Earlier this year, I made some significant and substantial changes to my life, continuing the process of growth and reflection that I started when I quit drinking almost four years ago. (Sidebar: it’s remarkable how much clarity I got, and shocking how much pain I was self medicating for so much of my life. I’m so grateful for the love and support of my friends, my wife, and my kids, who supported me when it was clear that I needed to get alcohol out of my life. Be honest with yourself: if you’re self medicating emotional pain and/or childhood trauma like I was, give some serious consideration to working on the root issues you’re using booze to avoid. I’m so much happier and healthier since I quit, and that’s almost entirely because I was able to confront, head on, why I was so sad and hurting so much of the time. I’m not the boss of you, but if you need a gentle nudge to ask for help, here it is: nudge.)
As I was cleaning up my emotional baggage, working on strategies to protect myself from my abusers, and practicing mindfulness daily, I realized that I had a ton of STUFF just sitting around my house, cluttering up my physical living space the way my emotional trauma and pain was cluttering up my emotional space. So I made a call, and hired a professional organizer to come to my house, go through all my bullshit with me, and help me get rid of all the things I didn’t need any more.
This process was, in many ways, a metaphor.
We spent several days going through my closets, my game room, my storage spaces in my attic and shed, and eventually ended up with FIVE TRUCKLOADS of stuff I didn’t need. Most of it was clothes and books and things that we donated to shelters, which was really easy to unload. I acquire T-shirts so much, I regularly go through my wardrobe and unload half of what I have, so it’s easy to get rid of stuff without any emotional attachments.
But there were some things that were more difficult to get rid of, things that represented opportunities I once had but didn’t pursue, things that represented ideas that I was really into for a minute, but didn’t see through to completion, things that seemed like a good idea at the time but didn’t really fit into my life, etc.
I clearly recall giving away a TON of electronic project kits to my friend’s son, because he’s 11, he loves building things, and he’ll actually USE the stuff I bought to amuse myself while I tried to make a meaningful connection to my own 11 year-old self, who loved those things back then too. When I looked at all of these things, I had to accept and admit that 47 year-old me isn’t going to make that connection through building a small robot, or writing a little bit of code to make a camera take pictures. I can still connect to that version of myself, but I do it now through therapy, through my own writing, my own meditation. For the longest time, I didn’t want to let these things go, because I felt like I was giving up on finding that connection I was seeking, but what I didn’t realize (and didn’t know until I made the decision to let it go) was that I didn’t need STUFF to recover something I’d lost and wanted to revisit.
I think that, by holding on to these kits and similar things, I was trying to give myself the opportunity to explore science and engineering and robotics in a way that young me was never given. Just about everything I wanted to do, that I was interested in when I was 11, was pushed aside, minimized, and sort of taken away from me by my parents. My dad made fun of everything I liked, and my mom made me feel like the only thing I should care about was the pursuit of fame and celebrity. Without parental support and encouragement, I never got the chance to find out if any of these other things would be interesting enough to me to think about pursuing them in higher education. Yes, for some reason, even when I was a really small kid, I was already thinking about where and when I would go to college. I never took even a single class, because I was so afraid of so many things when I was college age, but that’s its own story, for another time.
As we went through just piles and piles of bullshit, it got easier and easier to just mark stuff for donation. That drone I used to fly for fun, that I kinda sorta told myself would eventually be used to film something I wrote? Get rid of it, that’s never gonna happen. The guitar I kinda played a little bit when I was a teenager, but never really learned how to play properly? Give it to someone who is going to love it and play it so much, it lets them express their creativity in ways I was never able to. All those books I bought to make me a better poker player? Gone. All the books I bought to learn how to program in Python, Perl, Java, and even that old, used, BASIC book I picked up because I thought it would be fun to finally write that game I always dreamed about when I was ten? Give them all to someone who is actually going to do that, instead of just think about it.
It was, at first, really hard to get rid of this stuff, because I felt like I was admitting to myself that, even though I could paint all these minis (like I did when I was a teenager), even though I could study all of these books on Python and Arduino hacking, and probably make something kind of cool with that knowledge, I was never going to. I came to realize that having these things was more about holding on to the possibility that they represented. It was more about maintaining a connection to some things that once made me really happy. When I was a kid, I LOVED copying Atari BASIC programs out of a magazine and playing the games that resulted, because it was an escape from my father’s bullying and my mother’s neediness. When I was a teenager, I LOVED the time I spent (badly) painting Space Marines and Chaos Marines, because it gave me an escape from everything that was so hard about being me when I was 14. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I spent hundreds of hours trying to learn the same five songs on the guitar, never mastering a single one of them. My time would have been much more wisely invested in learning the scales and chords that I declared were more boring than picking my way through the tablature for Goodbye Blue Sky.
And that all brings me to the thing that was simultaneously the hardest and most obvious thing to donate: all my Rock Band gear.
Did you know that the first Rock Band, which I and my kids and my friends played for literally a thousand hours, came out twelve years ago? Beatles Rock Band is a decade old this year. Rock Band 3 is ten years old, too.
I hadn’t played Rock Band in almost five years when my friend asked me what I wanted to do with all these plastic guitars, both sets of pretend drums, and all the accessories that were stacked up neatly in the corner of my gameroom.
But a decade ago, Anne and I would send the kids off to their biodad’s house, or to their friends’ for a sleepover, have some beers, and play the FUCK out of Rock Band, almost every Saturday night. My god, it was so much fun for us to pretend that we were rocking all over the world, me on the drums, Anne on the vocals. Frequently, we’d get the whole family together to play, and we’d spend an entire evening pretending to be on tour together, blasting and rocking our way through the Who, Boston, Green Day, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Dead Kennedys, and others. It brought us all closer together, and was incredibly valuable for our bonding, at a time when we really needed that.
And I was holding onto all these things, these fake plastic guitars and who even knows how many gigs of DLC, because I didn’t want to lose my connection to those days. Part of me hoped that we’d all get together and play again, like we did when my kids were in their teens, like I would when I hosted epic Rock Band parties at Phoenix Comicon, or PAX, back before the world was on fire.
But when I looked at those things, neatly stacked up and untouched except by dust for years, I knew that we weren’t going to play again, and that I didn’t need these things in my house to validate the memories.
Back in those days, when Ryan and I would spend an entire Saturday afternoon and evening trying to complete the Endless Setlist on Expert (we never did, but we got to Green Grass and High Tides more than once), real musicians would smugly tell us that we were having fun the wrong way, that we should be learning REAL instruments instead of pretending to have already mastered them. I would always argue that the whole POINT of Rock Band was the fantasy. Can you imagine telling a 100 pound kid that he should be playing real football instead of Madden? Of course not, and yet.
But it kinda turns out that some of those smug musicians were right. As I packed up those plastic fake guitars and drum kits, put them into the truck with my real guitar, I had a small twinge of regret, that I had been focused on the fantasy, instead of developing a skill that I could still use today (the last time I attempted Rock Band, maybe four years ago, I couldn’t get through a single song on Hard, much less Expert. My skills had faded, and it wasn’t worth the effort to restore them). And then I stopped myself, because that’s EXACTLY the kind of thinking that stopped me from following my dreams when I was a kid. What was important to me ten years ago, what’s still important to me today, was the time I spent with my wife, with my kids, with our family, with my friends, pretending that we were something we weren’t. We were doing something together, and that is what matters. Today, I can’t recall anything specific about all the nights Anne and I played, though I know we worked our way through hundreds of songs together. But I can clearly recall how much fun it was.
Ryan and I still talk about the time I accidentally turned the Xbox off, when I meant to just power down my toy guitar, after we’d been trying to play the Endless Setlist on Expert for five hours.
Over the years, I had accumulated all this stuff that I was unwilling to let go of, because I felt like that would also mean letting go of the memories that were associated with those things. I felt like getting rid of things without following through on their intended use was admitting defeat, or being a quitter.
But after a year or so of daily, intense, therapy and reflection, after ending contact with toxic and abusive people who were exerting tremendous control over me, these things stopped being the keys to unopened doors, and they just became THINGS that I had to constantly move around to get them out of my way. Because I didn’t need them anymore. I don’t need to paint minis like I did when I was 15, because I’m not 15. I’m not living with an abuser and his enabler. I’m not working for a producer who makes it clear to me at every opportunity that he owns me and has complete control over whether or not I’ll have a film career. And I don’t need to paint those minis now, to honor and care for the memory of the 15 year-old I was. The best way to care for him is to care for me, so that the pain he endured is not for nothing.
I didn’t need ANY of these things, and once I realized that, unloading them and getting them to people who DO need them felt as freeing and empowering as writing a goodbye letter.
I kept a few things that were still useful, or brought me joy. Books, mostly, and of course all my dice and games. Lots of records, even some cassettes. It felt GOOD to admit that I’m never going to learn guitar, or build an Arduino-controlled anything. It felt GOOD and empowering to know that I’m a writer. I get my joy and explore my possibilities through storytelling and character development. THAT is what I love, and by getting rid of all this old stuff (and its emotional baggage) I created space in my life to be the person I am now, a person I love, in a life that is amazing.
I still have some emotional clutter, which is to be expected and isn’t a big deal. The really cool thing is that I have physical and emotional space, now, to deal with it.
75 thoughts on “The Purge.”
Thanks, again, for sharing your Truth with us. It’s inspirational, and helps some of us feel less Alone.
It also kinda burns, like when you bring a burn blister too near to a heat source. But that just means your words are a mirror, and that’s an indication of inner healing which needs attention. Keep on keepin’ on.
I was lucky enough to have a career that allowed me to move every few years and with each move I would purge, but still hauled a lot around. Finally moved back to our ‘forever/final’ home and took so many carloads of things to charity groups and still should go through and do it again. Line from one of the Startrek movies, “I need my pain.” At some point I’ll declutter some more. My husband and I joke that ‘for every bag that comes in a bag should go out.’ Haven’t quite managed that, but like you, we’re trying.
Wil i so fucking understand you..I have So much shit and have a hard time parting with stuff…Funny but it sounds like a Big Bang Episode! lol
Reading this sparks joy!
Wow! I can totally relate to quitting drinking. I did this back in Summer of 1991, after I had spent almost en ENTIRE Pay check at a bar…then walked to my bus stop to go home… Got JUMPED in an ally I was passing by and woke up there with my wallet IN TACT and ALOT of Blood on me and my Old Army Overcoat and a HUGE Lump on the back of my head… and a Bloody piece of wood with nails in it in my right hand and someone’s hair and part of their scalp in the other!
I got on the bus… and went to the nearest hospital to be told I had a mild concussion and that MOST of the blood on me was NOT my own!
Sooo I decided that to loose THAT MUCH Memory… I needed to quit drinking NOW!
I will occasionally have a wine cooler with my Fiancée… but If I have THREE drinks in a year’s time… that is ALOT for me!
I wish… I could be as “Self Actualized as you are. I have ALOT of baggage from the fact that I and my brother are the ONLY Ones left in out immediate family… and we don’t talk to each other. We have lost all three of ours sisters and both parents. Our parents became abusive alcoholics when my Oldest sister died in 1972 at age 18 from Leukemia and that sent our ENTIRE family into a spiral!
Just SO MANY things that have happened since… and I can’t seem to get past them OR my own regrets in my life.
I will be 55 in February and my depression ONLY seems to get worse!
I am borderline suicidal… and I can’t take depression meds because they all seem to make it worse for me. I know that if I DO eventually end my life, that some people will be very hurt by it. But sometimes the pain is so unbearable… I am in therapy… but even SHE doesn’t seem to know what to do?
I think like ANYTHING… some things… and some PEOPLE are just TOO Broken to be fixed! Sometimes a Car is TOO SMASHED to be repaired!
I guess I DO feel like I’m just “TOTALED”? 🙁
But I do keep reading your blog because it seems to give me some hope that maybe by reading someone else’s words that I might find the possible answers?
Anyway… Thanks for always righting VERY Inspirational incites into your life.
I’ll be 61 in January. 5 years go I lost my life as it was. Everything that could be sold, was. A lot of stuff was donated. I live in 9×14 room with not heat, ac or plumbing. I have a dorm fridge and a coffeemaker. In the storage I have the basic life needs I hope to use sometime in the near future: dishes, clothes, my little 4 lb weights. It hurt to lose all that. And then my Mac died and my entire family photo collection, and all my music is on a T external, that the windows machine I have now refuses to speak to. So I do get the sense of loss. I am now fine with my reduced lifestyle. I miss my house. I regret burying my cat in the yard instead of cremating him like all the other pets, who are in the Gulf where I will be. I’ve purged before this, and did it this time, and probably will once I find a way out of this hut. I love my stuff. I have emotional attachment to it. I even bought a guitar and relearning how to play it, after my brother broke mine decades ago. My therapist says my attachment issues are because I don’t attach to people. People are beyond my trust realm. My dog, my cat, the ever reducing stuff of my life is all I have. I am an organizer’s nightmare.
Thanks for sharing. Been downsizing and purging much in the last 12 months as I move into “semi” retirement. This is also for a new phase of life. Had so much stuff that should have been thrown out long ago. Much of it was tired up with who I was, career wise, that doesn’t matter any more. As part of my own therapy in all this, and moving on, I put what I have done till now, and why, into a webcomic that has been a help…
he things we own eventually own us – Chuck Palahniuk. I try to do a yearly purge. But I mostly just end up moving things from one room to another in some kind of subconscious attempt to hang on to my past, even though I’m not satisfied with who I’ve been. It’s incredible what the brain wants to keep.
I think the smug musicians were both right and wrong. The time and effort spent on Rock Band could have been put into learning a real instrument, but that would have changed the entire activity from a fun, family bonding, friend bonding, group thing, into a solo experience of study and practice. They are not the same thing, and I think it’s important not to undervalue doing things for the sheer fun of it.
Life’s hard, and fun is not wasted time. It’s one of the things that makes the hard parts worth it.
Appreciate the post, Wil.
The good news is the experience you gained with all those unfinished projects and hobbies (electronics, programming, guitar) isn’t wasted. You can funnel that knowledge into your writing, say if you need to flesh out a character who builds an FTL warp engine in his garage when he’s not playing in a punk band. 🙂
Your mention of the Endless Setlist reminds me of your great story about playing that game with Ryan, accidentally closing without saving, and him responding to hours of lost progress with “it’s just a game, Wil.” I hope I can raise my boys as well as you raised yours.
I remember this, too!
And the old Phoenix ComiCon stuff. Those were good times, and the Ryan story is greatness. Thanks for sharing, Wil, and I hope to purge as well soon. I’ve been giving away little things here and there, just cuz, but yeah. To cut way back would be great.
All of this sounds amazing, I am genuinely happy for you! I’m on my own decluttering journey right now. I hope there is some kind of revelation at my end.
Thanks for taking the time to put this into words, and sharing it. I really needed to hear a lot of this today.
Wil, I have to say that I am a fan since the Next Generation days.
I have the same problem, but the root comes from moving around so much as a child (I have moved over 50 times in my life, and went to over THIRTEEN elementary schools) so I lived a fairly spartan life up until I was truly on my own at twenty-five. I married the woman of my dreams (who has moved a grand total of five times her whole life) and since I’ve spent fifteen years at my house, I have managed to accumulate fifteen years of shit.
I too have the Rock Band set, complete with my first PS One , Wii, WiiU, and about a million books that I swear I haven’t looked at since ten years ago when they were placed on the shelves in our “newly” renovated basement.
Now there is so much shit around that it is hard to know where to begin. I think that is where the paralysis comes from. Where does one start?
Thank you for this post, as I think I have figured out where to start, at least.
This hits me hard. I won’t go into detail but thank you for sharing this and expressing yourself honestly, Wil. Know that posts like these are making a difference.
Hell, Wheaton. It’s good to have you back. You’ve been sparse around these parts. I love your introspection, and your insights. I refer people to read you, especially those who live with anxiety and depression, as you are a clear voice. I hope my step kids look up to me some day the way yours do to you. You have my respect and admiration.
Oh dude…gut punch, for a whole lot of boxes of reasons, including several full of Rock Band gear. And yeah, you made me cry, because part of the reason I’ve been schlepping all that gear around for all these years is because it reminds me of the time my kid and I played with you at Phoenix Comicon in 2011 (“The Leaving Song, Pt. II” by AFI; you told me “That was fucking FUN!”). But I don’t need the stuff to hold the memory. And I don’t need to hold onto who I used to be, or thought I was, or thought I wanted to be years ago, represented by whatever is packed away in all of those other boxes, and piles, and nooks and crannies. Thank you, Wil. For then and for now.
The date you posted this I was 8 days sober. I failed sobriety the first time. Read your post about the month point being hard…I felt like you were telling my own story!
I cannot express how much your strength has helped me! Today marks my 20th day sober. Still a struggle but reading your posts helps.
Thank you. Keep being awesome!!
May 4, 2013 – no alcohol since. You can do this.
I replied to this on tumblr but thought of something else today… did you keep the fart gun?! 😀
Thank you for sharing this. Knowing someone else has gone through the kind of struggle you have (though everyone’s path is unique), helps me feel not so alone in the world, and provides and some solace in the struggle.
It is freeing to purge your stuff. I quit my job 1 1/2 years ago to care for my Mom as she has gone through some tough medical issues. In between appts I have been taking care of all the house repairs that have been on the back burner for years and purging tons of stuff. Sometimes it is hard, but I do take comfort into discovering I am the Queen of Shelf Tetris!
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