Attaching Emotional Meaning to Inanimate Objects

Growing up, my dad was responsible for throwing things out and keeping things in good order. If something was broken, it went to the trash. If it was out of date, it went to the trash. If it took up space and was becoming an eyesore, guess what: trash it. He is the exact opposite of those who are “hoarders” and collect everything. My dad is not a collector by nature and does not understand why people give value to things that should be used and then thrown in the dumpster. This is a good thing in some ways: with a family of 6 and 4 young boys, allowing trash to pile up would quickly lead to filth and squalor. I respect his position on this issue and I’m thankful he chose to keep our house on the better side of “ordered” opposed to “disgusting”.

My mom, on the other hand, tends to hold on to more stuff compared to my dad. If you look at her desk, you’ll find old greeting cards, small trinkets, pens without caps, broken objects etc. just piling up. There is really no rhyme or reason to her small space of organized chaos. Once and a while she goes through old papers and gets rid of them, but for the most part if it lands on her desk it stays there.

This actually makes me a bit of a “Momma’s Boy” more than “Father’s protege”: I enjoy collecting greatly. I like to hold on to old things, whether or not I’ll actually use them again. I invest large sums of money in my USA currency collection (thousands of dollars), and am equally steadfast in keeping old birthday cards and those Christmas photo-cards everyone likes to send around.

Why? I really don’t know. For some reason, I attach emotion and feelings to inanimate objects. You now probably think I’m a very material person: actually, not at all. I live in a $500/month apartment with old appliances, a junky TV set, and use 3 shelves as space to pile my all my clothes. My computer is 8 years old and I was using a 14 year old monitor up until it died recently. My wardrobe runs the gamut of Walmart to Brooks Brothers. Buying expensive things doesn’t appeal to me, but collecting things does.

This became especially apparent over the weekend when I began sorting through old items and papers as I prepare to leave Costa Rica and return to the USA.

Naturally, my first stop was clearing out old suitcases so I could start filling them with things I’d actually need to have with me when I move. There was one suitcase I hadn’t used in 8 years. Opening the cover and digging in was like unearthing a time capsule. I found old Welbutrin pill cases, notes from my parents, old diabetic supplies, and plenty of knickknacks. The old medicine was easy to throw away, just as out-of-date diabetic items quickly found their way to the trash. Other things, like random notes from bosses or small gifts I forgot about were much harder to let go. As I browsed through all this old material, a flood of old emotions washed over me. It was as if I was reliving myself 8 years ago, and it felt both confusing and nostalgic at the same time.

For example, I found a note from my dad about having trouble sending my meds to Costa Rica, before we figured out how to do so without trouble. It took me back to when I had just landed in San Jose and was part excited, part terrified of trying to manage my life here. Like a good civil servant (30+ years) he signs and dates everything. His note from September of 2004 was particularly poignant because it reminded me of anxious days between jobs. My original employer in Costa Rica was a complete asshole and I needed to leave. At the same time, where else was I going to go to find work? Back to the USA where my prospects were remote? Or, stay in San Jose and work the “Gringo network” for more employment? Luckily I chose the latter of the two and here I am still in Costa Rica in 2012.

After going through suitcases, I started pouring over old papers. I have a habit of keeping old greeting cards. For some reason, I feel like I shouldn’t throw them away because someone took the time to buy a card, sit down, and write a note to me. An old card really means a lot to me, even if it was written years ago. Old greeting cards bring back old feelings and reminders of happy times. I always enjoyed keeping old Christmas cards. Despite years of struggles to and fro with my family, Christmastime was always pleasant and happy. Therefore, suddenly tossing a greeting card from an old family friend felt akin to throwing away expensive jewelry: it just didn’t feel right. So I’ve held on to the cards that have resurfaced during my mission to get rid of old, unnecessary things before I leave Costa Rica.

I’m not 100% certain, but I do remember reading somewhere that people with BPD put particular emphasis on objects that have little or no value to most other people. A former date’s phone number from the day we met; an old pet’s chew toy; or a letter from a high school teacher take on dramatic meaning compared to what a “normal” person would assign to them. It’s widely thought that my mother has BPD. This might explain why she keeps a messy desks and scrap books of random items from her past.

While I don’t scrap book, I tend to just put things aside in boxes or allow them to collect dust in my closet. Sure, a “Happy Birthday” card from 4 years ago has no importance in my day-to-day life, but suddenly seeing it again after years in storage brings back memories, joy, and sorrow from different times. In most cases, these memories are heart felt and pleasant. In others, painful thoughts suddenly arise and I start to relive experiences that troubled me. Although I can easily recall these memories if I try hard enough, there’s nothing like an actual relic to jump start my mind and recall old experiences.

A picture of a celebrity from a magazine: useless. A picture of one of our family dogs playing in the grass: priceless.

A balance sheet used for computing taxes: ARRGHHH! 🙂 Random notes from a work colleague during a difficult time in our relationship: priceless.

A map or directions to some famous landmark: toss it. A 5 year old, hand made calendar from my Mom, reminding her children of important days throughout the year (not the least of which is Mother’s day 😉 ): a collectible on the scale of gold or diamonds.

Yeah, I know, it’s kinda-dumb. At the same time, old photos, notes, small gifts from important people, even old emails just can’t be thrown away, even if they do nothing now but take up space.

BPDs: Do you know what I mean?

6 Replies to “Attaching Emotional Meaning to Inanimate Objects”

  1. Hi there (again)

    Yes, I most definitely know what you mean.

    I have about 5 or 6 boxes of stuff (postcards, theater tickets, notes, actually my wristband from mental hospital ^^ don´t ask me why, and many old diarys)
    I have problems remembering events of my past (especially when I don´t feel well) and those things help me recalling them.

    Though I really don´t know why I keep the postcards, most of them are from family members I´d rather forget. But yes, they took the time to write them and especially for my grandmother (who suffers from dementia) that´s some effort, so well… guess I´m too nice ^^

    I would collect much more stuff, but occasionally I get a craze and throw lots of old things away because I get the feeling I´m surrounded by useless stuff (as I´m an artist I collect loads of things like loo paper rolls, flyers, ballot samples… there´s no end to it).

    And then there are things like jewelry I´d love to throw away… but I can´t, I should at least sell them on ebay or something (I need the money).

    Well, to make a lengthy awnser short – yes, I do

  2. Oh, yeah, I can totally relate. I hold onto a lot of “useless junk” purely for sentimental reasons. I used to hold onto a lot more, but the memories associated with those items kind of soured.

  3. So I’ve done this my entire life (34) and I always thought everyone did this; -and saved stuff like this… after all, why would you throw away an old note, card , picture someone drew you etc when it’s such a valuable thing.. it wasn’t until I got married and my husband continued to bring it up- and brought it up to others – that I realized maybe not everyone does this.. I can’t let go of articles of clothing from when my babies were born, notes from high school, a random movie ticket, a broken bracelet that was my sisters – I could go on and on. And I couldn’t understand how anyone else would possibly consider this “junk” or trash.. I’ll sit every few months or so and go through one of my “junk drawers” , or one of my many shelves stacked with stuff, or one of my many giant bags , cabinets , whatever and spend hours looking at each little thing getting flooded with emotion . Cleaning certain rooms takes hours because I feel I have to examine each little piece of paper closely to make sure it’s not important. I’ve never considered this was connected to my BPD. I was diagnosed 14 years ago and put it on back burner .. I’ve “dealt with it ” on my own . It’s not till somewhat recently I began to learn and understand more about it since I’m worried about my marriage and my children .

    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure if collecting old things is part of the BPD diagnosis or if it is some other behavior.

      Nonetheless, I was recently throwing out some old clothes. I made it to the bottom of a draw I rarely open, finding a pair of shorts and tee shirt. Suddenly I remembered what happened many years ago in these clothes: I dropped a sick pet at the hospital thinking nothing was wrong, only to get a call hours later that she was dead. These were the clothes I wore to the vet to pick up her body and have it cremated.

      Now, for the longest time I couldn’t forgive myself for her death, but I eventually did. It wasn’t my fault, just very tragic. But I also didn’t want to forget that day either. So the shorts and t-shirt eventually got pushed aside in the drawer, until I never wore them again.

      As I was about to toss them in a bag, the feelings came back. Would I forget or dishonor the memory of my pet donating these clothes to charity? Could I remember without them? Apparently the feelings felt “attached” to the clothes, as if never seeing them again equaled losing a bit of myself and the feelings I once had.

      Still, I forced myself through it. And I realized a few days later — with a bedroom short a pile of clothes — that everything was fine. I still had the memories and feelings and I didn’t need the clothes there to remind or re-traumatize me.

  4. Hi. A bit of a twist; I’m older than most of the respondents – 65. I’m dealing with ADD rather than BPD. I have a lifetime of items; in addition to things that you mentioned like drawings from my three children who are now in their 30’s just in case they might appreciate showing it to their yet unborn children someday – tools from my deceased father, furniture set used by my mother — in need of refinishing, but sturdy and unique. I have come to realize that while I have a general – sometimes specific – plan of what to do with these items, I have little or no concept of the actual time required to examine, assess, discard or organize these items. I do wish to have it accomplished so my children won’t have to. I also realize that I have attached memories to these inanimate objects and do relive the memories when the objects are encountered. It’s like walking past a window and smelling a forgotten, but recognizable aroma. The memory is instantly revived and you are transported. Good luck you all.

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