When Reconciliation is Impossible

Take Out the Garbage

Keith R Wilson


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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?”