The Space Within Me

From clutter to clarity as the child of a hoarder

(deep inhale) Ah, space. Clean space, quiet space, my space, cozy place, more space, this place. A mother’s dream: after bed silent space, the kind of “everything has its place” space. Creating space, finding space, changing space. All so powerful.

A week or so ago, I started to write a personal piece about growing up in a hoarder’s home, but somehow the chaos of the physical space of my childhood transcended time into the present and I lost my clarity and got all jumbled up. So, I took space and I started again but this time in a quiet dark room (minus the bright laptop screen) with all the dishes done, all the toys and medical equipment put away, all the laundry sorted and folded and with absolutely no pressure to write… just an invitation for myself to breathe, to pay attention to my breath as I type, and to write about my appreciation of space.

Yes — I am addicted to space. Not to “head-up-to the sky” planetary obsession kind of space (I can’t even name all the planets) but to uncluttered anything and everything. If it’s uncluttered — I feel it, if it’s uncluttered — I dig it. Clean space (clear space) gives me a high and getting there gives me a huge adrenaline rush. Whether it’s a pile of papers, digital clutter, dirty dishes, or mental confusion there is nothing like the other side — the wide-open plains of space and time. You can see it sometimes in a painting or a photograph — that combination of freedom and organization. Success. Space feels like success. The act of creating space, creating more space out of a little space, is so very powerful. It’s the same as creating time, like purposefully avoiding going on facebook for X amount of time knowing that you are literally pulling more time from the available time machine that you otherwise would have used up. The same goes with space. And rearranging?! OMG! Yes! Change is possible. For all the things in life we can’t change, just move that couch around one more time!

So… as you can tell… I’m pretty obsessed with attempting to control my physical surroundings. But that is starting to get challenging as our toddler with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) requires more and more equipment. We live in an 850 sq foot mobile home which from a global perspective gives us a lot of space but from a North American perspective we’re living in a tiny home. At any given time our living room is a rotating circus of various wheeled devices: a standing frame; an indoor hydraulic lift seating system; a motorized scooter, an IV pole; and — I wish — a laundry hamper on wheels (I don’t have that yet but think I’ll get one).

One of many wheeled devices in our house — this is our daughter’s standing frame.

We are just a family of three but when you have a child with complex medical needs you start to accumulate a lot of medical equipment. Our daughter is also fully tube fed (via g-tube to her stomach) and has difficulty managing her oral secretions and so our bathroom storage shelves and under the beds in the house are packed with boxes of different size syringes, feeding bags, suction machine canisters, suction toothbrushes, tube feeding extension sets, and so on. It’s a fine balance between having lots of extra back up supplies (since we live in a city in northern Canada where these items are not readily available at the pharmacy and have to be shipped up) and not having too much. My husband can attest to the fact that one of my favourite games is real life Tetris (yes, the game from the 90's). I regularly unstack and restack the various storage areas of our house for the purpose of creating that much more space (even if just a little). I also maintain a pretty strict system of input vs. output because I’ve seen what happens when you lose control and I am terrified of ever having to experience that again.

You see, I grew up in a house of piles and pathways. A house where I have only one memory of ever eating at the dining room table (it was pancakes and they were good — thanks Mom); a house where the kitchen was piled with different streams of recycling — soft plastic, hard plastic, chip bags, etc.; a house without a garbage can (because my mom — to this day — still believes everything can be recycled); a house where banana peels got neurotically chopped into the tiniest of pieces; a house where you had to turn on the TV with a long stick because there was a mountain of stuff between the couch and the TV; a house where a plastic Christmas tree remained up for 10+ years with the same strand of dusty (moldy?) popcorn around it because it was too far back in the buried piled of stuff (ie. too far from the main pathway for anyone to reach it to take it down); a house where so much dust lay thickly upon everything that I have no clue how my parents are still alive and well(ish) while breathing in the air in their house; a house where my deceased grandmother’s dresses stayed hanging on the back of the bathroom door for at least a decade; a house where the word avalanche has a meaning; a house where items can be lost, resurface, and get lost again ; a house where mental and emotional clutter/avoidance became physically manifested as a mess. Yet, despite this, this house was still a place where I was fortunate to be raised with safety, love, and many happy memories (though most of the happy memories were doing things as a family outside of the house).

Growing up in a hoarder’s house gave me a complex relationship with what space means to me. I used to feel so powerless because I couldn’t control it. I remember on several occasions trying to clear stuff out when my Mom wasn’t home, only for her to have a total panic attack and empty out the garbage bags of stuff back into place. I didn’t understand then what I understand now: that my mother’s hoarding is a mental illness, likely a combination of obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety, though she has refused to seek treatment for it. My father as well has some very complex mental/emotional issues going on and has also never actively sought treatment for it of his own will (as far as I know). I’m not angry at them for living the way they do. I just wish they could have given themselves, and one another, more space. My theory that I’ve been massaging since I was a child, with plenty of time to reflect on the mess and their unpredictable emotional states (ie. their frequent verbal fights), is that they have each been carrying so much unsorted mental/emotional baggage from their past — from long before I was even born — and that invisible baggage eventually started to become expressed as piles around them. Maybe they felt trapped by life and started to trap themselves into their lives even more as a strange reaction to the feeling of entrapment. I feel compassion for them and have wished I could just pluck them out of their home and place them each in a different place, either together or separate, but at least anywhere with more space. Of course if and when their health declines as they continue to age (they are presently in their mid-70’s), then I may very well have to deal with relocating them, but for now (and for how it’s always been) that is their home and they are very much apart of it. Similar to an organism that has evolved to adapt to its niche environment my parents have spent so many decades in their home habitat that relocating them might be more detrimental to their physical health than keeping them in place.

So, what did I do to escape the wormhole of clutter? First, I daydreamed. I used to collect the Ikea store catalogues (it was my favourite store to visit) and I would imagine how I would decorate and furnish my room and other rooms in our house. Then, as I got older, I took more active approaches to putting clarity into my surroundings. I found space. I created space. I took my first summer job in Northern Ontario (Canada) with the Ontario Rangers Program which then lead me to start tree-planting in the summers in university because that was a place of space — no walls, just trees, and a lot of bugs… but at least no piles of stuff. But soon university and the life I was living started to make me feel claustrophobic and I felt like I needed more space — mental and physical space. So, then I dropped out of university and hitchhiked to British Columbia on the west coast of Canada. I learned to live out of a backpack and to make my home a tent or a park or a rooftop. I learned that I didn’t need so much stuff. In fact, I became kind of “anti-stuff” for a while and “anti-money”… going to Rainbow Gatherings and trading my tin penny-whistles for chocolate in a kind of barter economy that focused on a simpler way of life. Basically, I was kind of like that Alexander Supertramp character from Into the Wild.

Living out of a backpack (photo from 2006).

But as much as I was trying to create space in my outside world, I was having a hard time finding that place within me, that place of peace and stability and clarity. The place that feels like home inside oneself. I didn’t have that so I kept experimenting with space and place on the outside: I tried healthy things like dancing because in dancing you can really claim space and play with it. I would go out dancing several times a week and it helped to clear my mind. But I also jumped through frequent odd jobs. I kept moving houses. I kept changing my mind. I kept rearranging my life. I was internally rearranging, moving my internal clutter around but not effectively managing the input and output and it was getting too cluttered, just like the house I grew up in.

But then I discovered something that changed my life — meditation — particularly Vipassana Meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka which has been a very useful tool for me and one I hope to always keep as a part of my life. I did my first meditation course in 2008 but didn’t really start taking it seriously until 2012. Since then, it has helped me to find and nurture a space within me that is calm and collected and it has given me the strength to weather both the internal and external storms that life brings. I’ve also noticed a very interesting observation which is that when I don’t meditate for a while (say I skip a few days without taking the time to “sit”) then I overcompensate for the internal cleaning by starting to neurotically over-clean everything else around me.

Before our daughter was born we used to have a meditation room in our house. This room is now the spare room where we switch off sleeping each night and store extra medical supplies.

So, it’s a fine balance, and I wonder if maybe the space within us is not so separate from the space outside of us? Perhaps, if we let the one pile up maybe it can cause the other to pile up as well. That’s why I’m personally determined to keep them both clear because the way I see it is that space is an invitation. It’s an invitation that we can extend to ourselves and to others. Be it within our homes, our relationships, or even in our words and decisions. Taking space and taking time can be looked down upon in our fast-paced world, but when you look closely some of the best outcomes can come from making space. How many arguments have been solved by giving things some space? How many safe conversations have occurred because someone made space to truly listen to what someone else had to say? How many answers have been found by just contemplating space, by just going for a walk in a wide open place?

A simple invitation to take space and time (photo taken in Atlin, BC, CANADA)

I’ll leave you with a favorite memory of mine, of a perfect space:

Sixty strangers sat together in the meditation hall, in silence. Rain drops pitter-pattered steadily on the roof. Each person to their own cushion, each to their own mat. Everyone spaced apart, but breathing together. I sat calmly and strongly, aware of my breath and the sensations on my body. I was about to launch into the unknown. I was a new mother with a four-month-old baby inside me. I had no idea that five months later that beautiful baby would incur profound damage to her brain due to an emergency during her birth and our lives would be forever changed. I wasn’t thinking about the future then, not in that moment, and I’m not thinking about the future now either. Because right now I’m back in that place. I’m back in the pitter-patter peacefulness of everyone in that room cleaning…cleaning their own minds, doing the hard work, falling off track and getting back up again, breath after breath, drop after drop.

*** Thank you for taking the time to read about my appreciation for space.

For more information in HIE (hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy), you can check out Hope for HIE.

For more information about Vipassana Meditation, you can check out dhamma.org.

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