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The Tragedy of Stuff

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Moving Sale to honor Maury Duchamp
(Cathy Duchamp)
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Your house becomes your home when you have your stuff in it. But what if you have a lot of stuff? So much that your home starts to feel like a storage unit? That's what happens to people sometimes referred to as hoarders. They collect things and have a hard time organizing them and letting go. Cathy Duchamp was married to someone she prefers to call "chronically disorganized." Here's her story.

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I called it the Maury Vortex: the clutter zone of my ex-husband Maury Duchamp.

For the nine years we were together in Seattle, the Vortex was confined to our basement. Maury could do whatever he wanted with his stuff as long as it didn't creep upstairs.

Then in 2003, Maury moved to L.A. to chase filmmaking dreams. I stayed in Seattle. We ended up divorcing. When Maury left, he took the Vortex with him. And it grew a lot,
something I discovered when Maury died suddenly last year at 45.

He was on a road trip back up to Seattle. He called me to say he thought he was having a heart attack. Two hours later, the hospital called to say he didn't make it.

"Right after Maury died, we were looking for his will," explains Maury's best friend in L.A., Jennifer Fournier. "You emailed me and you said, 'His place is a shithole, but there's one thing that's organized: It's the orange file cabinet. Go in there and it will be labeled 'Will.'"

Jennifer and I were the first ones to go into Maury's condo to clean it out. The orange file cabinet with his will was organized because I'd helped him organize it when we were married. But the rest of the condo made it clear that the vortex had exploded. There was stuff everywhere.

"Tons of those Billy bookcases from IKEA just stacked full of CDs and DVDs," says Jennifer. "Magazines… back to the year I was born practically. Books everywhere, but no comfortable place to sit except for his office space."

For me, this chronic disorganization was an ugly part of him. It's difficult to come here and have to deal with it now. Jennifer shares some of the same feelings. "It feels unfair because the people who loved him and treasured him most are the ones who have to clean up his mess," she says. "We came with high hopes that in three days we were going to clean out the place. We were going to make it spic and span. Here it is four visits later and it looks like there might be another four visits after this."

It was tempting to just chuck everything. Or hire a cleaning crew to do it.

But tucked into the stacks of newspapers, magazines and printouts were childhood photos, love letters, unpaid bills, uncashed checks. Clues as to what might have been going on in Maury's mind before he died.

The biggest discovery came from a couple fact sheets I found in one of about 40 Costco storage bins. They were from something called the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. One handout had a checklist of how to peg someone as disorganized, the other had tips on how to talk to clutterers.

So Maury knew he had a problem. Then why did he let it get so out of control? Why didn't he get help? For answers I went to Tamara Zook. Her name was on those handouts. She organizes people's spaces for a living.

"Generally there is something that has happened when it goes downhill or explodes," explains Tamara. In Maury's case, that may have been our divorce.

Tamara says when Maury and I were together, I set the boundaries that kept the clutter in check. But when we divorced, "he didn't have any criteria to bump up against," she explains. "Organizing was way beyond his abilities because he was overwhelmed with… healing over something that he had been so beautifully attached to - which was you for 11 years."

When I heard that, I felt so guilty. Maybe things wouldn't have gotten so out of control if I'd helped him contain the vortex. Though I guess now that he's gone, that's kind of what I've been doing. The thing is, he would know that I would know what to do. We gave his ping pong table to the Boys & Girls Club up the street.

"You are making those decisions that he could not make for himself," says Tamara. "You're knowing him so well is your great gift to him… That could easily be the silver lining: You're giving him the legacy he wasn't able to give himself."

It does feel good to put everything in its proper place. But it's bittersweet. The Maury Vortex is now a small collection of mementos. Things like his little hurdy gurdy. I turn the tiny hand crank and wonder what Maury was going to do with it.

Maybe build it into a jewelry box? For me? Somebody new? I think about this, and all the other unfinished projects he had. The dreams he never realized. That's the tragedy of too much stuff.

Comments

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  • By Mark Vidalin

    From Ottawa, ON, 04/22/2014

    I was saddened to find this, and learn of his passing. I knew Maury, or "Murray" as he was first known. We played in a band together in high school in Edmonton. I recall the post grenade effect way he lived. He was living on his own and I remember just going over and cleaning up his place because he kept loosing my lyric sheets and demo tapes! It started early for him, but I think he was truly a catalyst for me finding some shape of organization in my teenage life forward. Thank you Murray.

    By Lynn Lawe

    From Seattle, WA, 10/01/2013

    I lived with Maury for 2 years, when he first moved to Seattle. He didn't like to clean anything, ever. He would say to me, "If the dirty toilet bothers you, then clean it, I don't happen to care if it's dirty". No mystery, no mental illness, no sadness, just a self serving prig.

    By Doug Niemela

    From Seattle, WA, 05/13/2010

    (Note to Maury-post mortem) Maury, though you constantly collected stuff, you, without the slightest hesitation, loaned me an audio compressor while we were work buddies at Microsoft. I use it all the time. Though you collected stuff, you weren't territorial about it, at least with cohorts, or at least me. I was looking to return it to you when I came across Cathy's blog (yep, a long loan, but not forgotten source). I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your generosity in this case. It's yours back, anytime, for the asking. Thanks, Doug.

    By Aimee Drolet

    From Los Angeles, CA, 12/01/2008

    I completely sympathize with Cathy and her story has given me some insight into my own. I was married to someone who was chronically disorganized and it created great strain on our marriage. It was a major contributor to its end. After I left, my husband's hoarding behavior grew so bad that every room in the house was completely filled with everything (e.g., trash from the street). He couldn't throw away anything or let anyone else on the block throw anything away. This behavior fit with his diagnosis as having obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Oddly (to me), other aspects of that disorder include having a sense of self-righteousness and moralizing to others (DSM IV). I still don't understand it.

    By Sheila Delson, CPO-CD

    From Poughkeepsie, NY, 12/01/2008

    Of course this is a tragic story...one of many similar. As a professional organizer and NSGCD Certified Chronic Disorganization expert, I believe it is important to identify the differences between severe (chronic)disorganization and hoarding. Although both are serious quality of life issues, hoarding is a particularly serious mental health issue which requires professional intervention on sometimes many levels. Cathy is not to blame here. As inferred in the article, co-dependency is a common result in relationships due to 'survival' reliance. Additionally, while both hoarding and chronic disorganization are quality of life issues, neither are deliberately chosen behaviors and therefore should not be considered a reflection of a person's character.

    By Jan Holt

    From Weston, NE, 11/29/2008

    My life partner,Dave, & I were very interested in this story.-It's the 1st time we have eversearched online to review one. We are living in such a vortex &very much wish to change it, but are so overwhelmed it is almost impossible to do, in spite of our landord threatening to do it himself.

    By Susan H

    From vancouver, WA, 11/29/2008

    I have seen both Drs. Frost and Tolin, who are leading experts on this subject, speak about hoarding. Hoarding is often associated with obsessive compulsive disorder, but can also be connected to major depression, dementia and schizophrenia, and there is some thought that it may be an impulse control disorder. Hoarders do not choose to do this; it is often agonizing for them. They are torn with ambivalence about keeping their "stuff" vs. throwing it away. The Mental Health Association of San Francisco has developed an Institute on Hoarding & Cluttering, which specializes in education, and support. For the past 11 years, they have run an annual conference, which is attended by both hoarders and people who work with hoarders.

    By Jan B

    From Forest Park, IL, 11/29/2008

    Cathy must not blame or berate herself for Maury's tragic hoarding problem. I have a tendency to hoard, nowhere near that of Maury or many others, but still I have two or three rooms I cannot get quite clear. My family's support is wonderful, but I know it is difficult to live with someone who can't stop acquiring "stuff". I have gotten real help because we have excellent health insurance through my husband's job. Hoarding is no one's fault, and can be terribly difficult to treat. We as a society must support those with mental health issues and their families, and stop acting as though they are crazy or lacking in willpower.

    By Daniel Olivas

    From West Hills, CA, 11/29/2008

    As a lawyer (by day), and writer (in my free time), I constantly cut through the clutter just to keep from drowning. But I am goal-oriented and very productive in both my legal and writing lives. It seems to me that Maury's "issue" with clutter may have been tied to some kind of unsettledness with his life and career. But who knows. I do know that Cathy cannot blame herself. She has a big heart and tried her best. If there's a heaven, Maury is looking down at Cathy and his now-gleaming condo and smiling.

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