubt it to be honest. Some people definitely do, but most of these neighbourhoods don’t have many if any regular scavengers. I rarely see anyone else picking in TMR or Westmount, for example. So it would be poor strategy for someone to put these things on the curb thinking that someone would find them, and even poorer strategy to put such items in black plastic garbage bags (as was done with the 56$ in change). The black bags hide their contents, and most people never think to open them.
glad you did find/rescue/could use/could profit..
all good for you
True that. Many people do leave out things for free, but I find this to be more common in heavily picked areas.
Congrats on some fabulous Art Deco and other finds, Martin! Sometimes people may not even realize they are throwing out money, or remember that they put it in some apparently disposable container.
I would get that jadeite vase checked out by an expert. It looks “important.”
I did a bunch of research on it, and couldn’t find anything similar. I’m 99% sure it’s not real jade, but it could have some value nonetheless. I believe it’s a Chinese piece.
One way to test if it’s glass or stone is to hold it up to yur cheek. Stone will be cold regardless of the room temperature and glass will be around room temperature.
I suspect it’s glass based on that test. There’s also a little break on the back (one of the legs of the buffalo (?) is off) and it looks like glass on the inside. But you’re right, glass can be pretty valuable too. That jade colour was popular in the 1940s if I remember right. I definitely won’t sell it before I have a better idea of its value.
P.S. Even if it’s glass, it could be valuable.
is your vase “heavyish”? it looks it? it looks valuable , hope it is for your benefit
here’s some interesting sites
the reason I included this one, is there are “hanging rings” like on your vase. This (if this happens to be a genuine sort of vase) hanging rings are carved out of the original piece …check you likely will not find a seam on yours?
It’s heavy but not super heavy. The hanging rings I’m certain are actually plastic – one is cracked and it is pretty flexible. The rest I’m quite sure is glass, not jade. Still, it would be old glass, probably from the 40s (around the time that jadeite Fire King stuff was popular).
darn, well, I will keep my fingers crossed for you..
re the flexible, pretty sure I recall hearing somewhere that very finely carved jade/jadeite can also flex..so….
try this, lick the cracked ring…if it is plastic, it may taste like plastic (that is only my own idea, no idea if it works…)….
yu know, I just looked up jadeite fire king vase, and it doesn’t really look the same to me.
on the bottom of this vase
it looks to have carving..
check carefully and see if you can see anything which might be oriental type signature hidden within the carving (or on bottom)
Geez…Macbook Pros in the garbage! That just boggles the mind!
You find the most amazing stuff. I live in Ottawa and I am going to have to start going around on garbage day to see what I can find. You write an amazing blog and I agree with a previous commenter that you should write a book about your garbage find adventures. Love you stories about what you trade or sell things for. Good luck hunting!! Cheers, Michele
I love your finds and look forward to each post. Personally, books are my true curbside love. Move out days at local colleges are a windfall.
I think it’s the book, “Class; A Guide Through the American Status System” that talked about asking people from different social classes questions as they exited their grocery store. It stuck with me because I had recently been through a couple of years where I was making way more money than usual and I felt odd as I walked out of stores. I felt out of control or dazed but didn’t know why. It’s because I no longer used big chunks of my brain space to calculate costs and benefits – how much I spent total, was toothpaste on sale this time, do I have enough leftover for the rest of the week. When you jump to the next class, you effectively free your brain up because those things are no longer important enough to drain brain energy for. So oddly true. When there’s no longer a wolf outside the door, there is so much more in life to experience! btw…the wolf quickly came back because of a job shift. But, the brief absence was wonderful.
You might like the book. It’s a bit dated, but great examples and concepts about the thinking patterns of others.
That is a very interesting insight — how being wealthier can “free your brain up” because you/I/we no longer need to be crunching numbers and calculating the best ways to stretch one’s limited dollars… I hope the wolf (again) finds someplace else to hang out other than your door.
Love your treasures! My sister gave me a pink lamp just like the one you found for my pînk bathroom! I’m sure someone will take yours! You bring back such memories for me especially with the wooden box. My mom had a similar. Thanks for all the time you spend doign this.
Great finds! Love the fact that you are saving many wonderful items.
how much for the macbook ? mine’s beginning to let go? joe.
I have a couple of friends thinking about it, if not I’ll likely put it on Kijiji for 400$. Send me an email and I can keep you posted regardless.
I think that’s real jade.
We’ll see. I won’t get rid of it until I figure it out for sure.
Hi Martin,great blog.I wish you would do even more areas because you do have a car.Go to areas or streets you have never been before.My sister is looking for vintage beehive lamps.If you find them,please write about them on your blog.
Maybe when it gets warmer outside. For now, I’m happy to stick to familiar, nearby routes.
If you want to remove the rust on those golf clubs, an easy way is with white vinegar:
Thanks for the tip!
lovely finds, I’m outraged that so many things were muffled up in black bags, reducing their chances of being rescued, so good that you were persistent & in the right place at the right time, I am thinking that books like that “Tidying Up” one written by Maria Kondo, rely on the magic of wholesale purging, the word “discard” appeared in it many, many times, drove me into a state; transitions like moving and death of a relative sets off dumping as well, was sad when my aunt died, clippings of my uncle’s hair (who previously died) were thrown in the trash by her sister, I suggested putting in her coffin, was told that was too yucky, many of her other things thankfully went to friends, family and donation
I am a financial consultant ,and a retailer who owns her own house and I also own a two-story apartment building that gives me rental income from four apartments .I make more than $90,00 net income every year.I still go through the garbage in my neighborhood on trash/recycling pickup day whenever I have time.I poke around in trash bins and garbage bags while walking or biking.I have saved a few good lamps,books,paintings,pieces of furniture,etc from the trash and donated them to family members or kept them.I have even recycled cans and bottles that I found in black garbage bags three or four times for pocket change and for this planet.Your blog is inspiring.Some fairly rich people do scavenging too.Remember that.
Glad to hear it! Keep up the good work
I disagree with the idea that people throw stuff away b/c they are rich.
People have a limited amount of decision making power/energy/ grey cells.
When people hit their limit…….they make poor choices.
Choices that are easiest Right NOW!
I agree. I think quite often folks are overwhelmed.
sometimes there is a crisis in their life, sometimes they have lived with a hoarder (and just maybe sticking it in the trash is the only way to quietly get rid of things),
and much more.
it seems to me that most folks who are well off did not get that way by being wasteful, on purpose.
Being rich definitely affects the things people are willing to throw away. A 400$ MacBook, or 56$ in change simply does mean as much to someone making 1 million as it does to someone barely getting by. I do much better in rich neighbourhoods, and there’s a reason for that.
But the other side is that people with money have more expensive things. Does that mean they are more wasteful, or that they start out with a better level of stuff to throw out?
Is throwing out a DVD “wasteful”? But it is the same thing, someone unwilling or unable to find a place for it. Only the “value” differs.
I got a Garmin GPS at a garage sale for five dollars, works fine. I later got a TomTom GPS for ten dollars, it does maps, at a rummage sale. I have no idea whether I got good deals, I’m not sure I’d have spent much more, but then I didn’t “need” a GPS. If I’d found it in the garbage, it just means someone didn’t bother to deal with it. At the garage sale, someone got a minimal amount. Someone in effect “threw out” the GPS when they gave it to the rummage sale, it costing them the effort to get it to the group.
Because someone can afford a fancy Macbook means they have to get rid of it at some point.
Maybe they are wasteful, maybe it’s just they have more expensive stuff.
People “throw out” electronics all the time, I’ve seen some of those e-waste collections. They seem even more wasteful, because I don’t get a chance to determine if it has value or not. I doubt the group collecting the stuff properly evaluates it, finds the “antique” electronics or older stuff that might s till have some use. Probably only in the broadest sense do they pull out the most obviously recent stuff, and then the rest off to China to be chopped up for the gold. So if they crush something valuable because they don’t know what it is, is that less “wasteful” than someone tossing a Macbook?
If the only thing that I bought new was an 80gig iPod, and I threw it out, it might not be noticed because I had no more expensive stuff to go with it. But that’s no less “wasteful” than if tossed in another part of town. (I found that iPod a few years ago, near Mount Royal and Park Ave, July 1st).
True, perhaps the rich aren’t that much more wasteful (though I do think they tend to own more stuff and have bigger houses, meaning that when they move / pass on there’s more to deal / get overwhelmed by). I guess my main point here is just how much differently the rich and “not rich” conceive of the same item. Many of my broke friends own MacBook Pros, but because they don’t have much money they are forced to use them for longer, and even if they were to buy a new computer they would likely sell the old one to help pay for the expenses. A MacBook Pro is an asset, and only the rich have the privilege to toss an asset that’s easily worth 300$.
I did not like the book “Tidying Up’ by Maria Kondo.A friend gave me a copy of the book,I read it and found it too simplistic.In fact,I gave the book back to my friend and disreagard her advice.She is making tons and tons of money by giving advice to people to discard tons of stuff so that she can consume more with the money made by selling the book.I do not agree with her.Hope more people speak out against her ideas.
Say yes to excess! Why decluttering can be bad for you
Updated: 20:01 GMT, 1 January 2011
When Jeannette Kupfermann (right) was encouraged to declutter by a minimalist friend, she found that precious memories were being swept away too
As an unrepentant maximalist I’m largely with the Victorians, who covered every available surface of their homes with objets and regarded a naked inch of furniture as obscene. But even I, with my many paintings, books, photographs, Venetian masks, Tibetan puppets and heaven knows what else, am occasionally prompted to clear everything away and aim for a Zen-like simplicity.
It happened just before my daughter’s recent wedding. Guests were coming to stay for the event and suddenly the house I’d lived in for 40 years, raised a family in and filled with all the paraphernalia of marriage and children, looked undeniably shabby. Even after I had slapped white paint on kitchen units and walls, and cleared out the airing cupboard so that the person staying in that room would at least be confronted by neat, colour-coded piles of towels rather than my son’s 20-year-old football socks, my house was far removed from the minimalist, understated look I aspired to. Part of me wanted to hire a skip, tip everything in and start again.
So, tired and emotional after weeks of preparing for the big day, I reluctantly agreed when a friend – a compulsive tidier who is positively evangelical about the virtues of decluttering after downsizing to a small flat – offered to come and help. ‘You’ll feel liberated – and it helps to have a friend do it with you,’ she promised. But I didn’t realise just how traumatic it could be to allow someone into the darkest recesses of one’s cupboards.
I should have known that I was in for an uncomfortable ride when she stepped through the door armed with more bin bags and cleaning equipment than Kim and Aggie from How Clean is Your House?. You may be happy to disclose all kinds of intimate secrets in conversation with a friend, but let her spot a cobweb in your sitting room or chipped china on your shelves and you feel as if you’ve been stripped naked in the town square. As she probes every murky corner, you suddenly suspect that the home you thought was charming and bohemian harbours a billion bacteria and a thousand useless ornaments.
I hadn’t counted on the terrible mixture of shame, guilt and embarrassment that overwhelmed me with every cracked and dusty object she insisted on consigning to the bin. From the minute the first ornament – an ingenious but battered red origami dragon – was dumped, I felt like one of the social misfits Kim and Aggie scold for hoarding piles of yellowed newspapers. It brought back memories of my headmistress accusing me of letting the whole school down for some minor misdemeanour such as not wearing navy-blue gym knickers.
We hoarders are social pariahs these days. As a social sin it ranks somewhere near obesity. Both are seen as representing excess, the result of greed and lack of self-discipline. Yet both have to do with the substance of life. We need flesh on our bodies to stay healthy, and personal treasures help to ‘flesh out’ our lives. Take away our belongings, lose too much weight, and we are robbed of our zest for life itself. Our current obsession with stripping people of both weight and possessions seems dangerously close to a sort of symbolic lobotomy.
I felt a deep sadness – as if part of my soul had been scoured away
As my origami dragon – an offering brought proudly home from nursery school by one of my children more than 30 years ago – was thrown in the bin, I knew I was about to lose something irreplaceable: the memory of a milestone in a child’s life. These hoarded items represent the history of our dreams, our loves, our losses. Why should we want to destroy the archaeology of our lives? Nothing says more about us than the possessions we surround ourselves with, and sometimes only we can read their meaning.
I’ve no quarrel with Einstein’s ‘out of clutter find simplicity’ – which I’ve always taken to mean finding patterns amid chaos – but I suspect that the current decluttering obsession reflects something harsher than a search for order in a world increasingly overwhelmed by choice. It’s a rejection of history, an attempt to make everything homogenous, with everything from diet to furnishings dictated by a small group of lifestyle experts determined to impose one neutral style.
I’ve been trying to analyse the embarrassment, distress and anger I felt when my well-meaning friend swept everything off the shelves and identified items to be binned: the acute pain as she shrieked, ‘What’s this old cat food doing here?’, followed by, ‘Ugh…this horrible brush – what is it? I’m chucking it…and that cat basket, get rid of it.’
In fact my little ‘cat corner’– like every overcrowded corner – told a story. My beloved Lucy had died last year at the grand old age of 23, leaving me utterly bereft. She had been a wonderful companion, and I kept her things because I could almost feel her presence in them. In the same way, I still have my late husband’s old wellies outside the front door, which I find reassuring, and I hold on to some of my children’s stuff – my daughter’s first red velvet coat, their Beatrix Potter books – even though they’ve long left home.
Hypnotherapist Gloria May – normally a great advocate of the minimal because she believes that too much clutter can ‘hide the real person’ – warns of the danger of disposing of items with personal meaning in haste: ‘I think you can sometimes do it too fast, and you must do it with the right person: a sister is ideal because you have shared memories of the things you’re sorting through. I’m now sorry I cleared out my father’s house in such a hurry. A couple of years later I found myself thinking, “Where’s this? Where’s that?” about pictures and things such as paperweights and watches – especially watches, as they’re so personal.
‘I’m wary of the TV experts who show hopelessly cluttered people how to do it,’ Gloria adds. ‘Sometimes they’re just trying to create
on-screen drama by getting the subjects to cry. Of course complete chaos can reflect inner turmoil, but there’s controlled clutter too, where people have chosen to keep the things that have meaning. It’s significant that so many people are renting storage units to “store themselves away”: I think that shows a lack of engagement with life.’
‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams,’ should have been my warning to my friend. ‘You don’t need that,’ she
cried, grabbing a yellowed
hand-crocheted doily. ‘Yes I do, my grandmother made it and it’s the last thing I have of hers.’ It’s neither useful nor particularly beautiful but it’s significant to me. Priceless yet undeniably clutter.
In psychological terms, we talk of clutter as somehow blocking or choking personal growth – the feng-shui manuals are full of advice on it. But few things can be as sad as the elderly person in a nursing home room with no space for personal belongings, or more cheering than the poorest home overflowing with photographs, ornaments and possessions, all speaking of that person’s ties to achievements, family and community – a life well lived. Stripping oneself of everything represents a reluctance to put a value on anything – the modern disease of unwillingness to commit or, in Gloria May’s words, ‘to engage with life’.
Gloria also told me: ‘Often those who really want to destroy every vestige of their past feel that their lives are ending. It’s a kind of editing, both of the physical evidence of their lives and of their memories. My incapacitated mother made me burn letters from an old friend, one by one. I never found out whether it was a lover – she didn’t want me to know.’ It was not a comforting thought.
‘I’ve filled ten bin bags,’ my friend declared gleefully at the end of the afternoon. Yes, ten bags of my history, I thought miserably (and I salvaged a lot afterwards).
Imagination versus organisation. Those leaping dolphins on a plastic stand: hideous, chuck it. No, I can’t – it was my mother’s last birthday gift to me. Let it go, we’re always being urged. It belongs to the past. Yet the most fulfilled people acknowledge their past and incorporate it into their lives. I love to go into a home where old photos, medals, china and other memorabilia are on display, as opposed to a neutered place devoid of personal history. Memory is a precious resource: we should cherish it rather than aiming for bare walls and empty spaces.
Of course, the feng-shui experts will tell you that clearing the clutter is like weeding a garden to let the flowers emerge. Clear the decks and you’ll make space to let new things into your life. But they also urge you to get rid of all old love letters, postcards, invitations, birthday cards, bad photos – anything significantly human or individual.
I have to admit that my friend had done a good job: her uncluttered surfaces looked pristine. Yet I hated the emptiness and felt a deep sadness – a sense that part of my soul had been scoured away too. Gone were things that I had looked at for years and which had comforted me. Instead there was a blank space, and the fear that perhaps I’d never fill it again. Even my daughter – an advocate of clean lines and all things modern – grabbed an old Trivial Pursuit box from the bin with a wistful, ‘We could still play that. We always used to play it on holiday.’ She was reclaiming her childhood history, and proudly showing her fiancé the context of her life.
As for me, I felt older – as if I’d moved on to the next stage of my life – and, far from being liberated, I felt as if I’d been cut down to size, reduced to someone else’s thinking. I was too drained to do anything that night, but the next day I rescued the origami dragon and reinstated him, along with several other items. This was my personal archive, a record of my history and individuality, and I wasn’t going to let anyone diminish that or me. It’s time we hoarders started to fight back. Less is not always more: sometimes it really is less.
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lovely article, things are really imbued with our memories, seeing them, picking them up brings it all back
Hey,man,I love your blog and am American.I live in Topeka,Kansas and love America.A couple of people mentioned Marie Kondo’s book TIDYING UP.I bought the book at a store and got angry after reading it.I was about to junk the book in the trash out of anger,but logic prevailed.I put an ad on Craigslist in the Free Section saying that I had this book to give away.Within two days someone came and picked it up.I love books and knick-knacks and collecting them in my house.The only book I discarded was Marie Kondo’s.I do not neeed that.
Glad you like the blog! I’m never heard of this Tidying Up book, but a lot of people here seem to not like it. I’ll make a point to avoid it, doesn’t really sound like my cup of tea.
WHY COMPULSIVE DECLUTTERING CAN BE LIFELONG ILLNESS-atlantic.com
For some, the need to shed possessions is a life-consuming illness—but the cultural embrace of decluttering can make it hard to seek help.
Lasse Kristensen / Shutterstock
|Sep 7, 2015
As long as she can remember, Annabelle Charbit has loathed “stuff.” She hated birthdays because birthdays meant gifts. And gifts meant finding a way to toss them.
At 5 years old, Charbit would sneak toys into her younger brother’s room. By age 10, she was stashing her belongings in alleys around her London neighborhood. At 13, she discovered charity stores, smuggling bags past her parents and out the door.
Living on her own in her twenties, Charbit, now 41, continued her spartan ways, eschewing even lamps. “I would be in semi-darkness,” she says.
Currently a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, Charbit was obsessively decluttering before the word really existed in popular culture. Google Ngram, which charts the use of certain words in book titles, shows that “declutter” first came into use in the 1970s, its popularity shooting up through the ’80s, ’90s, and the first decade of the 21st century. According to Oxford University Press, the term was only added to the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary in June 2015. Today, women’s magazines routinely urge readers to purge; personal organizers offer to coach clients in their pursuit of minimalist perfection; earlier this year, Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which promises to help people achieve “the unique magic of a tidy home,” became a bestseller. But for some people, the cultural embrace of decluttering can provide cover for more problematic behavior.
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“Do we just assume that decluttering is a good thing because it’s the opposite of hoarding?” says Vivien Diller, a psychologist in New York who has worked with patients like Charbit who compulsively rid themselves of their possessions. “Being organized and throwing things out and being efficient is applauded in our society because it is productive. But you take somebody who cannot tolerate mess or cannot sit still without cleaning or throwing things out, and we’re talking about a symptom.”
Both cleaning and decluttering can become a problem when they’re driven by obsessive thoughts.
Unlike hoarding, which was officially reclassified as a disorder in 2013, compulsive decluttering doesn’t appear as its own entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM); instead, it’s typically considered a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I see it all the time. People rarely come into my office because they have a problem with being too efficient or wanting to declutter,” Diller says, but the problem usually makes itself known in other ways: “They’re not sleeping at night and they’re feeling jittery and irritable … they’ll sit in my office and straighten my pillows. They’re not comfortable until everything is in order.”
Scientists still aren’t sure exactly what causes OCD, which is typically treated with therapy and medication. What they do know is that the condition causes sufferers to lock onto distressing thoughts (obsession), generating anxiety that can only be soothed by performing a particular act (compulsion). “By doing the ritual, you get temporary relief, and then that cements you into doing the ritual,” says Michael Jenike, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the OCD treatment program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “So you do it again and again.”
Diller’s compulsive-decluttering patients, she says, sometimes describe “this tightness in their chest if they see things that should be thrown out,” one that can be eased only by getting rid of the offending objects.
“Any behavior can technically become a problem when it starts having an obsessive and compulsive nature. Even [otherwise] healthy behavior,” says Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C. area who has worked with patients who suffer from obsessive-compulsive cleaning. Both cleaning and decluttering can be positive behaviors, she says, but become a problem when they’re driven by obsessive thoughts.
One day in 2010, Charbit, then a neuroscience graduate student at University College London, Googled “the opposite of hoarding” and “clutter phobia.” She was in the process of writing a novel about a woman who suffers from the same compulsions as Charbit herself (the novel, A Life Lived Ridiculously, was published in 2012) and wasn’t sure how to describe her character’s symptoms—there’s no official term for compulsive decluttering. “I was a grown adult, fully medicated, with plenty of insight … but with no name for [the behavior],” says Charbit, who began taking medication for OCD at age 18. Her search led her to an article on “obsessive-compulsive spartanism,” she recalls. Clicking it open, she immediately recognized her own experience.
For Charbit, the thoughts began within seconds of waking up each day. “You have a few seconds of peace,” she says. “Then it all comes flooding: The anxiety, the dread … It’s that constant nagging. You never reach a point where you’re satisfied.” Even now, after years of treatment, “I would rather throw something out and buy it again than keep it.” The medication helps, she says, but it hasn’t stopped her from discarding and re-buying a food processor three times. “And don’t even tell me to recount how many books I tossed, only to go to Amazon and repurchase them.”
The cultural embrace of decluttering makes it harder for those who do it compulsively to seek help.
The author Helen Barbour, who blogs at The Reluctant Perfectionist and wrote The A to Z of Normal, a novel about OCD, believes the cultural embrace of decluttering makes it harder for those who do it compulsively to seek help. “[People] see my tidy home and sigh about the fact that theirs is a dump,” says Barbour, who was diagnosed with OCD in 1995. “What they don’t realize is how long it has taken me to order everything with millimeter precision, or the anxiety I feel at things being even slightly out of position.” Barbour lives alone, in part, she says, because her long-term partner is “the king of stuff.”
Barbour also found a supportive community online when she wrote a blog post about her compulsive decluttering last February. “Sorting and rearranging helps a little,” she wrote, “and getting rid of just one or two things can also temporarily alleviate the feeling.” Commenters responded with their own experiences: “I get a physical sensation as though I’m being crushed when I have too many things around me,” one wrote. “To say I hate clutter is an understatement … it literally feels like gears grinding in my head,” said another.
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Lesley Turner, a 58-year-old woman from Wales, can relate. “I have to do these things,” she says, “or my head is in turmoil.” In 2013, she and her daughter Tuesday, now 25, appeared on the U.K. reality show Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, in which people who suffer from compulsive decluttering clean the homes of people with hoarding disorder. Lesley says that the show’s producers pitched it to her and her daughter, both of whom suffer from OCD, as a chance to “push our boundaries,” but both women were dismayed with the episode that ultimately aired. “It made it look like a nice, fun, quirky thing to have, not the serious, completely life-consuming illness that it is,” Tuesday says. Earlier this year, after Lesley told the British newspaper Metro that the experience left them “traumatized,” the advocacy-organization OCD U.K. released a statement condemning the show and calling for its boycott.
All pathologies have a spectrum from normal to symptomatic, Diller says, and decluttering is no exception. Barbour considers herself on the “mild end of the spectrum.” Charbit, now married and the mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, says she’s able to cope with her family’s possessions by “creating little compartments in my life [that] are exactly as I want them to be,” like her closet: “I always, at any one time, have just three pairs of shoes,” she says. “One pair of sneakers, one pair of flats, and one pair of sandals.”
The Turners, who refuse to allow anyone in their house—“I just want my big, clean, sterile home,” Lesley says—are more severe cases. Lesley is currently taking medication; Tuesday is on a waiting list for OCD group therapy. Both women hope their TV experience will at the very least increase public awareness of their particular form of OCD.
“I think when you see someone who’s a hoarder,” Tuesday says, “you see that there’s [a disorder]. Whereas if they saw our house, they would see that there’s nothing in there; it’s really, really clean. And I think people would just think that it was a nice, clean house.”
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Just offering my opinion on people throwing away cash, jewelry, nice useable objects, etc.
In my particular experience (I pick in New Jersey) I find that houses that are being emptied of their contents as a result of eviction or death will often produce a windfall of items that otherwise would not be thrown out. Crews that are hired to just clear things out don’t necessarily look through everything. Likewise, family that believe Aunt Fanny only had a house full of junk will just bag and toss it all.
When I come across these types of opportunities – a “for sale” sign out front is a good indicator – I take any bag that looks or sounds promising and examine the contents at home. Yeah, I do get plenty of actual trash, but the effort is usually worth it. If nothing else I can recycle those items that should be recycled (like paper, bottles, scrap metal, etc) and feel good that I prevented it from ending up in the landfill.
As always the excitement of the hunt is what keeps me going back a-pickin’ again and again.
Sounds like we have some similar techniques. I also keep an eye out for “for sale” signs, though I sort through things on the spot because the car I use isn’t very small (and for a variety of other reasons).
I find people moving is a big one too, especially when they are in their 60s or 70s and just want to downsize (or maybe move to Florida!). I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, and doubt I will ever entirely stop picking.
Wow. This post stirred up lots of comments!!! I am writing on a REALLY old laptop right now — the one you found in the trash is similar to what I consider to be my new laptop (which I only use for making music). I continue to love reading your blog, seeing some of the items you have re-claimed, and reading your thoughts/feelings/insights. Today my favorite item was the box of feathers! Thank you for all you do in Montreal and share with us online.
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