It’s midnight and my husband is snoring next to me. I, on the other hand, am wide awake. It’s 19 hours since we touched down at Heathrow from our honeymoon and I’ve just woken up from six hours sleep. I tried my best to stay awake to beat the jet lag. I really did. I think it’s safe to say, I have failed miserably. I lie quietly with my eyes shut, quickly become bored, check Instagram with my phone on minimum brightness under my pillow (a trick used countless times before) and then, after ten minutes, the inevitable happens. I get up. After all, there’s something I’m desperate to do.
I slip downstairs to the kitchen and open the pantry. It takes me about forty minutes to remove everything past its sell by date, 2015 is the oldest culprit. Not too bad, all things considered, I think, with a wry smile. Where it’s a tin or bottle or something recyclable I empty the contents before washing the receptacle and placing it in the recycling. I’ve never done anything like this before. I fleetingly think I might be mad. I resolve it’s more likely that I’m turning into my father whom I’ve seen do this countless times. I don’t know what has come over me but I do know with complete certainty, as I embark on the fridge, that I am on a roll. By the time I open the freezer door, I don’t recognise myself.
The urge to declutter, to take inventory and refine, has gripped me since half way through my honeymoon.
I don’t stop there. Next are the bathroom cupboards. A quick appraisal tells me I have (amongst many, many things and in no particular order) thirteen body moisturisers (all bar one open), six deodorants, a chasm of lip glosses (including a Juicy Tube or two I estimate date back to 2002) and what seems like tripple figures’ worth of various make up samples. The samples and lip glosses go in the bin. As for the moisturiser and deodorants, I give them a shake and find the ones with the least in to use up first. The remainder of my cabinet is ruthlessly sorted. A full bin’s worth goes.
The urge to declutter, to take inventory and refine, has gripped me since half way through my honeymoon. Not because I was on some oddly tediously, boring, dull honeymoon. I really wasn’t, it was amazing (I am not protesting too much, I assure you) but rather because of the seemingly innocuous incident of losing my travel scarf. It was lost for the simple reason that I had too much with me and I didn’t notice I’d left the bag that it was in behind at the hotel. I called the hotel three times but no-one ever got back to me. I was careless and I paid the price. I berated myself for days, both silently and to my husband. If I had had less with me then I wouldn’t have lost it, I bemoaned. I had too much stuff. At no point did my husband disagree.
I also started racking up a mental checklist as I remembered the discoloured sports bra that at one point had been yellow, a T-shirt (nay two) with holes in, the clothes that I wore on my travels in 2005 and the slogan hoodie (the brand of which is very much aimed at the university’s students rather than its (ahem) slightly older alumni). Suddenly it became absolutely imperative that I rid myself of these things. For a fleeting moment I wanted to board a plane and start straight away. Patience never has been my strong point. In lieu of that I went to the hairdressers and had six inches cut off my hair. I had to start somewhere.
Back in the bathroom, I stop. I have mad hair, perspiration down my back. Thank goodness for the six deodorants I say to myself, applauding my foresight. It’s still dark outside. It’s not yet six o’clock in the morning.
I am surrounded by bags of rubbish, charity shop donations and an eBay pile. I’ve done well. However, revelling in the success of my efforts is short lived. Far stronger emotions take hold of me. Shame. And then confusion.
There is So. Much. Stuff. A lot of it not even used and still bearing its tag or plastic wrapper. It’s untouched. All these things I’ve worked hard to earn money to buy. I work out that I’ve had to work a whole Monday morning for one particular skirt. I pick it up three years after its original purchase. I remember I was desperate to have it. Why was I? It had done nothing since its arrival but take up space in my wardrobe and diminish my bank balance. My mind starts to spiral. Theoretically I could reclaim whole days of my life. I could work a four day week if I just quit buying things I don’t need, don’t use and let’s face it, in some instances, I don’t even like.
Case in point, the skirt. It’s silver, floor length, and floral in a thick satin material with netting underneath. I’ve never worn it. Surely not? I say to myself in my most sarcastic, internal voice. What occasion did I ever think I would have to merit its wearing? Let’s overlook the fact it’s also two sizes too small.
Dressing for work, I need to go to an important meeting that merits a suit. I dress in my only 13(!) year old suit and realise that maybe a new suit would have been preferable to something so frivolous, or a pair of black court shoes which, as I scramble around looking for them, I realise I don’t even own.
The contents of my wardrobe, upon closer scrutiny, appear to be the inverse of the type of clothes I need. I calculate that 35% of my life (and 51% of the time I am awake) is spent either commuting or at work. I’m lucky if my wardrobe is 10% work clothes. A good half of it is party dresses. I doubt I go to a party once a month.
I baulk at all this accumulation of things I thought would make me happy. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds’ worth.
I comfort myself with the fact that at least the skirt wasn’t full price when I bought it. It’s short lived. It wasn’t cheap and years later still unworn. This isn’t a one off and in all honesty it’s pretty bloody depressing.
It hits me. All I have done is simply acquire.
I baulk at all this accumulation of things I thought would make me happy. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds’ worth. All these things; the expensive moisturiser, the glittery, bow-adorned shoes and the countless dresses, to name only a few. I bought them all with the same things in mind:
That’s what I need to help complete my life.
That’s what I need to make my life better.
If I just had this one thing more it would make me happy.
Here’s a cold hard fact. No one on this earth could touch my legs and tell which one had been slathered in a £4 and which one in £24 body moisturiser.
There are so many things I bought because I think that the person I’d like to be wears them.
It’s clear I’m not that person.
I have a corporate job, a three hour round-trip commute including a 2.5 mile walk and a dog. Real me does not need yet another pair of glittery four inch heels. Real me could do with a pair of smart, water resistant trainers with a sturdy base.
In the two weeks that follow, I become exhausted. There is simply too much. The initial energy that I had has waned and despite re-reading Marie Kondo’s The Magic Art of Tidying Up, which urges me to complete the clean in one fell swoop, I can’t. Instead I am in limbo. There are things without homes. Clothes that I can neither bring myself to get rid of or to keep. All these things bought to make me happy are perversely having the reverse effect and I find myself dwelling on it. It weighs me down. I shut them into the spare room. Out of sight, out of mind.
It has taken me 35 years to register that consistently buying things I don’t need or really want will not bring me happiness.
A few days later, my wedding photographs arrive. I start think about my happiest memories: my wedding day, coastal hikes in Cornwall, caravan holidays in the Cotswolds as a child, a movie after a post-run lunch. My husband, family and friends. My dog.
None of them feature an expensive moisturiser or a silver skirt.
It has taken me 35 years to really register and act on the simple, fundamental truth that consistently buying things I don’t need or really want will not bring me happiness. This is an age of consumerism and I have fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I really have to give it to the marketers. They’ve done an exemplary job. There’s all this stuff I apparently need and I can shop for it anywhere, everywhere and at any time; at home, on my commute, at my desk, out and about, whether it’s three in the afternoon or three in the morning.
Over a decade ago I lived out a backpack for three months so I know I don’t need a lot; in the years that followed I have drifted to the point where I associate purchasing with happiness. This is not who I want to be.
I have a friend who talks about seasons of life and the stages of life being like the chapters of a book. The overwhelming feeling I have whilst surveying the Room of Doom which houses everything I can’t bear to deal with is that there is a part of me clinging to the person that I was half a lifetime ago. I am no longer that person and, more importantly, I don’t need to be. I finish decluttering with a fervency. In the end, my wardrobe, kitchen, bathroom, the Room of Doom, indeed the entire house, is streamlined. I resolve to allow myself to buy one item a month. This month I chose a suit. The decluttering has not only been of my home but of my mind and I hope more than anything that it will bring new experiences and opportunities in this new chapter. And it will. After all, I’ve made room.