Sunday, May 8, 2016

Our possessions define, portray, and heal our mental illnesses

I've been giving some thought to this subject lately, for personal reasons as well as thinking back over all the people I've worked with through the years. I've written before about how PTSD from an earlier trauma resurfaced when I experienced other loss. It turned ownership of family things into a kind of obsession for me: I could not let go of objects that reminded me of love I once had (or wished I had) and they became "holy objects" even though not one of them was "valuable."

I cringe when I remember screaming at my then-husband for breaking a teacup
that had belonged to my grandmother. He was constantly breaking things, or ruining them somehow, it seemed to me. I was the kind of person who maybe damaged one thing a year and then beat myself up about it; I was careful because I cared. Because I had so little left to remind me of the family I'd once had who'd dispersed either by death or ruptured relationships, when my grandparents died I brought home and kept everything of theirs I could carry with me, after the rest of my family had taken what they wanted. I identified the objects with the people who had owned them, however mundane they were, however fragile or worn they already were, and when I used them daily I felt "home." When my then-husband moved in with me and used their (my) things in what was for him a normal way, well, it was disastrous. I nearly left him for what I perceived as malevolent reckless behaviour with what I considered essential to my life. We were poor,  and we only had available to us what I had amassed, my treasures, meager as they were - and he was wrecking them. In those moments he felt like an enemy. He felt more alien to me than life without my things.

My heart aches when I remember how terrified I was of being alone in the world when I was younger. I needed to feel like I was ever a part of a "real" family, one that loved and embraced me as a good and decent person. Those possessions were my only proof that someone in my blood family loved me exactly the way I was, didn't mind that I was eccentric or adventurous, didn't mind that I hadn't chosen a straight path to financial glory or prestige and power, didn't mind that I wasn't a quiet little housewife with two good kids and a part-time job, who sang in my church's choir and wouldn't dream of doing anything avant-garde. My grandparents thought I was odd, but for the most part they enjoyed it. They encouraged me to be exactly who I was and no one else. When they were gone, all I had was censure or silence. So I clung to the memory of who they were: frugal, fun, thoughtful, interesting, well-traveled, loyal, sincere. Working class, well-educated, nice people. I wanted to be as much like them as I could, and by using their everyday objects I felt like I was closer to that - and closer to them.

As time went by and I settled into Hamtramck life and found a family there, I eased up. I let go of many things; some I replaced with newer look-alikes in better condition, others I replaced with things I made myself (in their frugal tradition) or with gifts from like-minded friends. I learned to ebb and flow again, to ease the rigidity of ownership that comes from fear. The terrible pain of breakage was replaced with creativity and joy as I embraced my marriage to an artistic genius. He was strange and difficult to understand, but then so was I and so were most of our friends, and I saw my life in context and with hope for my own creativity. Inspiration for the reuse and recycling of old things became my way of artistic expression. I lived in harmony with my possessions.

This little snippet of life with stuff isn't the whole story; its genesis occurred long before and repercussions hammered me long after this snapshot occurred. I hope it will serve to show something of how our relationships to our possessions change in response to the place and time we live and our relationships with others. We must be careful and gentle when we use words like "always" or "never" to describe how things are: sometimes what seems like a constant will morph or even fall away abruptly and something we would not expect will take its place. My hope is that we can become conscious of process, conscious of the passage of time, and lovingly steer ourselves to better habits and healthier associations with the stuff around us.

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