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Running Away

How minimalism helped me learn to stand still

Rocks in the ocean
Photography by Joel Biddle

I lost my husband to suicide in 1999. Holding onto his stuff—his shirts, a bottle opener, pictures—helped me deal with the pain and grief. I couldn’t let it go or he would be gone. The guilt and pain weren’t leaving either. I had to hold on tight or I’d forget him. I never learned to let go of things easily. I grew up in a family that valued stuff, things, and junk over people. It was a pretty traumatic childhood, to begin with, but I never really learned to love others—just things. People leave and hurt you; belongings don’t.

They will tell you that you never really get over trauma and loss, and that’s true. You just deal with it the best way you know how. I learned to run away and distract myself from my grief. I learned to drown out my hurt by helping others and forgetting myself. I ripped out houses and fixed them up; I moved, a lot. I worked and went to school. I collected. My gathering of things included some very expensive items, like houses, oddities, and antique furniture. No matter the cost or amount of time, I didn’t care. I spent my time looking for more stuff at peddlers malls and antique stores. There was always a reason to keep running and collecting.

Then, 2015 happened. I owned a huge Victorian mansion and all the stuff that comes with owning one. I thought everything was perfect. I had money, love, and a huge place to rest my head…and stuff—lots of stuff. Everything was perfect but why not move? I had to keep moving. I had to run away from the grief that was buried deep down. The house was sold and another was being built. Moving was when things began to change. I got rid of a lot and felt lighter and happier. But then I just replaced it with new stuff before the new house was even built.

Halfway across the country, I started a new job. On the second or third day, the CEO made a statement that didn’t sit well with me. He said, “We have to figure out how to increase our revenue.” I serve individuals with autism, mental illness, and intellectual disabilities. I sat there, broken-hearted and missing my old employer. To him, it wasn’t about the money; it was always about helping people. Because I never learned to stand still, here I was, about to be a cog in a machine that uses our most cherished individuals for capital gain. I couldn’t do it.

I tucked tail and ran back home. I dragged my love with me, even after I dragged him through hell with my past. We were sad that things didn’t work out the way we had hoped. But despite the disappointment, he understood. Something had clicked inside of me. We had to get out of that mess, find a way forward, and make some changes. Was I always a cog in the machine? Was I the one using others for personal gain? What was life supposed to be? How could I feel good about helping others? How could I help myself? The questions never stopped. It felt like a mid-life crisis.

Months later, I found Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life. Like most of my books, it sat unread for a long time, as part of the collection. I had this strange feeling that it would uproot my beliefs. One day I decided that it was time. I read it in one sitting—I couldn’t stop. I was right in my assumption; it changed everything.

While I’d made a commitment to go through my life with a fine-tooth comb, I began to feel a deep, deep sadness I couldn’t shake. I was happy to finally be able to release things and start building better relationships, but a part of me was so distraught that I had not done this sooner. Why had I wasted my life collecting and building things when I could have been helping and loving people more?

So began the slow process of releasing, forgiving, and moving on. I learned to value time and people, to spend my time with people who value me, and to get away from the people that don’t. I found ways to do what I love while loving those close to me, and while loving myself. It’s been a long and hard journey, and at times, I didn’t think I would make it. It was hard to let go of the past and let other people love me—to just stop for a moment and appreciate what I had instead of thinking about everything I wanted.

But here I am, and I finally do have everything I want: a very small house filled with only the things I really value; love and friendships; the ability to really help others; and knowing joy in stillness. And now, I move toward experiences and people instead of running away.

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