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  • Aubrey Keating

Winning the War with "Things"

One struggle many people with ADHD experience is that of clutter: too many things, too many thoughts, and too many emails, all overwhelming the senses.

This overwhelm will often cause the ADHDer to shut down instead of tackle the mess, unless they are lucky enough to find themselves in a phase of hyperfocus for deleting old emails, digging to a particular corner in the basement, or partially dealing with the ever growing mound of papers.

I am one such person.

Clutter has been the bane of my existence: mental, physical, and digital. My overwhelm would cause me to think “Tomorrow or this weekend would be a MUCH better time to deal with this than now.” On rare occasions where I would delve into the piles, I would easily become frustrated because I wouldn’t know what to DO with all of the stuff!

Perfectionism often hindered my progress as I felt I needed to know the RIGHT way to organize my things, down to the last office supply. Sometimes, a small bit of progress would be made, but I would quickly experience the Clutter Creep, and piles would grow, files would be saved in the first file option shown when I click “save as”, and I would find myself back at square one, complete with frustration, self-loathing, and overwhelm.

My personal area currently consists of a 10x11’ bedroom I am renting from family until things stabilize. All my belongings are in this room, which also includes a queen size bed, a small desk, a couple of dressers, and some other small things that take up floor space. It took no time at all to completely fill the room with Things. Garbage was always removed, but Things remained… and multiplied.

Last summer, I decided I’d had it. I took “before” pictures (which were blurry – I took pictures haphazardly and quickly of shame for my living condition – what if these pictures got out?). For my four-day weekend over the 4th of July, I packed everything up in bags and boxes and moved it all (unless I knew I was going to need it in the next day or two) to the garage and guest bedroom.

The next step of my plan was to set up the things that remained (bookshelves, etc.) the way I wanted and use the newfound empty spaces to play with layout and organization possibilities.

I then brought things back into the room, one bag or box at a time. I went through each one and tried to assign worth to each of the Things. Not just what the Thing meant to me personally, but whether the Thing was worth the emotional weight of dealing with it again and worthy of taking up my precious, limited space.

One thing that helped me declutter and made it almost fun: is there someone else who would appreciate the Thing more, or some other place that could use the Things for good? For example, almost all my stored craft supplies stored for almost ten years went to the Activities Director at the nursing home where I worked – this was TREMENDOUSLY helpful to entertain the residents who were bored and lonely with COVID shutdowns.

I took buckets of unopened makeup I had accumulated during my obsession with monthly delivery boxes to work and nighttime wine-induced shopping sprees and poured it over the conference table. I then invited coworkers in to dig through it like gleeful piranhas.

I gave bags of clothing that didn’t fit quite right to a coworker with relatively the same style and size (as well as clothes I kept for when I would be “skinny” again for her 12 year-old daughter).

Something important that helped me through this process was a decluttering coach who fell into my lap right around the time I began The Great Declutter. She also had ADHD, and had no emotional connection to my Things. This relationship was crucial to my progress – it gave me direction and “homework” to accomplish before our next session, helped keep focus on the Things, and lead me through the mental clutter to discover exactly WHY I wanted so desperately to do this.

The accountability and direction from someone whose brain was wired the same enabled me to follow through on the project over weeks, instead of abandoning it after part of one day.

Clutter slowly creeps back from time to time. When this happens, the brain immediately wants to switch to self-bash mode, using words such as “lazy” and “failure". I try to remind myself how much I’ve accomplished and how far I’ve come. I make myself think about the number of boxes and bags I removed from my little area.

Most of all, I think about my reasons why a more peaceful and decluttered area is important to me and to my ADHD brain. I try to be kind to myself and remember that a little forward momentum is still considered as heading in the right direction, it just allows us to enjoy the journey for a little while longer.

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