On collecting and letting go: a photo essay

How collaging helped me get through an out-of-body experience

By Hannah Carty

$If I lose the objects, I’m afraid I’ll lose the memories with them. Hannah Carty/The Varsity

Section one: collaging

I probably can’t blame this year’s first United States Presidential debate entirely for my dissociative episode, but something about listening to two elderly men discuss the future clearly wasn’t working for my mental well-being. I was sitting there, on the couch in my living room, watching the debate with my roommates, when the voices of the candidates and my roommates all talking over one another started piling up in my head.

As I was trying not to worry too much about the existence of my future, my country, and our planet, a terrible fear that I wasn’t real started to creep into my brain.

The debate ended, and I tried to act normal. I started to realize that most normal activities were contributing to my panic — listening to music was overwhelming, and conversation was confusing.

For the next several days, it felt like my brain had walked right out of the back of my head, leaving my body to fend for itself. Specifically, according to the various websites I consulted during this period, I was experiencing something pretty akin to “derealization and depersonalization.” My brain felt disconnected from my body, and my body felt disconnected from the world.

So, I did what any quasi-sane person would do.

Over the past year, I had started collecting The Varsity’s newspapers by accident, picking them up on campus, and then never getting rid of them, despite their ephemeral nature. I spread out all of these newspapers, and I started chopping them up. I had been thinking about collaging them for a while, but at that time, it seemed like one of the only things I could do.

$Cutting up and collaging old newspaper issues as a way to connect to times gone by. Hannah Carty/The Varsity

Section two: collecting

I still have most of the papers, magazines, random booklets, and cards that I’ve collected over the past few years. I get this tendency from my family — my parents specifically.

It’s likely that nobody in my family fits the clinical definition of a hoarder, though if you saw the wrong place in our house at the wrong time, you might disagree. We’re simply not very good at throwing things out. Personally, I ascribe way too much meaning to small objects. With everything I own, I remember where and when I bought it and usually how much it cost; these little details bring me joy.

If I lose the objects, I’m afraid I’ll lose the memories with them.

My mother is the one who played the biggest part in passing on these collecting tendencies to me. About once a year, I receive a box of things I absolutely don’t need from her, things that truly puzzle me as to how they are still around.

I got the idea for collaging because my mother sent me copies of two collages she made in university in a large manila envelope labelled, “Two of the collages I did in the stacks at Queen’s when I was really bored of reading Gogol or some such Russian Lit.” Unfortunately I was not having such an erudite collegiate experience as I undertook my artistic projects — instead I was playing Animal Crossing to stay calm.

For example, in my October 2020 box of things I have absolutely no need for, I received:

-   A rubber duck with which I won a local duck race as a child.

-   A postcard from the dentist confirming an appointment time from 2017.

-   A Black Widow action figure.

-   An old ticket to a play.

-   A half-painted picture that I made several years ago.

I suppose my own box of newspapers and various printed paraphernalia is an indicator of my collecting tendencies. Even after cutting out all the good bits, I will probably keep the scraps of cut-up the newspapers for far too long.

$The act of destroying can be empowering. Hannah Carty/The Varsity

Section three: cohesion

After a couple of days, the dissociation went away, and I felt whole again. My understanding of what it meant to be normal was reshaped by a new experience of feeling completely separated.

I think it’s empowering to destroy. Taking apart something that had value to me, like the newspapers, helped me to deconstruct my desire to literally collect and hold the past as much as possible.

But ultimately, it’s not through any one side of the coin that we can live our lives. It’s through the cycles of life — destruction and creation, ups and downs, togetherness and separation — that I can understand each one.

$Art projects can reflect internal and external states. Hannah Carty/The Varsity