The day he began stapling trash to the walls we were in trouble. Our new foster son had moved into our home a few months earlier with a bag of worn clothes and a few odds and ends collected over the years. There was an old GameBoy, broken PS2, crumpled photo of a summer camp friend and every school certificate he’d ever received: citizenship award, sit-ups award, library award.
At first things seemed simple. We bought new clothes and found some books and toys he enjoyed. We posted a corkboard for his photo and papers. We installed shelves for his games and trinkets.
It didn’t take long for the treasures to grow and space to disappear. He refused to get rid of old clothes, several sizes too small and many threads too bare. He clung to broken games and half-bodied toys. He cherished every document that came across his little hands: graded homework assignments, scraps with phone numbers, coupons, and torn labels.
So, we made more space. We added shelves in the closet and bought bins for papers. I showed him how to use wall stick-um and we added another corkboard. The stuff still grew.
Food was hidden inside his pillowcase and under the mattress. One paper-crammed bin became three. Soon, chunks of wood, cardboard and used art supply scraps were piled in corners and under the bed in case there was an opportunity to use them one day. When I walked in to find him stapling a 2×5 foot piece of trash onto his wall, I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. He had found it on the road on the way home from school and thought he would keep it “just in case.”
As frustrating as the hoarding grew, it was the least of our trouble. Angry outbursts, threats, tears, lying, fighting, night terrors and a scary darkness descended on his little mind. We did the best we could and sought help everywhere. Psychologists and psychiatrists came and went; he continued to rage refusing to speak.
We prayed and comforted and medicated and talked and held and cried and promised to always love come what may. The hoarding and the emotions still grew.
Two and half years later, the bottom dropped out in our fragile world. Within a few weeks time, there was a serious threat of harm made to self and others, an emergency pediatric psychiatric hospitalization, and an emotional breakdown that terrified the other children in our home.
A few weeks later, on a cold, icy afternoon, I once again found myself crawling under the bed among the trash trying to reach my broken boy hiding from the scary world outside. My arms wrapped around his shaking body and he pulled away, cursing and begging me to leave him alone. I refused and held on silently begging love to become tangibly felt. After a few agonizing minutes, his shoulders grew limp and years of pent-up tears flooded his cheeks. We held on to each other, bobbing in the sea of torment surrounding our hearts, the sound of my own cries joining the rhythmic waves of his sobs.
When the storm subsided, the words spilled out. Memories and fears. Struggles and broken promises. Insecurities and pain. Accusations and confessions. Guilt and hatred. Longings and beliefs. Each syllable, a stone removed from the wall surrounding his heart.
The next day, I walked into his room and found him with a garbage bag in hand. He was throwing away trash, clearing walls, and sorting through thousands of papers. He said he didn’t “need” it anymore.
I walked out and began to cry the warm happy tears of relief. The tide had turned. Healing had begun.
How many of us are hoarders, refusing to let go of yesterday, afraid of not having enough for tomorrow, clinging to what was or should have been? We may not duct-tape trash to our ceiling, but we keep boxes of light-neglected memories stacked in garages only to be seen by those who come after us. I remember a friend telling me of her grandfather who had an old Folgers can labeled, “String Too Short to Use.”
Many of us don’t collect things, but we hold onto grudges and conversations, people and experiences as though the shadow of their existence justifies our identity and directs our course. We allow the power over our life to be held in the grip of something we disdain or regret, wish or fear.
Every month, I hand everyone in our home a bag and tell them to fill it up. Clothes, toys, tools, projects. If we don’t need it, we don’t keep it. When holidays and birthdays come, we make way for new toys and clothes by giving away something to someone. As a result, our boys are learning that their worth is not tied into what they have. Their identity isn’t based on how much they accrue. And their needs will always be met.
When arguments rise or feelings are hurt, we talk about it honestly, we share, we tackle the monsters, we forgive and we move on. We don’t ignore or fear the conflict, but we don’t hold onto it. There is only so much room in our hearts and minds, there is no need to fill them with the negative. Slowly, I am beginning to see my boys finding the courage to trust and forgive and believe.
Together, we are all seeing the power of letting go.