Tonight I tackled cleaning up my closet. This has been a constant source of anxiety for months. I’ve struggled to keep my life organized since I was about 12. Until then, I had a meticulously-organized bedroom that I’d take enjoyment in rearranging over and over into different combinations. The bed over by the window, the desk next to the closet, the dolls ordered by size leaning against the pillows. I’d sit with my Mom and leaf through the latest JCPenny catalog for some new bedding every year or so. I credit her for my interest in design, crafting and homemaking. We’d select a new pattern and then make a project of it. Matching paint and wallpaper would be on the list.
Then one day a friend came over to hang out. There were no doubt a lot of things happening in my life that contributed to my self-consciousness, but this one moment changed a lot of how I’d behave for years and years to come. I was just entering JR High School and kids were beginning to get overly aware of anyone different or odd and pointing that out first somehow took any attention away from them. Of course I understand this now, but at 12 all I could think of was how to avoid being different or singled out. Bullying is a terrible thing.
I was super proud of my color-and-size organized closet, short sleeves to long, dresses to pants, all in a cotton rainbow cascading through my superbly cared-for closet. My life was this bedroom. It’s where I spent my time reading, working out, plotting my next projects, seeking refuge from my parents and brothers. It was my sanctuary and it was an extension of myself. It contained so much of my dreams for my life and no matter what was happening outside that door (fighting, stresses about money, Grandma’s Alzheimers, Aunt Mary’s cancer, Mom’s daily migraines) I had this room where I could feel safe. This was mine, and organizing my closet reminded me that I had stability and value. I was good at this. I’d take special pride sharing my work with my family, unveiling just how different I could make the place look, using just my hands and my mind. We didn’t have cable or internet and I wanted to be away from everyone else, so this became a place where I had some autonomy, even if just for a bit.
My friend Andrea took one look at my closet, diagnosed me as “weird”, laughed at me and then went about telling me about her new step-mother. She spent about 20 seconds in total, but that moment changed me for over 20 years. My sanctuary instantly became a place of deep shame. I then took a long look around me, everywhere that anyone could see that things might be different or bad. My entire house became a source of embarrassment. My entire life, really. Everything from my Dad’s new car to my parent’s sofa needed to be better. They needed to be good enough to escape ridicule. In all fairness, this one moment was truly created by me, not Andrea, but the feelings were so overwhelming that I couldn’t escape them. I’m sad to admit that this focus and feelings of shame are still with me today. They’re less gripping now, especially since I’ve created a life so far away from where I grew up and also because I’ve been through enough experiences that I can now separate my feelings from what others think of me.
Between the years of 12 and 30, my closet became a messy mix of guilt, shame and too-many quick fix fashion items. I’d make my Mom buy me things despite knowing that we probably didn’t have the money for it. She’d feel really good doing it in the moment, and then immediately regret it when thinking of her credit card bill. I thought if I wore the right clothes, I could keep people liking me. I didn’t know what I owned, and cared little for the things I had. I certainly didn’t respect the sacrifice my Mom was making in purchasing me items I didn’t really need. It never occurred to me that I could just work, earn money, and buy what I wanted. I spent so much time in a cycle of wanting something, asking Mom, getting the item and immediately feeling shame over putting her in that situation.
Fast forward to this moment in my life. Breaking my old habits with “stuff” and redefining my relationship to it has been a gradual process that isn’t perfect all the time. I’ve finally found myself in an apartment I love surrounded by items I’ve carefully curated over the past 3 years of running a flea market. I started almost from scratch and donated much of what owned a few years back. And when Mom tries to buy me things, I humbly decline and instead ask if we can split a piece of pie and some conversation instead. The closet is more kaleidoscope than rainbow these days, and it’s still filled with much more than I could ever need, prodding me to re-think how fortunate I am to have a closet full of excess but also how little I realize it daily.