When Minimalism Takes Over Your Life
As a compulsive minimalist, I can’t stop throwing things away — even when I know I’ll regret it
Content Warning: This piece discusses domestic violence and eating disorders.
A couple of years ago, my partner saved my cello from the scrap heap by taking it into the theater where he works. He must have known it was at risk. He knows how I am. I don’t think I ever said it explicitly, but I was on the verge of throwing the beautiful instrument out.
Well, not throwing it out. Giving it away. Donating it. Hastily. Maybe doing a Craigslist Curb Alert. I didn’t want to go to the trouble of finding and vetting a new owner for the cello. I just wanted the cello gone. One evening, I offered it to a stranger in a bar. She seemed genuinely interested, so I gave her my phone number. But she was very drunk and must have forgotten, because I never heard from her.
The cello had done nothing to deserve my disregard. It was still as lovely as when I’d gotten it in high school. Its finish was still a gorgeous reddish brown; its sound was still rich, and mournfully sad. Fifteen years had passed yet it remained exactly the right size for me, three-fourths the height of an adult instrument. But it occupied space and I was vaguely stressed, so I felt moved to purge myself of it.
That year, our apartment was small and my nerves were frayed. Winter had gone on for far too long. I was short-tempered, bitter, and consumed by cabin fever. In the depths of my anxiety, I felt compelled to exact control by destroying things. It’s a panic button I often push when I’m overwhelmed. It lets me unleash the anxiety that roils endlessly inside of me on something external.
I am a compulsive minimalist: a person who self-destructively throws things away. I have purged all kinds of objects in pursuit of mental peace — things of value as well as absolute trash, essential paperwork as well as tchotchkes, clothing, and furniture that I regret ditching for years afterward.
I like to keep my life spare. More spare than is either practical or healthy.
In 2011, I escaped an abusive relationship and moved myself into a small studio apartment. My friend Rick came to visit my new place, looked around at the nothingness, and declared it “Spartan.” I had to look up the word to figure out what he meant. I had a vague sense of who the Spartans were but was unfamiliar with their reputation for austerity. I was proud when I found out. Proud of how little I could manage to live on.
Being in an abusive relationship did a number on me. I had to move four or five times during the two years I was dating my abuser. I kept moving in with him, then fleeing in the middle of the night to another side of town, then moving somewhere near him again. Like most domestic violence survivors, it took me a few tries to fully break away.
I want a simple life, a clear mind, a clear conscience — and that requires me to create a selfish, destructive, short-sighted void.
I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t have many friends in town, so I couldn’t rely on anybody to help me with the frequent relocations. I had to keep my life lightweight. Easy to run away with. Every time I moved, I threw more away.
By the time I moved into the “Spartan” studio, I had only a couple of possessions left. My clothes lived in milk crates that I’d stacked into a makeshift “dresser.” My laptop sat on a $40 card table I’d gotten from Aldi. My mattress was three layers of foam piled on the floor. I didn’t have a television, gaming consoles, or any hobbies that required equipment. I could throw my life into a cab in a moment’s notice if I had to.
Whenever I bought a new item of clothing, I threw an old one out. I had to maintain the equilibrium. I couldn’t get greedy, could not lay down roots. Whenever I felt panicky, I found something new to pitch into the garbage: jewelry, old photos, dingy socks, video games, birthday cards, sensible bags, perfectly good sweaters. One night, I flipped out and threw away two of the four chairs that came with the card table. I didn’t require such extravagances. Didn’t deserve them. It wasn’t like I was ever going to have company over.
Of course, my history of abuse isn’t the sole reason for my minimalist compulsion. I’m not a blameless victim. I am the agent of my own suffering. I am at fault for all the ridiculous mistakes I’ve made by throwing things out.
In 2015, the IRS had some questions about an old tax filing. They believed I had misreported my income from a few years prior, when I worked as a summer school teacher for Chicago Public Schools. I dug through the small Rubbermaid container I used as a filing cabinet but could not find my old W-2s. I couldn’t find that year’s 1040 either. I’d thrown them all out in a fit of “cleaning.” In a similar fit, I’d thrown out the flash drive that held electronic copies of all my tax returns. It also held all my old papers from graduate school and tons of other ephemera — music I’d illegally downloaded, photos from outings with old boyfriends and college buddies.
It turns out that destroying relics of the past doesn’t actually make the past go away. It just makes reexamining the past harder.
The IRS was convinced I owed them a few thousand dollars and I had no way of determining whether they were right. So, I marched myself downtown and waited in line for a couple hours at some dusty CPS records-keeping facility. Eventually someone was able to find and reprint my old W-2. As it turned out, I did owe the government money. But when I got home, I had trouble finding my checkbook. I couldn’t find an envelope or a stamp, either. At some point I must have unburdened myself of those items too.
When you throw away your old possessions, you lose important context about the person you used to be. This permits you to repeat your mistakes. Every summer, I get rid of my heaviest sweatshirts because they are bulky and unattractive. Every winter, I have to buy thick warm clothing again. Then it’s summer and I forget that the cold will return.
I have thrown away gifts mere moments after receiving them. I’ve sent a beloved book into the trash bin and cursed myself a month later when I needed to quote it in an essay. When my boyfriend got me a TV and a Wii a few years ago, I put them directly on the floor, because I didn’t want to waste money and space on a TV stand. I had to sit on the ground, criss-cross applesauce, gazing uncomfortably downward at the screen until I got a crick in my neck.
I have a very anorexic personality. I’ve fought with an eating disorder my entire adult life, so I feel that’s an analogy I’m allowed to make. I have a deep-seated tendency to deny myself things. Calories. Kindness. Basic necessities. Doctor’s appointments. If you name a thing that is essential to a human being having a comfortable life, odds are I’ve felt guilty about providing it to myself. Denial is an easy answer to the question, “What do I deserve?”
The average American produces four pounds of trash per day, which accumulates to over 1,000 pounds of trash per year. I can’t even guess where I stack up compared to that average. I am reluctant to buy things for myself, which ought to make me less wasteful, but I also throw lots of necessary items away and then am forced to rebuy them.
One of the greatest evils of the minimalism movement is its indulgent wastefulness. If you are wealthy enough, you can throw away seldom-used appliances, old winter boots, slow-running computers, and cracked phones with nary a second thought. Should the need for them arise, you can just buy them again. This cycle of buying and trashing things allows wealthy people to craft the illusion of being independent and low-maintenance.
Having a clean, empty space is the mark of a disposable culture. I am an active contributor to that culture. I make it worse every time I act aghast at the clutter in my boyfriend’s closet, implying that he doesn’t need that brown suit he never wears. I want a simple life, a clear mind, a clear conscience — and that requires me to create a selfish, destructive, shortsighted void.
I don’t cherish the joy my possessions have given me, nor do I thank them for their service. I treat them all like trash.
Traditional hoarders struggle to differentiate between what is worth holding onto and what needs to be pitched. I have the exact same problem; I just deal with it in the opposite way. I assume nothing in my life has value, and so I let it all go. I only realize that I need a can opener, a drill, or a thermos once it’s too late.
I am not like Marie Kondo at all. When I set out to tidy things up, I make matters worse. I don’t cherish the joy my possessions have given me, nor do I thank them for their service. I treat them all like trash. I relish the feeling of breaking things, burning things, giving things away, destroying them, disregarding them, throwing them out. When I am angry, I want to hear something snap.
I want to make the tortured feelings inside me go away — but I can’t, so I make something else cease to exist instead. Where once there was a tangible, three-dimensional thing that occupied space in my life, claiming a small scrap of my attention every time I walked by it, now there is nothingness. It’s orgasmic, that little death of an object.
My partner has taken good care of my cello. He got it restrung. Had a professional tune it. He learned to bow it, and to play it pizzicato, and he worked it into a couple of his plays. When he was done with it, he found a space for it to rest in the theater, safe from my garbage-hungry clutches.
He’s an artist; he holds onto old things. Artists never know when they might need a random prop again, when a shirt they hate might become a good costume piece. He’s not a hoarder, he’s just a person with more patience than me. Being with him has been instructive, though there are some lessons I never let myself learn.
It’s winter again, and I am stir-crazy. The world outside is bleak. Nothing can make my discontentment go away. Instead of looking inward, where all the roots of my problems always are, I am annoyed by everything outside of me. The hay my chinchilla keeps throwing past the bars of his cage. The pile of papers on the bookshelf in the corner. The clothes flowing from the hamper. The box fan I won’t need until July. I am trapped in a barbed cage of anxiety and irritability. I believe, delusionally, that I can set myself free by getting rid of some of these distractions. Even though I know I will go on to regret it.