One of the writers in my writing workshop invited me to give a speech to her English club (where people practice English so as to get better). I said sure because I loved telling my story at the live storytelling competition a month ago, and wanted to have another opportunity to practice this type of thing.

She told me the topic was “clutter.”

I could definitely talk about clutter, although more in a figurative sense. I wished I had written it early and been able to practice it enough to memorize it like I had the storytelling story. But school had ramped up and so it wasn’t until the morning before the discussion that I actually sat down and wrote it out. I read it aloud in a private room at the back of a Dante’s Coffee in Taipei. The full text – and the discussion of it within the YOYO Club – follows.

***

Have you ever seen the American reality TV show Hoarders? I’ve haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen pictures of some of the situations in hoarders’ houses, and I’ve watched American drama TV shows – like Bones – that have used hoarders as plot points.

Hoarders are people living among massive stacks of old books, old newspapers, old pizza take out boxes. Trash piled up. To us it’s trash. To hoarders, it’s life. Everything is either significant, or could be useful one day. So it’s kept, but never looked at critically. The hoarder never questions: is this thing actually necessary in my life? The hoarder holds onto things, despite crippling them socially (as in, they can’t invite anyone over to their house because there’s all this trash), and sometimes physically (if the boxes fall down).

That was the plot point in Bones. The boxes fell down and killed an old man and since he was a hoarder who didn’t really go out much anyway, it took a while for anyone to realize he had dead. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, most people are not hoarders to the extreme that we see in that TV show. I’d say most American families have a decent amount of clutter, but not a lot. Perhaps you’ve heard of a “junk drawer.” This is a drawer, maybe in the kitchen or some central location in an American household where there’s a drawer of stuff. Maybe batteries, magnets for the refrigerator, pens, pencils, scissors. Junk drawers are common. When a kid asks for something like a screwdriver, her parents might say: “check the junk drawer.”

I remember the junk drawer in my house. It was just like any other junk drawer I’d seen at friends’ houses. From what people could see when they came to our house, we did not have a lot of clutter. But what’s interesting is we did. You just couldn’t see it if you ever came over. We had a second house, where we’d frequently ship away boxes of things we didn’t want to keep out, but didn’t want to throw away.

We had a junk house.

My things were mostly old school papers and old clothes from sports teams I’d been a part of growing up. Hundreds of New Trier Swim Club t-shirts filled boxes lining my room in the junk house. My Dad had his old school papers; and books, newspapers, and magazines he would one day read. My Mom shipped off our old family photos, children’s clothes and toys, and some furniture.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but really our method of hoarding was a metaphor for the way my family dealt with interpersonal problems. We never really talked about how we felt. My parents fought a lot, but we never talked about it.

Like a pot of soup, the heat would come on. I would feel it – the tension between my Mom and Dad – building in the atmosphere of the house. It would break into a boil. Shouts echoed through the hallways. Slammed doors beat my heart into momentary arrhythmias. The food is cooked. The fight is over. And then, instead of digesting it – instead of talking about the fight when they were both calmer – they’d package it up in a box and shove it in the back of the freezer. That’s what I saw as a child: do not work through your emotions.

So this was how I learned to deal with emotions. Don’t deal with them. Don’t decide what to do, or how best to move forward. Ship the emotions away to the basement of your mind. Maybe you think you’re throwing them out when you don’t acknowledge them, but that is clearly not the case. Keep things down there until you cannot maneuver within your own mind. Until these thoughts topple and destroy your mental status like the boxes that can topple and crush a hoarder to death.

As a child, I did not really share my feelings, besides superficial things. I did not try to get to the bottom of my emotions. Obviously, children have a limited capacity for this, but seeing no appropriate ways to deal with my emotions, I adopted the observed behavior within my family. I kept all my feelings in my head. As a result, in elementary and middle school, I would often have irrational fits of crying.

I remember one moment when I was in math class and I started BAWLING because I had left my homework at home that morning. Things like this happened at school, at sports competitions, anywhere. I was wound very tight. I was anxious. The slightest nudge and those emotions, stacked in boxes in my brain, would come falling down in a rush of irrational reactions, an opportunity to let out all my feelings in a violent release.

Around my 3rd year of high school – in the U.S. we call it junior year – I began keeping a journal. I didn’t write in it every day, rather, whenever I felt something strong (usually a negative emotion, but sometimes a positive one), I would write it out. I would write it ALL out. I couldn’t talk to anyone – maybe I could, but I had just never learned how without feeling uncomfortable – so I would write it down in my journal. Almost like talking to myself.

That simple behavioral alteration changed my ENTIRE LIFE. I think, at that point, it was do or die. Not that I was going to kill myself, but that if I hadn’t adopted this journaling strategy, my mind would’ve seriously been crushed by my emotions. I saw a therapist in college, and when I described some of my experiences growing up, she said: “I am surprised you’re functional.” I take that to mean: many people, in similar situations, crumble under the stress. But I always had my pen and paper to try to keep my thoughts clear.

You see, when I write my emotions in my journal, I unpack the thoughts I’ve collected over the days. I take stock of the way I feel and why I feel it. I disregard the thoughts that I can see objectively as irrational and I work through my emotions that are unhealthy.

Several times in my life, I’ve experienced this debilitating anxiety. I wake up with a tight feeling in my chest. I walk around with that tightness all day. I find that I can’t eat without feeling sick, like I might throw up, like my stomach is full even though it’s screaming for food. I find that my brain flies from one thought to the next, unable to rest. I find that I can’t sleep because of all of these symptoms. When I finally get to sleep, it’s such a light sleep, that I wake up well before my alarm and the whole thing starts over again: tightness in my chest, insatiable hunger, restlessness. It’s crushing. It’s hard to live.

Recently, I was experiencing this. For one week, I walked around in this way, hoping it would go away on it’s own. But I realized, of course, it would not. I needed to do something, so I went to a little restaurant by my apartment and sat there for over TWO HOURS writing in my journal. I ate slowly, partly because I didn’t feel like eating, and partly because I had so much to write. I wrote down everything I thought might be related to my anxiety. I wrote it out and I tried to explain it all to myself.

I was lifting the boxes of thoughts cluttering up my mind. I was cleaning them out. Discarding things that were irrational, irrelevant, and getting to the main source of my problems. As I wrote more, the tightness in my chest relaxed. As I wrote more, my appetite came back. I left the restaurant feeling calmer than I had that entire week.

This strategy has gotten me through the most difficult periods of my life so far: generally, these are transitions. For me these have been my senior year (last year) of high school, freshman year (first year) of college, my cousin’s death, my parents’ divorce, my senior year of college, not knowing what I would do after I graduated. For you, maybe it could be getting a new job, moving to a new city, or the death of a loved one. These difficult transitions exist in all of our lives, and we need a way to sort out the clutter of our thoughts and emotions.

Our minds cannot be completely ordered, we will always experience moments of confusion or scatterbrain, and that’s okay. What’s wrong is to ignore our worried thoughts and emotions, like the boxes piled up in a cluttered basement, believing that they’ll just magically disappear. They won’t. You have to go through them. You have to sort them out or they’ll fall, crushing your mind to death.

***

I believe the thoughts could have been clearer. And perhaps the connections between literal and figurative clutter break down. If you think so, comment below!

I only recently got interested in true storytelling when I came to Taiwan and began listening to the podcast Risk!. It’s obviously similar to creative non-fiction, which I’ve been reading for a while (particularly in love with David Sedaris), but it feels a little more intimate, actually hearing the person’s voice as they describe a difficult part of their life.

What I love about personal narratives are their ability to connect people through shared struggles. I listen to a Risk! podcast and someone describes a situation or a feeling that is similar to something I’ve struggled with or continue to struggle with and it lessens my feelings of isolation surrounding that hardship.

I wasn’t expecting this to happen when I shared my story with the YOYO English club, but it did. After my speech, the English club members discussed in small groups and came up with comments and questions. In the first group to provide comments and questions to my speech, one woman stood up and shared her personal experience of being in a family with a negligent Dad. Her siblings never really acknowledged the problems with his behavior, but instead adopted destructive behaviors of their own in adulthood. This frustrates her, as now it’s difficult to have relationships with anyone in her family. We commiserated over the shared inability to keep psychologically destructive family members in our lives. This seems particularly difficult to deal with in Asia, where filial piety is such a huge part of the culture.

It was nice to think that maybe I helped this woman by sharing my story, by letting her know that there are others who are in a similar boat. Hearing her story helped me realize how incredibly lucky I am to have two amazing sisters that I can talk with about our family problems.

Share your stories y’all! You never know who you’ll help, but you will most certainly help yourself somehow in the process!

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