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Decluttering is Not Enough

By Miriam

The last couple of years, I have been very focused on decluttering my room, along with as much of the rest of the house as my family would allow. At first, my room definitely needed it. I had more books than I could fit on my bookshelves, many of which were ones from when I was much younger that I no longer cared about. Papers had been piled on surfaces over time and not sorted through regularly, with somewhat important documents mixed in with expired coupons and other things that immediately could be recycled or shredded. There was also a very large quantity of old toys still sitting around the house, despite everyone in my family no longer being children. Items became lost only to later realize they were in plain sight the whole time on a shelf or table somewhere, but not immediately spotted among the other clutter. The house needed more than just cleaning up and organizing. There were many used items sitting around that had no reason to still be around but were in good condition. I wanted to find a new home for these items by donating or selling them so they would not continue to take up space around the house. 

It was hard at first to find a place that would take some items, like old toys. For other items, like books, I quickly found multiple places that they could be donated to. I really didn’t want to throw used items that were still in good shape in the trash simply because it was hard to find somewhere to donate them to. A couple of times, I tried selling the harder to donate items at flea markets or online. I made a few dollars every once and awhile doing so, but most of the items still sat around the house unsold. Since there was no easy way to get rid of them without placing them in the trash, bags, and boxes full of items to donate sat around the house for a while. 

Eventually, I gave up on trying to sell used items and focused more on finding places to donate them to. I eventually found an organization called GreenDrop that takes almost any household item you can think of as a donation, with a long list of items that they can take on their website. By the time I found GreenDrop, my family members started decluttering their own spaces around the house along with me. We filled so many boxes and bags with old clothes, toys, books, and other miscellaneous items to donate that I quickly lost count. The first round of donations alone had enough bags to cover the floor in my room. There were still plenty of spaces around the house that could be decluttered further after a couple of rounds of GreenDrop donations, but I at least had enough space by then to not only put all my remaining belongings away on a shelf, in a drawer, or in a closet but also keep them well organized. Sets of drawers were no longer overly stuffed with items to the point nothing could easily be spotted in them and there were no more piles of books on the floor. I even had some completely empty shelves and drawers in my room afterward. At first, it felt good to finally not have an overwhelming amount of stuff sitting around my room. It was much easier to keep my room clean and clutter-free afterward with fewer items around. However, two or three years after I started more intensely and quickly decluttering, it started to not feel great anymore to have gone about it the way I did for a couple of reasons. 

Recently, I have started to regret getting rid of some of the items I donated. There were plenty of things I got rid of that I still would donate if I saw them sitting around the house today. However, there were other items I pushed myself too hard to get rid of or just assumed I would never need again. For example, when I came across old toys from my childhood, I partially pushed myself to get rid of them because they had been sitting in drawers or boxes untouched for years. I was tired of having so much stuff that things sat forgotten in a drawer or box somewhere. I also kept telling myself to donate all the toys I came across while decluttering simply because I am an adult now, including ones that still held personal value to me. Pushing myself to get rid of all my old toys simply because I was getting older was a harsh way I went about transitioning into my teen years and early adulthood that I wish I had not done to myself in retrospect. 

I hadn’t gotten my autism diagnosis or learned as much as I know now about autism back when I started focusing this much on decluttering. Recently, when I was sorting through a box of old toys I found still sitting in a box in my basement, I found some of the toys made really good stims. I then realized the stimming aspect of some of the toys I had hesitated to get rid of before was probably what made me want to keep them. I wasn’t aware of the concept of stimming at the time, but I remember struggling to get rid of a certain drawer of toys years ago that was full of tops, bouncy balls, and other small objects. I would pick up some toys, like a slinky, and really like the way it felt and looked when playing around with it. However, not being aware of stimming at the time and how it can help with self-regulation, I told myself to throw the slinky away because it had sat in the drawer untouched for a long time. Even if I had started playing with it more, I thought it was a waste of time to just sit there playing around with a slinky back then. Now, I know that it probably would have been worth keeping some of those toys to use as stims. 

I also didn’t allow myself to keep toys for sentimental reasons at first when decluttering. When I went through that box I found in the basement, I was so happy to see some of my old toys again and glad they were still around. I didn’t have to play with them to keep them around, I realized. Some of my favorite figures I played with as a kid that were a character from a TV show or movie now just make nice decorations when placed on a shelf. In college, not long before finding the box, I had already started displaying new figures my friends gave me as gifts. Many of the young adults I know have figures from their favorite TV shows and movies decorating their dorms, spaces back home, or even in their offices at work. The older figures from the box that I decided to keep bring back joyful memories when I look at them. I wish some of the other toys I had donated had been in that box because now I miss having them either as a stim or for sentimental value. However, there were also plenty of toys in that box that I still donated after finding it. Those toys had originally been placed in the box years ago because I wanted to get rid of them, but I had done so prior to finding GreenDrop. The only reason those toys were still around was because I hadn’t had a place to donate them to at the time and then forgot about the box after moving it to the basement. Some of the toys in the box had been ones I had pushed myself too hard to get rid of and now decided to keep, while others I hadn’t changed my mind on donating years later. 

When I went through the box, I decided to take photos of some of the toys I no longer wanted physically around before donating them, in order to look at the photos later and spark childhood memories. I wish I had taken more photos of the items I donated the first time around. I had taken some photos years ago of the piles of bags and boxes of items we were donating, proud to have gotten so much decluttering done, but I rarely photographed individual items. I was in such a rush to declutter years ago, feeling overly motivated to the point I worked too quickly. 

I used to easily know at least what part of my room to look for a certain object in. When looking at one of my belongings before, I also usually remembered where I bought it or who gave it to me as a gift. Items didn’t come in and out of my room that often growing up, so even if I rearranged the room a bit, the changes were usually still easy to remember. However, there have been too many changes in the last two or three years. When I am struggling to find something I rarely use now, I forget sometimes whether I donated that item or simply misplaced it. By not taking my time while decluttering, it made it harder to remember the decisions I made on what to keep. Although, some of those quick changes also occurred for other reasons besides decluttering. For a while, I started adding a bunch of clothes to my closet when thrift shopping with friends while also donating other clothes I had outgrown during that same point in time. Even though I had focused my thrift shopping on clothes I needed, such as buying a bunch of dress shirts at once for my first full-time internship, I started to not feel as familiar with my own clothing due to all the large, sudden changes in my wardrobe that occurred during the last few years. 

The last reason I no longer feel as good about all the decluttering I accomplished is that I realized that simply getting rid of items is not enough on its own. When decluttering, I start to look more negatively at the space around me, as if everything there needs to prove its worth in order to stay. If those items don’t seem valuable at all and I get rid of everything, I am left with empty shelves and drawers. Having less cluttered furniture that is well organized is better than having drawers that are overstuffed with items to the point they barely open and close. However, having completely empty furniture feels worse than them being a cluttered mess. Up until the point they become empty, it also often feels like more items could be gotten rid of. I can do a large amount of decluttering and still feel like some of the items still sitting around my room do not need to stay there either. There are only a few items, like my phone or certain family photos, that I would never consider just getting rid of. 

I realized this year during the pandemic that no matter how organized and decluttered I make my house, the absence of things, when stuck at home, feels awful. In a time where we cannot explore the outside world as much safely and be exposed to as many new stimuli, I would rather have a cluttered space to spend time searching through than an empty piece of furniture. I’ve started to love the remaining clutter when I used to hate the house being cluttered. I no longer see the clutter as just objects in my way, but instead, as things that make my house distinctly my home. The fridge door might be so overcrowded with magnets that they easily fall off, but they hold up family photos and contain stories of how the magnets got there. There is something so familiar and personal about the sight of that fridge. I can say the same for other parts of the house. The clutter is symbolic of the lives and events that have filled the house over the years. I would still ideally like to make the house more organized, but also not get rid of everything that makes it ours either in the process. In a time where so many activities, people, and places that usually fill our lives are not safely accessible during the pandemic, the clutter is suddenly a welcomed sign of what still remains. 

After I started writing this piece, my family took all the magnets off the fridge to clean it and the then empty fridge door looked eerily barren. There were plenty of papers and magnets we took off the fridge door that we agreed could be gotten rid of, but looking at the blank fridge door, I felt a strong urge to at least put some of the magnets back as soon as we finished cleaning. Everyone else in the house soon started to also miss the magnets being on the fridge. Decluttering, cleaning, and organizing the magnets a bit before putting them back was definitely needed, but to have the fridge be completely empty after years of it being covered with magnets, papers, and family photos made it feel like we were packing up to move. It felt wrong to empty the space of everything but the appliances and furniture, even if that space started out too cluttered. 

While I have made peace with the remaining clutter, simply keeping things I no longer have a reason to keep usually only feels slightly better than being surrounded by an empty space. Decluttering is definitely still useful sometimes. However, I’ve realized that in order to really enjoy the space around me at home, it is important to not only declutter, but also add new things. Those items that I add shouldn’t be random, but instead, be things that make space better. This could mean buying something I need that is missing from the house currently or getting something that simply makes me happy to own. For example, I care a lot more about buying my first smart TV recently after wanting one for years than I do about sending yet another box of donations to GreenDrop. I often imagine other changes I would make to the house if I could financially afford to. For now, I just make the improvements that are possible at the moment of reality. Decluttering alone just leaves me with an empty house the more I keep doing it. To really make the house feel like home, I have to start filling it again with things that don’t feel like meaningless clutter. I’m not completely sure what I want to build into the space around me, but I know I want to stop focusing on simply taking things away. I used to think I would enjoy the house more if it was less cluttered, and after spending years trying to do so, I now know decluttering on its own is not enough.