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Closet Therapy: When It's Time to Throw a Few Things Out

Purging my closet enabled me to see who I once was and trust I'll know where to go next

By Laura Petiford

Lately, my life has felt uncomfortably snug. Like the waistband of how I spend my days is squeezing each passing moment into a muffin top of unpleasantness. I feel constrained by having too many things. Things. Especially things! 

A woman clearing out her closet and replacing things. Next Avenue, closet therapy
I don't know what I need to do precisely in the future. But clearing the closet has given me perspective and permission to figure it out.  |  Credit: Getty

Things have seemingly engaged in a mutiny, threatening to overtake me, inciting an urgent need to purge my surroundings and reclaim my rightful reign. The long-tenured books huddled on the shelves flanking my television recently encroached on this undulating line in the sands of my mind, suddenly occupying far too much space. I cleared them in an afternoon with the conviction of a four-star general.

Things have seemingly engaged in a mutiny, threatening to overtake me, inciting an urgent need to purge my surroundings and reclaim my rightful reign.

The Bedroom Closet Beckoned

Breathing relief, I still felt an internal niggling. There was no escaping that something else I had yet to name was happening. Something to do with the drumbeat of passing time echoing in my ears, deepening a need for more and less. As my internal landscape shape-shifted, I felt drawn to the bedroom closet of my 100-year-old home to see what the motherload of excess could reveal.

Surveilling the converted tiny bedroom, now a decent-sized walk-in, I eyed my scarves hanging in multitudes upon hooks protruding from an over-the-door hanger like a row of prominent noses dripping fabric and knitted yarn.

Accumulated over the years, they've pizzazzed any lackluster ensemble with a simple draping of cloth around my neck or shoulders. Pulling them from their hooks, I held each one in my hand, feeling the weight and the texture.

A Rush of Memories

Memories came, ushering in like a planchette on the Ouija board of my life. The long mustard-colored scarf, a gift from a former friend, the unworn accessory is enduring far beyond the length of our friendship. A flouncy black one from my cousin in Germany, a touchstone to a family I barely know, and all I have left of my mother.

The sheer rectangle, with strands of thick yarn protruding here and there, purchased on the streets of Paris tendered with francs, reminded me I had lived there once.

The sheer rectangle, with strands of thick yarn protruding here and there, purchased on the streets of Paris tendered with francs, reminded me I had lived there once. All of these I kept; the feelings and thoughts they evoked were part of the fabric of my story. Those with no memory associated with them no longer held any aesthetic or emotional appeal. They were easy to relinquish to the toss pile.

Next came the clothing. Yet again, I encountered the cranberry velvet jacket, saved by previous aspirational versions of me and never worn, still with the tags, still not buttoning. This time, it had to go. The last former me envisioned myself slimmer with a potential holiday party. I no longer want to work on getting thinner beyond what I already do. I've become more accepting of my body as it is.

And I can't remember the last holiday party I attended, my life having grown smaller yet exquisitely more dense. December used to be hobbled by weekend after weekend of obligatory cheer that exhausted me by the time January rolled around. Now, I enjoy the month with an occasional festive meal, coffee with a friend, or doing nothing and donning something comfortable and cozy.

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I saved a purple sweater/cape even though it hasn't been worn in years. Its shoulders gleamed with a dandruffing of dust from lack of use. But trying it on, I liked how it fit me as I stood in front of my full-length mirror.

The Handbag Purge

Last, the handbag purge. Lined up on the tip-top shelf, the stretch to my toes and strain to my calves indicate they were not items I accessed regularly.

I kept one gray canvas and another black patent, practical with pockets, zippers and adjustable shoulder straps; they could hold anything I might need for a day trip or longer. One small leather crossbody bag, sweet with a leather rosette, was too small to have a modern iPhone, rendering it useless.

I have too many memories of attempting to retrieve something only to realize I had forgotten I gave it away in a burst of minimalism. 

And then there were the relics — the summer bag from when I matched my purse to the season woven with a rope handle. I found SPF lip balm and a handful of change in the pocket. The substantial leather bags, each coated with a fine layer of dust, reminded me of the money I had spent purchasing them. I used to tell myself they were fashion statements, an investment.  

But looking back, they were in large part about status. I was proving to myself and others that I was worth something. They reflected my rudimentary attempts at self-love, gifts I gave myself purchased towards the end of my failing marriage.

I opened the black one with the big gold buttons; I'll never know how its weight did not dislocate my shoulder. Inside, there were countless used tissues. Instantly, I flashed back to my hands, adventuring into my mother's pocketbooks years ago. I could never understand all those balled-up Kleenexes.

Now, my nose drips with the regularity of a metronome. One held a slim lip liner, reminding me that I was once a woman who wore makeup daily and even cared about lip definition. The broken bits of lead from a mechanical pencil made me wonder at what juncture I had used a mechanical pencil. There was a zipped compartment stuffed with Super Plus tampons, another remnant of the past I haven't needed for over a decade.

Cough drops and throat lozenges were ubiquitous. The sum of my life peppered with sore throats, colds, runny noses and an outsized focus on my lips as I soldiered on through heavy periods. The shelf cleared, and the piles were placed into black plastic bags; I felt lighter and the air moved through my lungs more easily.

A Preference for Unfilled Space

There was space and room. Not that I'm eager to fill it up. I much prefer unfilled space these days. Closets, drawers and corners can attract odds and ends I am not yet ready to sort, liminal spaces holding the now inching toward the past.

The undetectable growth, while happening, is now visible in the stuffed plastic bags in my closet, validating that it has occurred and that I'm better for it.

I need time to mull and consider. I have too many memories of attempting to retrieve something only to realize I had forgotten I gave it away in a burst of minimalism. I then second-guess myself, questioning my ability to anticipate my future needs from my vantage point in the present. I promised myself not to condemn this current-day me by any future me that shows up thinking she knows better.

I don't know what I need to do precisely in the future. But the clearing has given me perspective and permission to figure it out. I recognize and empathize with parts of me; others elicit pain and sadness, reminders that change is an emotional threshing. 

I hold most of the past with a soft duality of nostalgia and gratitude. The undetectable growth, while happening, is now visible in the stuffed plastic bags in my closet, validating that it has occurred and that I'm better for it.

The future me will undoubtedly know more. She will see whether I ever followed up on wearing the purple sweater/cape. She will know of any tip-toed amnesiac visits to the purse shelf and whether I chastise myself for taking the leopard print carryall to Goodwill.

She will understand what inner workings were being recalibrated during this time. She, too, will encounter vestiges of her previous self as she rummages through her closet, making her way to whatever comes next. 

Laura Petiford
Laura Petiford is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and a psychiatric nurse practitioner (PMHNP). Both degrees were earned after the age of 40 and after the end of her 23-year marriage. She’s also the mother of two adult daughters, dog mom, soon-to-be grandmother, unconventional partner, and writer. 
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