Put Your Problems in a Box by Christian Harrington

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interior of The Container Store - baskets, bins, and boxes of all sizes

When I first considered leaving my job in Los Angeles and returning to Massachusetts, I wasn’t as worried about the reality of moving back in with my parents as I was about how such a move would be perceived. I figured friends would view my return as a sign that my west coast adventure had been a failure. That’s how I viewed it.

After four years, my public relations internship, which was supposed to be a fallback plan in case my seven-figure screenplay sales took longer to close than expected, was creeping dangerously close to becoming a career. I had to leave before it did. As it turned out, my friends were too busy feeling insecure about their own lives, many of which were also not going according to the grand plans we had concocted while playing Wiffle ball between classes our senior year of high school.

The actual problem with my move home was that in LA I had lived alone. And by living alone, I was able to flex the minimalist muscles I had built over years of mostly untreated OCD. My apartment there was clean and tidy. My parents’ house in Massachusetts was clean but, thanks to my father, well, it was not tidy.

My father is a hoarder. Granted, his compulsion to collect is nothing worthy of a television episode. He doesn’t keep his nail clippings in a locked cabinet, and he never sorted the droppings of our golden retriever by color. But even if his collectable of choice is non-toxic, it still harms those around him.

He hoards paper. And the paper comes in from everywhere.

As an example, when my father goes to a sporting event, he grabs a program — or three. He then takes that program and puts it in the pantry, his sorting area. From there, it may get thrown into a pile in his office or, if it’s lucky, my father will type up a label for a folder. He will then put the program in that folder and file the folder in a box with other programs. That is, if he is able to find the box of programs. If not, maybe he starts a new box. The same goes for pamphlets, flyers, newspaper clippings, and every other form of news or marketing.

If something is digital, he makes sure he has a copy of it on paper. Should the internet ever go down, we could recover most of the web from my father’s banker boxes. I have seen him print the dullest of pages, like the “About Us” section of a finance company or the Wikipedia page for the inventor of the Dyson vacuum. All those pages go into a folder, which goes into a box. Over the last thirty years in the house, he has filled plenty of boxes.

At some point — I believe while I was in LA — my father determined that it was easier to see the documents in the boxes if he filed the papers vertically. Of course, when the paper is popping out over the top, the boxes are no longer stackable. This means the boxes must be spread out. And spread out they do. One morning, I saw a box on the stove. Luckily, he doesn’t cook much.

Compare that to my apartment in Los Angeles, the fulfillment of my dream to have a small, clean room with empty, white walls all to myself. With no roommate to ask questions like, “Shouldn’t we have more than two plates?” my minimalist preferences bordered on the radical. After getting a tour of the studio — which required nothing but a slight neck turn — my friend Soojin said it had the coziness of a terrorist holding cell. I took the remark as a compliment, considering my design concept was “ascetic monk meets Norwegian prison.”

It didn’t take a therapist to tell me that my minimalism was a reaction to my father’s hoarding, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I was back home in his paper jungle. Father and son, we were extremists on opposite sides of the material war. The difference was that my father could sit in an uncluttered space and not mind it. He might even enjoy it. I simply couldn’t be at peace in a messy office. My brain had always been a swarm of anxious thoughts. A simple and sterile outer world was one of the few things that brought me relief.

The obsessive tendencies presented at a young age. For years, I forced my mother to carry out a bedtime ritual that sounded like dialogue from a disturbing Austrian movie.

Me: “Goodnight. Love you.”

Mom: “Love you too.”

Me: “Goodnight. Love you.”

Mom: “Love you too.”

Me: “Goodnight. Love you.”

Mom: “Love you too.”

This is not a copy-paste error. I actually made her repeat the exchange three times. God love her, she delivered the tired lines like a pro. While happy to humor my bedtime requests, she found the excessive handwashing worthy of a trip to the psychiatrist’s office.

The bearded man seemed nice enough. I was flattered he found my thoughts on soap worthy of taking notes. I wondered if he was writing a paper on the gifted boys who instinctively understood that one’s hands aren’t clean unless they’re bleeding.

Only after I had answered all his hygiene-related questions did he contribute something to the conversation.

“I want you to think about your problems,” he said.

This was easy. Hell, I was doing it already.

“Now, take those problems and put them in a box.”

I looked for the box. There was no box in the room. When he mimed putting objects in a box, I realized this was a visual exercise. He proceeded to pick up a few tiny, hypothetical problems and drop them in a very small box. All I could think was, what a lucky guy to have such a tiny box.

“Now take that box, put it in the closet, and leave it there,” he said.

I nodded, relieved he couldn’t actually see my box because it sure as hell wouldn’t fit in his closet.

I’m guessing he wanted me to appreciate that sometimes we need to put our problems away and forget about them. I, however, took it to mean that, with enough mental storage, problems could be better organized. And with the right organization system, I could properly locate every single problem on demand.

In only one session, he changed my life. Therapy works.

I’m sure I knew — at least on a subconscious level — that my OCD had to go underground if I wanted to avoid a future of mandatory meetings with soft-talking doctors going on about hypothetical boxes. I did my best to limit the hand washing or, at least, to make my parents think I had. But even with that superficial improvement, I had some other, shall we say, quirks.

Counting played a big role in my daily life. The silent activity kept me busy without anybody being the wiser, at least until my mother began to question why I felt the need to exit a room I’d just entered, only to enter the room again in what appeared to be the exact same way.

“See,” I explained while reenacting the action, “I stepped into the room with the right foot (which was my left foot) but my toes hit the carpet while I was counting the number five.” For whatever reason, I had decided that the number five was irredeemably evil. Lacking a strong explanation as to why — it was more of a gut feeling — I hoped she wouldn’t press the point.

“When your foot was about to hit the rug, why didn’t you just say a different number?”

I reminded myself to be patient with her. She was one of those people who crossed thresholds without a care in the world, as if lives didn’t hang in the balance.

“Because I count up from one at a rhythm and I can’t just adjust the speed so that I hit a number I like. That would be cheating.” I let it go at that but, I mean, if I just started manipulating the count to fit my needs, what was the point in counting at all? She was being more than a bit ridiculous.

Likely realizing that I had thought things through and knowing that the TV depended on my clicker knowledge, she let me get back to the business of entering the damn room properly.

It wasn’t all counting and cleaning. In my teens, I became overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts about horrific things I might have done by accident — a trait I didn’t associate with OCD. When I didn’t see a pothole in advance, the bump sent me into a panic. For a few seconds, I’d try to convince myself it was nothing: “You live in Massachusetts, it’s a pothole.”

That’s when the obsessive voice in my head chimed in. “Wow, letting yourself off easy tonight, I guess,” he would mumble. Knowing he had my attention, he would continue, “You and I both know that bump was no ordinary bump. If I had to guess, that bump was a dachshund, maybe a beagle. Actually, no, you know what it felt like? It felt like a baby.”

While the odds of a baby hanging out in the middle of a suburban street at 9 p.m. seemed slim, I had to admit it wasn’t impossible. So I took three right turns and drove slowly back down the street. No baby. No dog. Just a crack in the cement.

“Lucky break,” the voice would say as it faded out. I agreed with him.

Once in the corporate world, I could no longer afford the time suck of OCD. You can’t tell a boss the report isn’t done because you spent the last hour trying to position the cursor on the exact right spot on your desktop. And you can’t waste a precious weekend making lists of every friend from your childhood and trying to remember if and how you had ever wronged them. Well, you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

So I found a shrink in my area. She passed me onto a psychiatrist who, in turn, introduced me to Zoloft. While I still preferred my fours to my fives, after a few months of dosage increases, the counting stopped being the loudest sound in my head. I also stopped circling back to investigate every bump. Oh, the time that saved.

I couldn’t deny that the medication made me a more productive and less anxious person. Still, I didn’t like the idea of taking it. I tried to explain to my therapist that taking medication for the brain felt like admitting that my brain was broken. If the brain was broken, so be it.

“By that logic, we should stop treating broken bones,” she replied.

“Exactly!” I said, nodding until I realized what she had done.

After a few years living back home, I felt good, real good. That’s when I considered the possibility that Los Angeles, not my father, might have been the main reason for my obsessions. The smog, the job, the informal dress code. LA was the problem. One might ask, “But what about the obsessions you had long before moving to LA?” That’s a reasonable question, but I didn’t entertain it at the time. I believed that with LA out of the picture, I was good to go.

Instead of tapering off the medication, I decided to just stop taking it. Doctors don’t recommend going cold turkey to quit anti-depressants. But that’s only an issue if you tell them.

I was a few days into the SSRI fast when my mother asked me to help tidy up the kitchen closet. She was tired of the dirty trash can and annoyed by the lack of a permanent bin for recyclables. I hated the closet, too, but I had always tolerated it. Well, I wouldn’t tolerate it any longer. She was right. Things had to change.

“Should we look for some bins online?” my mother asked.

It wasn’t a dumb question. I’m sure the average person would agree that the job didn’t need to be completed that day. Not me. With the drugs wearing off, my obsessive impulses faced pitiful resistance. Suddenly, I had clarity. I — a single, underemployed man nearing thirty and living at home — did, in fact, have a major problem. That problem was the kitchen closet.

“We’re going to the Container Store,” I declared.

A stroll through The Container Store usually provided me with a bubble bath level of calm. In a world where Google means search and Apple means laptop, it is so refreshing to have The Container Store — a place that means containers. The Container Store is a holy place where we can honor the God of Organization through purchases of packing cubes and cable organizers. I don’t want to be buried in an overpriced box and I don’t want to spend my afterlife floating around the Atlantic inside a Poland Spring bottle, but sprinkle my ashes around The Container Store’s latest storage solutions and I won’t complain.

Unfortunately, The Container Store — with its aisles of beautiful products to organize clothes, organize electronics, and organize other organizers — nearly melted my mind that day. For as I entered that wondrous place, my Zoloft withdrawal was manifesting itself in very real ways.

I was battling what I’ll call “brain zaps,” a tingling sensation on the surface of the skull followed by electric shocks that bounced around inside the head. The brain zaps began before I even made it to the trash cans. I said nothing to my mother about it and kept moving. The sun was not going to set before our closet had new buckets. Beautiful buckets.

I found a silver trash can with a foot pump and fell in love with it. The foot pump may not have had the same impact as other inventions like the light bulb or the combustion engine, but I stood there marveling at it. We would never have to lift a disgusting cover again, for we would have a foot pump. “Isn’t it incredible?” I asked my mother, with no interest in her answer.

One down. One to go.

Even though it was, at most, a twenty-yard journey, I felt considerably worse by the time we reached bins I deemed worthy of our seltzer bottles. I whipped out the tape measure to make sure we chose one that would fit alongside the new trash can. I might have given the bins a more thorough inspection, but I was fading fast. I no longer needed perfect buckets. I just needed to get out of there with two buckets. Sure, I was at peace with dying in The Container Store, but I figured, at worst, I was merely going to pass out. The embarrassment of coming to and realizing I had caused a scene in such a holy place would have crushed me. Bins in hand, I marched to the checkout.

I finally mentioned the cerebral surges to my mother as we waited in line. She asked if I thought tea would help. I said it might, even though it sounded like treating a brain tumor with cream soda.

As expected, the tea did not do the trick. By the time we got home, brain pain had become my default setting, with clarity arriving only in momentary flashes. On the off chance it was related to my cold turkey experiment, I called in a prescription refill.

I popped two pills and went to bed for as long as I could.

The next morning, I was already feeling a little better. The brain zaps were gone. I would learn in my next therapy session that “brain zaps” are a possible side effect of suddenly quitting anti-depressants. I, for one, was shocked.

The next morning, I came down the stairs feeling like my normal self. I poured some coffee and sat down at the table with my mother. She, too, recognized that her son had returned.

“I can tell you’re better,” she said.

“How so?”

“You’re not being a jerk.”

My mother never approaches a swear word, so her jerk was most people’s jackass or bastard or worse. The events of the previous day were a little foggy, so I took her word for it and apologized.

After breakfast, I went over to the (my) closet. I pushed down on the lever with my foot. The lid popped up. It was very pleasant. I did it again. And then two more times to make it four. My mother was happy with our work. I’m not sure my dad noticed anything had changed. I, for one, could see that the closet was better, yet somehow it didn’t complete me like I thought it would the day before. The balanced me couldn’t appreciate it quite the same way.

My mother may have hated who I had become, but I made the closet something special or, at least, something functional. And that’s a helpful role my father’s masterful ability to clutter can’t play. In a civil society, he will never be called upon to flood a clean kitchen counter with pamphlets or cover a freshly dusted staircase with file boxes. Still, I realize that just because my obsessions can be used for good doesn’t mean they should go unchecked.

And so — for now — I have put the organizational demon in a hypothetical box. That’s not to say he’ll be gone forever. If you want blessed order in a world full of people like my father who fight on the side of ugly disorder, perhaps it’s necessary to let the demon out every now and then. Should desperate times call for it, I can always toss my drugs in the closet and pull him out. He’ll be in one of the boxes with a lid.

Meet the Contributor
Christian Harrington

Christian Harrington is a writer and teacher in the Boston area. After a brief public relations career in Los Angeles, he returned east to write material outside the press release genre. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: David/Flickr Creative Commons

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