Hoarder Confessions, part 1: Humanizing the Cluttered Life

Hoarders–usually characterized as “packrats” by modern media–seem to be quite mythical, eccentric characters. We even have TV shows about them now (both fictional and non-fictional), which paint such people as willful clutter-gatherers, antisocial, and even crazy.

hoarding_example I, however, have a different perspective on this description of “hoarder”–because by most modern standards, I am a hoarder, and several other members of my family have been as well. (The pictured area is the hallway outside my bedroom door, just as an example.) I’ve been battling against my natural hoarding tendencies for a couple of years now, most notably seen through my Slaying the Clutter Dragon article series, but as you can see from this picture, I have a LONG way to go. What you see here is the unofficial “laundry station” in the house, a tiny bit of order balanced precariously on decades of junk.

What Exactly IS Hoarding?

According to the Wikipedia article on compulsive hoarding, it amounts to gathering and keeping objects long after their usefulness has passed, and being unable to let items go. In severe cases, it can actually keep a person from using much space in their house, turning the “livable” rooms into literal obstacle courses (I should know, my room is like this!). Hoarding is considered either a mental disorder all its own, or part of another mental disorder (usually it’s paired with OCD). (Additional information can be found on Psychiatry.org’s Hoarding Disorder page.)

A “Clutter Continuum,” Constantly Changing

Hoarding is not, however, made up of just a couple of easily-recognizable behaviors. Rather, it can appear in mild, moderate, and severe forms, all along a continuum of clutter. My maternal grandmother was a severe hoarder; for example, she had a stack of TV Guide magazines so large that it had formed a side table of sorts in her TV room. The entire second floor of her home was unusable, and several of the first-floor rooms were piled so full of boxes that the doors could not even be opened. And let’s not talk about the refrigerator. By contrast, I would call myself a mild to moderate hoarder; I don’t hoard old newspapers and REALLY obvious trash, but I have a hard time letting go of broken/messed-up items, old toys from childhood, etc.

Hoarding tendencies can also develop and change over one’s lifetime as life events happen; as a child, I hoarded just about everything that was “mine” because it was simply mine and I liked knowing that I could claim these items for myself. As I grew up, I realized that my cluttered room was not only keeping me from using about 80% of my bedroom space, but kept me from inviting friends and family over. Thus, I got a big attack of “Sick-Of-It-Itis” and started a slow purge of items that continues to this day. By contrast, my mom’s previously uncluttered and almost painfully-tidy rooms have become more cluttered as her health has declined; de-cluttering has become an almost insurmountable task.

The Mindsets Behind Hoarding

Having observed the hoarding tendencies both in myself and in my family members, I believe I can describe the thought processes that cause and perpetuate hoarding:

“I’ll Need It Later/Someone Else Will Need It”

This is the constant belief that the item will be useful for someone at some point in time–just not right now, or not for me personally. I fall victim to this all the time, especially if the item was REALLY useful to me in the past, or if it’s messed up and “just needs a little fixing” to be ready for someone else to use. It makes my skin crawl to think I’m throwing out a perfectly good item! (See next point for more on this)

“I Paid Good Money for This”

This, above all, is where my hoarding comes from. I cannot STAND it when something I paid for is broken/no longer useful and everyone else says I should throw it away–I can’t STAND seeing money go in the trash. During the Great Purge of 2009, I actually got physically ill at the thought of having to throw away a really expensive blouse, even though it had some staining and a little rip in it. I was angry at myself for letting the blouse get messed up, and I was angry that the money I had spent on it was virtually wasted. (Thanks to some super-awesome stain remover and a few stitches, however, I was able to save the blouse and wear it again…LOL)

“I’m Keeping the Memories in This Item”

This, I think, is what Gran suffered from the most. By the time her hoarding had gotten severe, my granddad had already died and a lot of her friends had passed away, too. Keeping Granddaddy’s old papers, records, and books, as well as cards from her late friends and old newspaper articles featuring them, may have made her feel more secure, as if she hadn’t lost all these people in her life. Plus, if she had started to deal with all the boxes in Granddaddy’s old study (one of the rooms that you couldn’t even walk into), she would have had to deal with the onslaught of grief at realizing he was really gone. I don’t know for a fact that this is what caused ALL her hoarding, but it’s a really good guess based on what I observed.

“If I Don’t Hang Onto It/Remember How Important It Is, Who Will?”

This question arises from a sense of preserving history as well as memories, as if the hoarder is somehow a caretaker and curator of their own personal museum. Mom and I both do this a lot–she and I have both kept a lot of old stuff from my childhood. In a way, the clutter becomes a memory book, except that you have to walk around it instead of being able to leaf through it…and there’s an underlying fear that if you get rid of the item, whatever it is, you’ll forget why it was important to you, and forget something vital to who you are today.

In short, hoarding (at least from my experience) comes from wanting to be prepared for everything, trying to keep memories (even when it seems no one else will), and preventing waste (either of money or items). These are all pretty valid concerns, but in our brains, it takes top priority. It seems it all boils down to preventing loss; it is our way, perhaps, of fighting Father Time and Death, and staving off grief. (I know I don’t deal with loss very well, at least, though I can’t speak for any other hoarders out there.)

Don’t Judge or Shame, PLEASE

If you don’t live as a hoarder or live in a house with one, chances are you have no idea why or how all this happens; the tendency to judge hoarders as “crazy” or “gross/weird” people is very strong, especially now that hoarding TV shows are such a media hit. But people really do live this way, and a lot of it is based on fear. Either we’re terrified to lose memories or be unprepared, or we’re terrified to let other people know how deeply we are mired in a mess of our own making. Other people’s judgments and shaming, including the TV shows which seem to just make a spectacle out of us, do not help in the LEAST.

If you know a hoarder who wants to get out of their cluttered mess, and you want to help them, then be supportive, be available to help, and be patient. Tangled in the clutter is a lot of emotions, possibly grief as well as fear and humiliation; be sensitive to that, even as you plod on, gaining ground inch by inch. Understand that not every hoarder wants to give up their lifestyle, but some of us feel more trapped than soothed by the clutter and would LOVE a helping hand. And finally, respect that we are human beings and don’t deserve to be treated like naughty children; after all, if a hoarder willingly shows you his or her house, you have just been deemed trustworthy enough to bear a secret, one that may be much more painful than you know.

Next Time: Help for Hoarders

In Part 2, I’ll discuss how we hoarders can start to overcome our fear and humiliation with a few simple-sounding tactics. You’d be surprised how much these little changes can really make a difference!

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