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Hoarding: One Woman’s Manifesto

How many of you watched “Hoarders” on A&E? Be honest! I bet most of you. I have. It’s like looking at a smooshed kitten on the side of the road—you can’t help stare at the horror even though you’d rather stab your eyes with toothpicks to keep from seeing it.

Thankfully the docuseries ended in 2013 so we’ve all been spared further heebie jeebies. Until the next equally disgusting reality show comes along. “Dating Naked” on VH1 looks promising. (Is “reality show looks promising” an oxymoron? Are you a moron for watching it? That’s on your conscience…mine is clear.)

Last year my husband lost his corporate drone job and we decided to downsize so we could lead a more frugal and “real” life—and so we could afford the occasional Americano from Zanzibar’s. We went from a 2,300 square-foot home to a 1,400 square-foot apartment. If you want to see an example of what the opposite of our “cottages” look like, take a read through Sharon Hughson’s recent blog post where she let her readers into the world of Portland’s Street of Dreams.

We had to get rid of a lot of stuff, including entire rooms and an entire floor (like a library, fourth bedroom and basement) most of which we’ve realized a year later we really didn’t need.

The point is, I do not hoard. I can get rid of useless, unnecessary crap with the best of them. With the exception of my one vice. My one obsession.

The reading list on my Safari browser.

It is enormous.

It is ridiculous.

It is out of control.

And I blame you, you Internet bastard.

Like most people, I have a bunch of blogs I read, authors I follow, websites I like, and I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest. Unfortunately, I follow, friend or circle some kickass, generous people who share good shit.

On any given day, I can easily add ten to fifteen tidbits of I-can’t-live-without-you knowledge to my reading list. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider I’ve been active online only since late February, that’s about…

180 days X 10 items added per day = who the hell am I kidding

I know this isn’t any huge revelation, in and of itself—I’m a writer and writers like to read. We all have gazillions of books in our TBR (to be read) piles.

But my obsession goes beyond my physical TBR pile and Safari reading list.

It’s Safari bookmarks too.

I have an odd system for which pieces of info I put where:

  1. Reading list items are entertaining, quick hits that I’ll eventually delete once I’ve read them. Kind of like articles in People magazine, but much higher quality, of course.
  2. Bookmarks are more like reference material in the Smithsonian or Chicago Public Library (which was named the nation’s best urban public library system in a recent German university study): tomes that will enrich my life and that I’ll go back to time and again.

But then somewhere along the way it got all mixed up and I just started shoving links any old place that sounded good at the moment.

Why, if it’s so easy for me to let go of tangible objects, do I feel compelled to keep all these digital tchotchkes?

Because I’m afraid I’ll miss out on a critical piece of information.

I have this feeling that if I just read one more blog post or website article about what it takes to be a better blogger, author, wife, mother, etc. then I’ll unlock the magical key to perfection and easy street.

But what I’m finding is I rarely go back to read what I’ve saved and, most importantly, put it to use.

I’m like a squirrel collecting nuts in the fall.

At least those little bastards go back to their stashes and actually use them.

squirrel with nut

This guy knows a good thing when he finds it.
Photo Credit: Pieter v Marion via Compfight cc

All this information hoarding is making me anxious—like that squirrel would be if he knew he had to cross six lanes of traffic to get his booty home.

It also makes me feel like a failure. I have all these digital delicacies just waiting to be scarfed up and then purged into a suitable receptacle (otherwise known as my brain) and I’m not doing jack with them. And you know what they say: A brain is a horrible thing to waste. Unless you’re eating it. Not like Hannibal Lecter. More like the French.

My one consolation is that at least my hoarding doesn’t involve turning my house into a giant litter box or making it smell like Uncle Ted died in his BarcaLounger thirty years ago and nobody took him out.

So today I’m making the case that the Internet must stop creating content.

Just stop it.

You’re like a frickin rabbit. Or a trillion of them.

There is already so much that even if the average person read a gazillion blog posts, articles, etc. per day for her entire life, she’d never get through it all. That’s a statistical fact…kind of. Just look at this sweet infographic and you’ll see I’m not exaggerating.

Much.

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“The View From Here” Guest Post: On the Brinks

Today I’m guest posting over at Jennifer Hall’s blog Dancing in the Rain, for her The View From Here Guest Series.  I’m so grateful to Jennifer for this opportunity to join the ranks of some fabulous writers/bloggers. Jennifer’s series is in the spirit of the Charles de Lint quote she displays on her page:

Don’t forget—no one else sees the world you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.

The story I tell is about the stuff that’s in our Brinks lockbox, the loss of my grandmother and how a life change made me realize the importance of not letting those people important to me “slip through my fingers like water poured from a cold glass on a nightstand.” 

Jennifer’s series is coming up on its first anniversary in a couple of months, and I for one hope she continues it beyond then. Even if she doesn’t, Jennifer’s work is worth a read (or three or twenty or a hundred) itself…don’t miss it!

Please take a read through my post, and pop back on over here and let me hear from you.

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Suicide is a Homonym

Not long ago I found out a man I used to work with was diagnosed with ALS. In my day job, I help employees who have disabilities and need a leave of absence or help performing their jobs because of those disabilities. Naturally he called me.

He was the exact opposite of how I’d be if I just found out I had a protracted, terminal illness: calm, plan-full, laughing, resigned. Although, he did tell me a secret: “I have a wife and daughters, and I have to be strong for them. But when I’m in the shower, that’s when the tears come. I do my best crying in the shower.”

We talked about the company’s different leave of absence programs, medical plans, life insurance, and short- and long-term disability benefits. He told me he hoped he would realize when he was no longer able to work and “bring value.”

“I don’t want someone to have to force me to leave.”

Of course, I wondered what would I do if I were him. And the answer came to me without hesitation, like an eager understudy waiting in the wings.

I would commit suicide.

Not right away.

Not while I was still relatively healthy.

Not while I could still take care of myself.

But right before I felt like I was becoming a burden on my family.

Just before I felt like I didn’t have control over my life anymore.

I knew this because of the man I’d watched die a few years before.

A documentary called “The Suicide Tourist” featured that man. His name was Craig Ewert, and he had ALS. When I say I watched this man die, that’s exactly what I mean. He traveled to a clinic in Switzerland called Dignitas, and with his wife by his side, he drank a lethal cocktail of drugs followed by a chaser of apple juice. A few minutes later, he died.

John Zaritsky, the Canadian director, received a lot of flack for showing the actual moment of Ewert’s death. But he had a good reason to do so: “It would be less than honest if we were to make a film about the process and not actually be able to see the ‘hole in the hat’ as it were,” he said. “We would be left open to charges that the death was unpleasant, cruel or wasn’t even done willingly. People can judge for themselves.”

And I did.

Watching Ewert’s life end, seeing the exact moment he stopped living, was scary and intimate and heartbreaking. But it also seemed…right.

It made me think of my grandmother who had died of lung cancer more than twenty years before. When my parents cleaned out her dresser after she died, they found bottles of morphine in the bottom drawer. At the time I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine the amount of suffering she had been going through (or anticipating) that she would resort to taking her life.

But when I talked with my former co-worker that day in June, it all made sense.

Then Robin Williams happened.

And I realized “suicide” is a homonym.

People’s opinions of and feelings about suicide appear proportional to the person who took his or her life: a child or teen, an adult with mental illness or an adult with a terminal medical illness. It seems like most agree on the below:

1- Most human death is sad to someone, and those left behind experience varying levels of grief for hundreds of different reasons specific to each person’s life experience.
2- Teen suicide is probably the most tragic and the one that tends to stir up similar emotions in people. If you’re older than eighteen and still alive, then you’ve been a teenager and you know what that experience is like. What’s so agonizing about teen suicide is that they haven’t lived long enough to know from experience that things do get better, even if it’s just a minuscule amount. Like maybe they’re able to make it down one hall at school without getting called a name, or pushed or shoved, or they’re able to hang out on social media for one afternoon without being harassed, or maybe they learned one effective coping skill.

After those two premises and specifically as it applies to adults, suicides are not equal. There is a huge discrepancy in how people react even though the types of adult suicide have more in common than most people will admit:

People develop a condition and seek treatment.
Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it’s not.
When it’s not, people suffer.
When their suffering reaches a level they can no longer bear, they do what they need to to end their suffering, either actively or passively.

But what’s most striking about adult suicide is the way people respond to the underlying factors that drive people to it.

In the days and weeks after Robin Williams’ death, there were thousands of people talking about mental illness and how important it is to ask for help, to seek treatment, to fight the dark demons that call you to take your life. Suicide hotline numbers were everywhere. People came forward and admitted how close they had come to becoming another statistic.

This happens every time someone well-known takes his or her life.

But where is everyone when your neighbor or your co-worker or your brother or your husband take their lives?

Where are the 5k runs, ice bucket challenges, Lollapalooza-sized concerts and colored ribbons before people kill themselves, while they’re suffering and struggling to get better?

It seems most of us can get our heads around people who have cancer or ALS wanting to end their life before their suffering is too much to bear. So why don’t we feel the same way about those with mental illness?

Let’s be honest. We’re furious with people with mental illness who’ve committed suicide because we think they were weak and didn’t fight hard enough, or they were cowards and took the easy way out, or they were selfish and didn’t consider those they left behind.

Would you say the same thing, aloud or in your head, about the cancer patient or the one with ALS?

Of course not.

And don’t you dare think that people with mental illness don’t know that.

People with terminal medical illnesses have options regarding ending their lives:

  • They can talk to family members and friends about their wishes and plans (even if it’s just declining further treatment).
  • They can address that elusive “why,” although it’s rarely necessary.
  • They can prepare their family members and friends for the inevitable even if the inevitable comes sooner than anyone had anticipated or wanted.
  • They can orchestrate their funerals and life celebrations.
  • They can make financial arrangements for their family.
  • They can check things off their bucket list as rapidly as they want without the worry of setting off alarms.
  • If they live in or travel to certain states or countries, they can have medical professionals help them to make sure everything is handled in a controlled environment.
  • They can surround themselves with their loved ones when they leave this world.

How many of those options exist for a person with mental illness intent on ending her life?

You can argue that people with mental illness aren’t in any state to make rational decisions, to think about the fathomless depth of the consequences of their actions. Katie Paul succinctly sums up many of those consequences in her raw post “10 Things You Should Know Before You Kill Yourself.”

But in the end, their level of rationality doesn’t matter because the world does not exist where they could talk about their desire to end their life. They don’t dare.

And if they do, what do they get for their honesty?

In many places, it’s a 72-hour hold in a psychiatric facility. With other people telling them what their options are. What they can and cannot do. Coercing them into treatments when in their bones they know the only “treatment” that will end their suffering is one they have to administer themselves.

With no one around them.

With no help.

With no ability to plan for all the contingencies or to ready their loved ones for the inevitable.

Without being able to say goodbye in a meaningful way or at all.

I think about Craig Ewert who left the living world surrounded by people who loved him and supported his choice to end his life when he felt it was the right time, even though they were crushed that they would soon be without him.

And then I think about Robin Williams.

Alone.

And I have to ask: Who are we to quantify a person’s suffering?

Can we really say that a person with a mental illness who wakes up every day and only sees more hours, days, months and years of agony is suffering less than a person with cancer who knows she has two months to live?

Really?

When we talk about people who are dying from a terminal medical illness, we talk about their quality of life. We understand and often even advocate for their right to say, “I’ve had enough.”

But when the conversation turns to people with mental illness, we talk about the quantity of their life, about keeping them alive for as long as possible because it’s the “best thing.”

For who?

Maybe if a world existed where people with terminal illnesses of any kind, including those of the psychological variety, were looked at in the same way it would be different. Yes, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act has been around since 2008, but we still live in a society where if you can’t see a person’s illness then she must be faking it.

I cannot tell you the number of times in my job employees and supervisors have said to me, “She doesn’t look sick.” Is it any wonder with that type of attitude people remain silent? Until that thinking is annihilated, thousands of people with mental illness will continue to turn to palliative measures like illegal drugs, alcohol or suicide.

I know the medical community in general doesn’t consider mental illness a terminal illness, but that’s nothing short of negligence and denial. Look at the numbers. More than ninety percent of people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with mental illness.  And the number of people with a terminal or chronic illness who are diagnosed with mental illness is also high, anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-seven percent.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t offer help to those who want it.

We should.

But we need to listen to what kind of help the person wants. Even if that “help” means ending their life.

And why don’t we do that for people with mental illness? It’s because of the suffering we’ll feel when they’re gone, because of the fear we have imagining life without them, because we don’t feel strong enough to carry on.

Sound familiar?

But nobody thinks or says that the left-behind are cowards, selfish or weak.

This is the post I’ve been referring to in my last two “Over Coffee” posts (here and here). This is the one I’ve been scared to write, the one I’ve been avoiding writing because I’ve been imagining the reaction people might have.

I know it will anger some people. I know some will say I’m advocating suicide, that I’m being irresponsible for suggesting that it’s okay for people with mental illness to take their lives. I know people will say that if I lost someone to suicide I’d feel different. I might. I don’t think there is anyone who can say with a hundred percent certainty how they’d react to a specific situation if they hadn’t yet faced it.

I also knew that no matter how I prefaced this post, how much I tried to clarify what I meant or to explain my rationale, I wouldn’t be able to get it right for everyone. And I’m at peace with that.

Because some things are worth saying. And this is one of those

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UPDATE: To Friend or Not To Friend

Don’t you hate it when you get sucked into a juicy story and for whatever reason you don’t get to finish it? It might be a movie, an “accidental” eavesdropped conversation or an article in your dentist’s waiting room. You’re left thinking, I wonder what happened?

Well, never fear. I won’t do that to you. This post is an update to one I wrote a few posts ago about the “problematic” Facebook friend request I received.

I asked for advice on how to handle it and got one of three responses from everyone who commented:

  1. Don’t accept it; you don’t need that kind of friend.
  2. Accept it, but keep your guard up and un-friend if necessary.
  3. Do what you want, but know that the person probably has a different memory of that time.

And the winner was…none of the above. At least initially.

A day or two after my post went up, the friend request came down (or I was technologically inept enough that I couldn’t find it anymore).

I’ll admit I breathed a (cowardly) sigh of relief. I hate loose ends, and I thought this end was tied off as tight as the suture knot Kelli Landers uses when de-nutting stray cats in Tawna Fenske’s Fiancée for Hire. (Hot, hilarious book by the way, “fuzz nuggets” included!)

In my senior year of high school when my friend told me god and her were homies, and I couldn’t have her without him, I took it for what I thought it was—the big belief brush-off.

So I couldn’t imagine why she’d casually toss a friend request over the wireless wall at me, and loosen that knot in the process.

When her friend request disappeared, I was glad I didn’t have to decide what to do. But I was also stumped—I couldn’t understand what brought her back around to my block after all that time.

Like I said in my first post about this conundrum, while I don’t overtly advertise my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) online, people could figure it out by reading through a blog post or two. Everything I put online is public. She could have seen that nothing had changed with me, spiritually speaking, which also appeared to be the case for her from what I could glean from her Facebook page.

What could she possibly think we’d have in common after all that…yucky stuff?

Apparently a lot more than me. And, as I found out, for a very good reason.

A day or two after the friend request disappeared I found a message in that mysterious “Other” file in my Facebook messages folder. I had just read another author’s Facebook post about checking that folder occasionally and what a creepy experience it can be. I was in the mood for a bit of creepy so I checked.

And there sat a message from my high school friend.

It wasn’t creepy.

It wasn’t what I expected.

And that, my friends, ended up being the most wonderful thing of all.

I hate to be wrong. Ask my husband.

What I found from reading my friend’s message is that neither she nor I were right…we simply had different memories of that time.

First of all, she said she’d read my blog post, and felt totally surprised and horrible. Her memories of our friendship involved lots of laughing and fun, and almost nothing to do with her church. She barely remembered me coming there and thought it was only for a short time. She didn’t remember me leaving the church abruptly or why, and she didn’t remember cutting off our friendship.

She thought we just drifted apart after high school when she moved away for college and I went to Australia, and she was sad about that.

Her timeline was even different from mine—she remembered us continuing to be friends after I stopped attending her church. All my recollections of our friendship came before that.

She apologized for anything she may have said back then that gave the impression we couldn’t be friends.

I told her it appeared we had two different experiences of our senior-year friendship, which of course we would—we’re two different people who looked back at the world through two different pairs of eighteen-year-old eyes.

I told her I had an idea of how she might be feeling, being suckered punched by my singular walk down memory lane. I told her that I had a co-worker/friend who sprung something similar on me a few months ago.

“Diane” told me about a comment I’d made to her when we first worked together ten years earlier that had crushed her. I told my high school friend that like her, I had no recollection of that comment, and I felt horrible that what I’d said had affected “Diane” in that way—and that she’d carried it around all those years.

“Diane” and I often had lunch together, we’d hang out at each others’ houses and our kids played together. And to think “Diane” had this awful memory of me in the back of her mind…

Ugh.

I told my high school friend I thought “Diane” was incredibly brave for telling me. Granted “Diane” didn’t write a blog post about it, so the mortification factor was kept between the two of us…

It was through the retelling of that lunch with “Diane,” that reminder of how horrible we can feel when we have no realization that we did anything to feel horrible about, that made me toss a friend request back over the wireless wall to my high school friend.

She accepted.

And I accepted that even with a rift as wide and ragged as the one I perceived between us, we could put our differences, and our different memories, aside and be friends. Again.

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So, what about you? Can you think of any of your relationships that were built or broken by a difference of perspective? What would you have done if you were me, now that you know the rest of the story? Do you agree with the Marcus Aurelius quote? Or have you had an experience where you’d argue that there most certainly was a “truth”?

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