Take Out the Garbage

I once facilitated a group for people recovering from severe mental illnesses. We met once a week and they talked about how things were going for them. They tried to support each other. One day a member of the group came in and said his landlord was going to evict him if he failed to clean his apartment. Landlords can do that if the apartment is really bad. We knew that just talking about it and offering moral support was not going to help him much, so, the next week, we all went to his place to help him clean. In the end, he got to keep his apartment and I got a story about letting go.

As soon as we walked in, we could see that the landlord was right to threaten eviction and we were right to help him. It was too much to overlook and too much for one man to clean. He was a major hoarder. I can’t even begin to describe everything we saw, but what really got me was the pile of apple cores by his chair. This guy must’ve really liked apples and every time he ate one he would throw the core on the floor and never pick it up. The pile was, and I’m not exaggerating, as high as the arm of the chair. There were worms and flies and mold, and it stunk in a way you would never expect a pile of apples to smell.

We got right to work and in a few hours, we had straightened and cleaned things to the point where he would not become homeless. As we cleared out the junk, and the apple cores, we discovered that, despite his hoarding, something important was missing. He didn’t have a garbage can.

There was one more thing we knew we had to do before we were done helping this man. It was not enough just to help him clean. We knew we had to get him some garbage cans; three, in fact; one for every room in his apartment. I thought I was wise to put one by the chair where he dropped the apples.

A year later, I was still facilitating the same group and we had many of the same members in it. In some ways they all had made progress, I thought, until the day the same man came in and said he was at risk of being evicted again.

“My landlord says my place is a mess. It’s a health hazard,” he said.

“But we cleaned your place. Have you been using the garbage cans?”

“Yes,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. I had to see for myself.

When I got to his apartment, I encountered a familiar smell. The stench was the same as before. Indeed, he had been using the garbage cans. In fact, there was the one by his chair, right where I had placed it, filled to overflowing with apples. He had been using the garbage cans, just like he said. He just hadn’t been emptying them.

It’s easy to say that this man is not like you. I’m sure you would never let your apartment get in this condition. Well, maybe you wouldn’t; but there are plenty of people who let their lives get to this point and they see nothing wrong in it.

For instance, some let their lives become unmanageable by hoarding grudges.

The last thing you will let go of
When you break up a relationship, there’s a lot that you let go. You often lose a house, a family, a set of in-laws, and some friends. You no longer have that person to laugh at your jokes or cry at your funeral. If you no longer visit your mother, she can’t make you her soul comforting macaroni and cheese. If you don’t answer your brother’s calls, you can’t ask to borrow his truck when you need to move. When you break up a relationship, you chalk all up those losses as the price you pay for your freedom.

There’s also a lot you gain. You no longer have to be hurt by the same person, in the same way, ever again. You can move on and develop a healthy relationship with someone else. While you forfeit your rights to a side of a bed, you get a whole other bed and all the covers all to yourself. You can sleep all night without his snoring and not have to step around his dirty underwear when you get up.

If you end a relationship, there will be one thing you will hang on to longer than anything else. There’s nothing they can do with this thing; it’s useless. Unless you make a conscious effort to let go of it, you will have a persistent desire to change your former partner. The last thing you’ll let go will be the impulse to convince her she’s wrong.

When you elect not to travel that hard road to reconciliation, and instead, settle down in personal peace, you can take off your pack and unburden yourself of having something to prove. It doesn’t matter anymore if she feels sorry for what she did, so you can stop wishing she would.

Grudges are so hard to maintain, you’d think they would be easy to give up, but they’re not.

The thing is, you can’t just, one day, say you’re going to let go of all your grudges, and be done with them. You can say that, but they come back. It’s like cleaning your apartment. When you’re done cleaning, make sure you have a garbage can to contain the subsequent mess. As long as you generate angry and resentful feelings, use it.

The crock of shit
To illustrate what I mean by a garbage can for feeling, let me tell you about an object in my office that I use as a therapeutic tool. One client aptly named it Keith’s Crock of Shit.

I think the crock originally came with some kind of cheese in it. Now it contains people’s shit. By that I mean the things people need to let go, lest it back them up and poison them. All the things they need to release: resentments, regrets, reproaches, and recriminations go in the crock. All that shit.

It works is like this. First, you identify the thing you want to let go of. Be specific. Write it down on a Post-It note. You don’t have to write a book and the spelling doesn’t have to be right, just as long as you know what you mean.

Next, say it out loud, that thing you want to let go of. Say, “I want to let go of …”

Now comes the tricky part. You’ve got to get your shit in the crock, so it’ll stay there.

I take my job as custodian of people’s shit very seriously. I don’t want those evil things getting out so they can hurt people. For this part of the operation, I shut the windows and lock the door. That way, if anything escapes the crock, it can’t go far. When I open the crock, I do so swiftly and carefully. It’s stuffed full of people’s shit from thirty odd years of doing therapy. Some always pops out, but I snatch it up and pack it back in. Then you cram your shit in, too, and say goodbye.

I put the cover back on and we check to see that no one’s shit has snuck out, stuck to our clothing, or hid in a pocket. When all is safe, we unlock the door. When you leave, you leave your shit behind.

Do me a favor though. If you see your shit on the outside, when you’re sitting at home, or driving around, send it back. Tell it to go back to the crock where it belongs.

What’s this? You want to know, does this method work? It works if you send the shit back. I’ve done my part. You have to do yours. If you see the shit walking around, whatever you do, don’t grab it and keep it all over again. What did you give it to me for, if you were just going to keep it?

Do you have some shit you need to get rid of? You can make an appointment and leave it in my crock. If you can’t make an appointment, you’ll have to create your own crock for your shit. It’s easy to do, now that you know how.

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