The surprising cause of both asthma and compulsive hoarding.

11:59pm Wednesday 9 May 2012 Nunhead Heights

My dead mother, Harriet G Schaffer, once had a Letter to the Editor published in the august New York Times entitled “In Praise of Clutter”. The one letter is probably the sole public documentation of my mother’s life except for maybe references in the Brooklyn Eagle when she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brooklyn College or married my father.

I was thinking of her while watching the bravely presented TV program: BBC One’s – Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. 

I don’t think my mother was a hoarder – well, not like the three people on the program. She didn’t save unused food or its packaging. She didn’t keep old newspapers. You could walk in her house. But then again, she did have a two-car garage, an attic, two extra bedrooms when my sister and I moved out, and a finished basement. She still had room for stuff.

But she did save hats, and scarves, and books and old Vogues and Ladies Home Journal. If she hadn’t been ripped out of her home by divorce when she was 66 – yes, 66-years-old – it could have ended very, very cluttered.

When my mother was moving we found in the basement a show poster signed by movie star/comic/actress Divine. That was before everyone and their mother was a dog-poo-eating drag queen starring in John Waters’ movies.

This was like 20 years ago and even then I thought the poster had some monetary value. We were offered a few dollars for it at the house sale. I think I asked for five or ten dollars. The potential buyer wouldn’t go for it and it wound up getting left behind. She didn’t take it and neither did I. The new family in the house probably thought it was rubbish and tossed it out.

I’m a hoarder, too, but I don’t have physical stuff – at least not that much stuff.  Not that I would know. I have stuff in my brain. 

I spend all day thinking. Thinking about the destruction of Southwark Forest in Nunhead, about parking restrictions killing off small shops; I think about the twelve years of Federal Income tax and six years of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs I need to file. I obsess about ways to promote my shows at the Source Below but do the barest minimum; of getting new venues to do my road show; of making my radio show amazing and letting everyone know it; of writing brilliant blog posts – well crafted gems and not pieces like this, tossed off in an hour. And in the end, I do precious little. 

John Fleming, my personal blogger, once said that “rubbish freed is better than genius hoarded.”  Well, I have hoarded my talent  in the same way others have hoarded broken flower pots and stained tea towels.

The compulsive hoarder is someone who feels they don’t have enough and can’t risk giving any of it away. They need their possessions just-in-case. That is my theory. It’s like people with asthma: afraid to breathe out for fear they won’t be able to breathe in. That is also my theory.

There was a year when I really struggled to breath – when I was 23 – and I would be gasping. It my first time away from home or university and on my own. That reason sounds reasonable to me. Recently, I was told I stop breathing when I’m asleep. That’s sleep apnea, isn’t it? I’m self-diagnosing here. I think I hold my breath while I’m awake, too. Funny how you can have something your entire life and not notice it.

Sometimes you benefit from holding onto stuff. The value of the Divine poster my mother  kept must be worth a lot on ebay. Probably a good portion of the stuff in a hoarder’s home is valuable: 40-year-old games and magazines and crockery – there must be some collector out there who would pay top dollar for that stuff. In another forty years the rubbish would be proper antiques and he’d have done a service to society by preserving rare objects.

But holding onto too many things and ideas eventually suffocates us. We need to clear the decks so we can breathe again. I need to breathe again. 

@lewisschaffer – twitter feed

Listen to Lewis Schaffer on the Radio Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer every Monday evening at 10:30PM on www.resonancefm.com and 104.4fm London. Or listen to the show’s podcasts at bit.ly/NunheadAmericanRadio

See Lewis Schaffer test the news items at the Hungry Miller Comedy Club at The Miller by Borough High Street this Monday at 8PM. Fantastic night of comedy with Britain’s top comics and me, briefly. Only £4!

See Lewis Schaffer live every Tuesday and Wednesday: Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, The Source Below, 11 Lower John Street, London W1F 9TY. Come on down. Free admission. Or reserve at bit.ly/londonfreeshow

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Posted in Psychology

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