What to do with my (literal) emotional baggage?
November 19, 2017 6:38 AM   Subscribe

I have been decluttering and I find myself unable to throw out coursework/dissertation copies from undergrad/grad school as well as equipment etc. associated with failed passions/dreams.

Background for this. I went to humanities grad school with the intention of becoming an academic. I did not do well in grad school, partly due to stress imposed by financial issues (I was not on a full ride) and left academia forever after finishing my degree. I have floundered professionally ever since. I know I will never go back to academia again. Despite this, I have lugged stuff left over from grad school through several moves. I would like the storage space but I find myself unable to throw anything away. Painful feelings well up whenever I'm reminded of grad school and I find myself unable to handle and make a decision on the stuff.

Similarly, I have several artistic/creative passions that I had once hoped to turn into careers. That did not come true either due to inability to pursue professional training for financial reasons. They have, however, saddled me with things like tools, ballet shoes and old musical instruments.

I am in a constant state of grief whenever I think about these failed dreams of my youth. I am middle-aged and have not been able to find a realistic dream replacement and wonder what I am living for. Most of my failures were not related to an actual lack of ability but more due to financial and other external constraints (except for grad school, I think I actually sucked at academic writing). I often think I should try to sell or dump my old stuff but I find myself unable to do it. I'm pretty sure if I am currently successful in my career or feeling fulfilled in my life I would be able to dump everything in a heartbeat.My books and other belongings without emotional associations, in contrast, have been pared down pretty much to essentials.

So what do I do? How do I come to terms with being a middle-aged failure? That this is my life and this is the way things are going to be forever (being poor and a failure) and that I've missed my professional chances (some of my passions are now impossible professionally forever for age-related physical reasons e.g ballet). That I will never be really good at anything or make my dent in the world. I miss being young and hopeful. I feel life has been a downhill ride all the way and I am uncertain how to continue the daily grind without any hope left. I feel dread when I get up in the morning because my life seems meaningless. In the meantime, my apartment bulges with physical reproaches from the past.

I would especially like to hear from ex-grad students who's left academia permanently how you dealt with your old stuff/feelings, especially if you left after failing to get an academic job and am now in an non-academic field.
posted by whitelotus to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
A good friend and former colleague was in the position you describe in the last paragraph. She let go of almost all of the books, papers and other work-related stuff that she had accumulated during her graduate studies and three-year post-doc period. She made use of the method described by Marie Kondo. There's still some stuff of hers in the office we once shared (I still work at university), but she has no interest in coming to pick it up. She now works in another field, in a less prestigious job, but is much happier.
posted by Desertshore at 7:06 AM on November 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Well, clearly your problem is much bigger than clutter, but as a direct suggestion for that, how about neatly packaging the useful items by interest (ballet in one box, trombone in another box) so you can no longer see the contents and work through your contacts or local networks on finding students who can use them. It will be a good feeling to help someone else, and having them spend some time not directly visible to you will make it easier to emotionally separate from them.

For the documents, scan them and store them all in an obscure subfolder wherever you keep your files backed up.
posted by lakeroon at 7:06 AM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One question that helps me declutter is 'how does this item make me feel', if it doesn't bring me happiness, energy, etc. out it goes. This has helped me get rid of perfect good things that might be useful someday but are connected to painful memories in the past, and even things I would consider 'tied to my identity' sometimes. For example, one day walked over to my desk and had the insight that to start work every morning, I had to walk past a bookshelf of things I thought I *should* read or hold on to. Books from school I thought were important and planned to read again but had only picked up to move for the last 10+ years. I held on to them b/c I thought reading them would 'complete my education' and demonstrate I was a well read, well educated individual, which of course is how I want to think of myself. No wonder I had issues procrastination on my work, I was mentally worn out by the time I sat down to work. It took a while to get rid of the stuff of some of the papers (I only have a Bachelors), but I then one day I realized I every time I looked at this one box I was full of sadness, shame, regret etc., that time of my wasn't a happy one. It was a bit painful to throw it all away (and you could digitize, etc. before throwing away if you really don't want to lose it), but I never think about that stuff now.

The other thing that helps me is a reminder that one way or another you pay to hold on to stuff. It takes mental energy to process, physical space to store, plus time etc. to move, organize, etc. That notion plus the realization that minus personal affects a lot of things are replaceable these days has helped me get rid of things I was holding on to, even the special things. They appear suddenly a whole less special when you think about how they drag you down.
posted by littlerockgetaway at 7:25 AM on November 19, 2017 [20 favorites]

I am in a constant state of grief whenever I think about these failed dreams of my youth. I am middle-aged and have not been able to find a realistic dream replacement and wonder what I am living for.

This seems like a good time for therapy to work through your grief and find a way forward. If therapy isn't practical, please think about other options to do the same.

I suspect that if you had a clearer goals for your future, it would be easier to let go of this stuff from your past. From the flip side, it also seems that this stuff from your past is weighing you down and hampering your path forward. So you're kind of between a rock and a hard place.

For letting go of things: When I have a hard time coming to a decision with stuff I'll sometimes write out where I got it, what it represents, how hard it would be to replace, how much space it's taking up, what else it might be doing if it was in the possession of someone who would love and use it instead of languishing in my closet, and how likely it is that I might use it again. That can help me stop spinning in circles and make a decision to let go. It's slow but - for me - effective.

Sometimes it's helpful to think - with rueful humor - of breaking up with my possessions so they can find fulfillment elsewhere.
posted by bunderful at 7:34 AM on November 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

A few thoughts: don't worry about the ballet shoes if you want to keep them, they're small. On the other hand, if seeing them causes you pain, you have to weigh the pain of ditching them against the prevention of future pain. You will likely think about them less after you get rid of them.

On the notion of making space: I think it's important to consider total volume and mass as well as any sentimental, functional or cash value. E.g. some tools are quite small, but rather expensive and useful. Ditching all my hand tools wouldn't save me much space, and even though I don't use them much, I keep them because they have pretty high functional and sentimental value to me, and cost of replacement of the set is rather of high, even though no one piece is that valuable.

I don't know what instruments you're talking about. If it's a sousaphone or cello or contrabassson you'll never play, sell that shit pronto. It's huge, worth a lot of money, and not really an instrument that can give a lot of self satisfaction for solo play. On the other hand, I know a lot of people who, when stuck with hard times, sold everything but their guitar. I'd encourage you to get back in to playing some instrument, the fact that it's not a career is no reason not to play! I get a lot of satisfaction out of my amateur dabbling. It can be comforting/self-soothing, challenging, entertaining, exploratory, etc. I hope I'm preaching to the choir, but music can be very important and vital.

I am still an academic, but I've been thinking each year might be my last for... a long time now. And I too have old documents and books from grad school hanging around. Here's how I approach culling that: do it in passes/stages. It's weird and scary and sad to burn it all at once. But each time I move or go on a tidying spree, I try to reduce the stack by some 30-50%, and that's made my collection of books and papers relatively lean and useful (though I still have a ways to go!). I would recommend against scanning. That takes forever and is boring, and will probably fill you with bad feelings as you watch each thing go by. Keep a few of the best bits, but just ditch the rest, you'll not ever need a hardcopy of a term paper from your first year core course, but you may well want a few of the works that you were most pleased with, or a few of the better books.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:39 AM on November 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I have felt this way before, and still do sometimes! But do you know the maybe, maybe not story? A Buddhist therapist I had once told me about it, and it's made a huge difference in my life. Maybe you would have gone into academia and crossed the street one day in front of your office and been hit by a car and paralyzed. Maybe you would have been a star ballerina but developed a terrible eating disorder that left you weak and ill. Maybe you would have been the star of the symphony until a crazed fan stalked you and ruined your life. When you're throwing away stuff, you're throwing away the bad things that happened as well as the bad things that could've happened.

And oh yeah, turn off social media.
posted by EtTuHealy at 7:49 AM on November 19, 2017 [19 favorites]

I intentionally left academia and am in a nonacademic job (and recently have been dissatisfied with everything from where I live to what I do now) - at one point, I had to let go of things, and some of those things I liked a lot and had been given personally to use in an academic setting.

What helped me get rid of it was donating some of the stuff to colleges and universities. That way, they didn't occupy a spot in my closet with thoughts associated to it, but rather can teach who knows how many students.

Since it sounds like part of your feelings are wrapped up with frustrations of money and limiting your dreams, I wonder if you could give the instruments to a group that works with people who don't have as much access to money/music/whatever - your instrument could live on with other people and in a new generation.

Another option: Sell them. Fund it for something you want to try right now.

One more thing - I don't know if this helps or not, but you could focus on the other side of all of this. At one time, you took steps to get somewhere. You got into grad school (not everyone ,gets in). You get your job (not everyone makes the cut for position Y), etc. You've done some things

Nthing the suggestion above for therapy, because I believe you can still dream and chase things that you want in life.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 7:57 AM on November 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Hello me. I’ve been thinking of this issue a lot lately and have made some progress.

First, I’d say think about whether you can incorporate some of your old dreams into your life. You’re not going to be a professional dancer, and I get that that’s hard. But maybe you’d like to take adult ballet classes. And yes, you can still play an instrument. I recently started playing piano again. I decided to play ten minutes a week, and just that small amount really makes me happier.

There’s this weird idea in our culture that things you do only count if you make a living at them. So money becomes how everything is valued. This is bullshit. If you still want to be a dancer, you can be a dancer. Who you are is not dependent on whether some great cultural judge will pay you to do something. If ballet is painful, consider another kind of dance. I found belly dance super fun and welcoming to older students.

As for getting rid of things, there is no deadline. Take your time. Take years if that works best for you. The Kondo method is great, but it’s not for everyone. A few weeks ago I got rid of some undergraduate bluebooks and lecture notes. And then I stopped because that was all I could manage. I will get back to it later. I’ve also gotten rid of some grad school books, but I’ve kept a lot of them. I’ll get rid of more later.

This is deeply painful, and it’s ok to just accept that. And therapy helps, but it will still be hard. But you will be ok. Grad school particularly messes with your head and makes you think that it matters more than it does.
posted by FencingGal at 8:03 AM on November 19, 2017 [16 favorites]

Best answer: The "how does this make me feel when I see it" is so important. It's really the only question to ask in this case. (Other cases may also involve cost of replacement x likelihood of need; cost of physical storage; etc.; but this stuff is purely emotional.)

So how does this stuff make you feel? It sounds like far from giving you a warm fuzzy, it makes you feel miserable.

Here's something I've had to come to terms with: one gets absolutely no points for "potential" or for feeling bad about something. I think your agonized ruminating on your old artistic goals and abusing your current self is a form of vanity. Like "I'm not JUST this person I am now, I also had all these dreams that I should still get credit for, I place so much value on art and intellectual achievement, I'm expressing that value by scorning the way I live my life today as a "normal"!"

This form of "coulda shoulda woulda" does nobody any good. Making yourself miserable does not make you more noble. I'm not saying that to "tough love" you, I promise! I just recognize some of my old impulses here and I want to help you see that there is no virtue in lugging this shit around. You had to prioritize in your life, as we all do, and you did not wind up an artist/scholar. Almost nobody does! That's reality! But we don't all make ourselves miserable because we aren't ballerinas. Life is challenging and we all have limited resources of time, money, and ability that mostly mean we don't turn into successful artists and scholars. It's ok! We can have decent lives, unplagued by guilt and dissatisfaction for not achieving ballerina professorhood. It's fine. It's a lot better than living an apology.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:03 AM on November 19, 2017 [11 favorites]

On preview, saltysaltacid and FencingGal said more or less what I was trying to, only better. Do these things in stages, and reevaluate periodically; every year I come across something that I could not have imagined parting with five years ago, but now I look at it and wonder why the hell I still have it, and I send it off to Goodwill.

In terms of instruments, yeah, it depends what you've got lying around and how much space it takes up, but I would also say, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's an incredible time to be an amateur musician; there are so many free lessons out there on youtube, free tablature, and the free/cheap software available for home recording is just incredible. Making music is still hugely important to me even though I know in my 40s that I'll never be the rock star I wanted to become when I was 14. Lurk over on MeFi Music, which is a terrifically supportive place to find inspiration and encouragement.

But by the same token, don't feel obliged to stick with what you've already got, if it's guilt-inducing or gives you bad feelings; if you're out of practice and intimidated, get yourself an inexpensive ukulele and just have fun banging around on it, maybe find a local meetup and play with others, which is incredibly fulfilling even if you're just playing old chestnuts.

Finally, read (MeFi's own) John Hodgman's recent book Vacationland, which is a collection of essays dealing with many of the things you've touched on in your question; confronting middle age and trying to figure out where to go next. Midlife crises are nothing new, but they're hard to relate until you realize you're having one yourself. Vacationland is very funny, but also very bittersweet. It is nice to have a contemporary put into words these things we're all struggling with in our 40's.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 8:21 AM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

When you get rid of stuff in your life, you make room for new things to come in.
posted by chocolatetiara at 8:28 AM on November 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

It seems like you still feel obligated to succeed according to the terms of your former life or lives. As long as you are holding on to the feeling that you "should" be an academic, and any other path is failure, it will be very hard to move forward.

If you research cognitave behavioral therapy, one of the ideas is that we can get depressed because we believe narratives about our lives that don't make sense. Identifying and disrupting such a narrative can be very freeing. A therapist can help with this.
posted by mai at 8:40 AM on November 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just moved in with a friend who is in a similar situation to yours except his small house was boarder line hoarded with these kinds of things. Like, we are talking narrow paths through boxes stacked on boxes. In a week, we have donated 6 car loads of stuff and got it under control. His advice on doing this:
"It helps having someone else there. I haven't done this before because it seemed too overwhelming to tackle alone. This wasn't a pathological hoard, it's not old newspapers and things like that, it's a sad hoard. It's the things I have held onto because I am unsatisfied with my life and the things I buy to try to make myself feel better. I can let things go by telling myself that living in a place that I want to come home to is more important than the things."

During this process, our rules were that he didn't have to get rid of anything that he absolutely didn't want to, we worked on one area at a time, and we set daily a daily goal and planned rewards. We had boxes for keep, donate, and "deal with later". Some things we just pared down, like keep one musical instrument, not five. Once we got going, however, it moved quickly. I think the idea of letting things go was way more difficult than boxing them up and taking them out. I did the actual drop off to donation centers because that was the part of it that was the hardest for him.

Having someone help you can be a huge benefit but I think more important is getting behind the idea that doing this is a step towards something better.
posted by August Fury at 9:45 AM on November 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

As someone who ditched academia, I would suggest trying to think about the time you spent there in a different way than you are now. It reads as if you look at it as a period when you failed irretrievably, ruining your potential. But was the whole experience of several years just unmitigated failure? Was your entire life an uninterrupted litany of misery? Probably not, right? Maybe there were friends you made. Maybe you liked the city you were living in. Maybe you liked living on the academic calendar. Maybe there are good memories of just sitting in the library reading. Those years weren't just a waste. I still feel grief sometimes over leaving academia, but I also think that there are far worse ways I could have spent my twenties. So what relics do you have that have positive associations? Those are the ones you should be looking to keep. Everything else you can let go. But the point is, you don't have to trash and burn everything, which I'm speculating would feel like a confession of utter failure to you. Look for the things that you want to save, that reflect the good you felt in that period. That's all you need. The rest is just reducing clutter.
posted by praemunire at 9:46 AM on November 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm maybe not replying exactly to your question but twice I've been in the position of buying something (a mountain bike and a sewing machine) off people who did biking / sewing professionally. They both (middle aged men!) cried when they handed me their bike / machine and asked me to take care of said items. separating from something that has a lot of sentimental value is so hard but it is like, I don't know, like a funeral, when you take time to say good bye. The comparison is maybe not the most appropriate but maybe you should and try to part with one thing (maybe your instrument, if it is one that doesn't age well) and explore how you feel.
And another thing, why (apart from the academic work) your passions have to be your career? I have some hobbies in which I'm super proficient (think national championship, stuff like that) and for which I'm pretty sure I would've burnt out if it were my career.
posted by Ifite at 9:55 AM on November 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Is it possible you're depressed? A therapist could potentially help you come to terms with all of this.

A random idea: have a funeral for your academic dreams and then "cremate" the associated paper that's currently in storage? (Ideally followed by a wake with some friends and good food!) I suggest this mainly because your overriding feeling here is the kind of sadness / anger that goes along with a loved one being taken from you.

But you ask about former almost-academics. I left academia and am in a non-academic job and still have all my old binders, but they don't trouble me. I have It's been emotionally easier to get rid of them one class at a time instead of trying to recycle them all at once. Micro-economics? Nah, I don't need that. But for me leaving academia was 10% "but what about those dreams?" and 90% "wow, other professional spheres are so much better! I like it here! Nobody is holding the threat of failure over my head! People work together as a team. It's so much less lonely! And I'm less broke!" So I think what would have been sadness has largely been burned away with an "academia is bullshit!!" kind of attitude. You might consider that. I mean, from what I hear, the only thing that is more competitive, punishing, and generally bullshit than academia is professional ballet dancing. Also, being a professional musician is (like academia) not a path to great wealth in 99.9% of the cases (unless you become, like, a pop star). So maybe you can look at those dreams as kind of intrinsically flawed (and that's THEIR fault), rather than needing to place the blame elsewhere.
posted by salvia at 2:27 PM on November 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, one last thought. I remember what it felt like to be young, hopeful, ambitious, and driven by dreams. Now that I'm a bit older, I have so much more skepticism about all of that. I've seen professional projects come and go through that cycle -- from idealistic goal on the horizon, to pragmatic compromise, to the post-game spin / analysis and consequences, to that time three years later when you recycle 90 percent of the paper associated with the project. It's interesting how various pieces of paper -- the scrawl where you listed all the Important People to contact, the brochure that perfectly conveyed what you wanted to say at that time, the contested documents that remind you of battles won and lost -- embody so much life energy. And seeing this happen over several multi-year project cycles? Has left me highly skeptical about caring that much about things.

I'm now seeking ways to do a highly competent job from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm without attaching so much of myself to it, and instead attaching myself to relationships with friends and family and generally just living. It's hard to fully make that transition, I think partially because that's the way the culture where I live is set up (to idolize achievement over other things) and partially because some of us have brains that are addicted to that kind of excitement about hard work. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, maybe embrace your lack of "dreams" and instead enjoy the passing of the seasons, poetry, and home-cooked meals, and generally seek satisfaction not in accomplishment but in just being alive?
posted by salvia at 2:42 PM on November 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

Check out John Baldessari's Cremation Project piece, in which he meticulously destroyed every painting he'd created during art school. Even if you wouldn't get catharsis yourself doing something similar, you might enjoy reading about why he did it and what he gained from it.
posted by veery at 5:05 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for sharing your wisdom. I have been reading every answer carefully.

littlerockgetaway: I have some good books that I kept because I thought I might read them again. They're hard to replace and I know I won't replace them if they're gone but they are irretrievably associated with my youth/university years and as such I know re-reading them will cause me pain rather than pleasure. So I know I should probably get rid of them (sighs).

Many of you pointed out that I can still continue my artistic passions as an amateur. You are right but unfortunately, I am a all-or-nothing person, there's a stubborn, petulant and immature part of me that doesn't want to waste time and energy developing skills in something I know I won't ever be a pro in. I get envious when I see people living their dreams because I know mine will never come true.

I feel that fingersandtoes has probably hit the nail on the head with regards to my situation but while my head may agree, it's very hard to discipline my heart. I have no clue how to get to a stage where I am really okay with working in a McJob deep down and not tie that to my self-esteem and value as a human being. Especially when there are rich and privileged people who will treat working-class workers as lower life forms. I temped on and off in the past to make ends meet and I've done retail and I can tell you people can be amazingly cruel and horrible to a nobody.

salvia: You made a good point about trying to be ok with my "lack of dreams" but I really have trouble getting myself to get out of bed from day to day without a motivator. On the other hand, I am indeed tired of chasing dreams that turn out to be dead ends. I have expended great time, money and energy in pursuing these dreams but so far nothing has ever worked out. I'm now at the stage where I'm paralyzed and afraid to try anything. I don't know how to move forward.

I'm leaving this open in case anyone has more insight.
posted by whitelotus at 4:51 AM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I really have trouble getting myself to get out of bed from day to day without a motivator. ... I'm now at the stage where I'm paralyzed and afraid to try anything. I don't know how to move forward.

As someone suggested above, you sound rather depressed. I previously suggested therapy which I still think would be a good thing, and you could also bring up your depression with your primary care doc. And/or follow any of the often-recommended practices that generally help with depression - exercise, good nutrition, good sleep, meditation. Getting your depression treated is important.

Side note: There are also non-rich and non-privileged people who are cruel to just about anyone who can't retaliate. You seem to be thinking that leaving academia means joining a the whipping-boy retail working class, but there are a lot of places you can go. Many of us with humble bachelor degrees - or even no degree - have non-retail jobs that don't require us to tolerate humiliation to earn a paycheck. You still have a lot of options - get that depression treated! It's seriously clouding the way you see your situation.
posted by bunderful at 6:02 AM on November 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

You really do sound like you could be clinically depressed. It's really painful to be depressed. :( I think finding your next step and finding motivation again will be easier if you get some help with this issue.

Besides therapy or talking to your doctor, you might also try reading the list of cognitive distortions from the Feeling Good Handbook. I don't think it's accurate to refer to yourself as a failure, nor need you have a McJob where you will be a Nobody. This stubborn all-or-nothing thinking you described has probably helped you in many ways during your life, but it might not be helping right now.

I hope I didn't put words into your mouth by referring to your "lack of dreams." I was going from this piece of your post, but maybe I summarized it poorly:
these failed dreams of my youth. I am middle-aged and have not been able to find a realistic dream replacement and wonder what I am living for

Last idea, if you haven't checked out When Things Fall Apart, you might read that book. I find it's one of the most comforting books for moments in life when everything is painful and I feel lost and without an idea of what to do next. She's describing Buddhism and meditation but along the way mentions several times in her life when everything she knew and thought she was doing just crumbled to pieces, so she gets it. It might offer a little solace.
posted by salvia at 7:00 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: bunderful: Given my age, lack of specialized skills (humanities) and lack of job experience, it's pretty hard to find a good job. I had a hard time even just out of university with my bachelor's degree (hence my bad experiences with temping and retail. I did not want to take those jobs. I would have gone to grad school even without having job market difficulties but the job market difficulties certainly contributed to my making the stereotypical disastrous decision to go to grad school). After leaving grad school, I proceeded to have more temp-related and other unhappy job experiences. I would really never want to be a temp again. Or do customer-facing work. It's even more challenging now with my age and spotty work record.

salvia: I don't think "lack of dreams" is the wrong phrase at all. I just don't have a reachable and worthy goal right now and I'm not ok with that. It seems all ageing and suffering from here. I've tried reading mefi-suggested books including the Feeling Good Handbook and When Things Fall Apart but they didn't help. I am not a philosophical or religious type at all, just a very simple organism that reacts with unhappiness to a bad situation. I'm pretty sure my unhappiness is situational.
posted by whitelotus at 7:10 PM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

It may help to consider that professional scholars and artists are ALSO just people and ALSO in many cases depressed, neurotic etc. In fact - I have no sources to back me up here, because I haven't troubled to look, but I bet you could find them easily - I'd be shocked if the overall levels of depression were any lower in the academic and artistic communities than in the McJob communities. You might want to look into that - it's not the noblest inquiry, but it just might make you feel better.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:52 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update: Just wanted to say that I have gotten rid of all of my excess baggage except my musical instruments. I'm still wavering on that but I hope to make a decision before this year is over.

It sure wasn't easy sifting through everything. Too many painful memories of my hopeful younger self. But I feel lighter soul-wise somehow now that all that is gone. Though I'm not sure I can really accept my present life deep-down.
posted by whitelotus at 2:52 AM on June 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

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