Tag Archives: hoarders

Hoarder Confessions, part 3: The Hoarder’s Assistant

If you’ve ever tried to help anyone else clean their house out, you know how physically difficult it is, even if the person hasn’t hoarded things. From personal experience, however, I can safely say that helping a hoarder clean things out is about 3 times as physically exhausting and about twice as emotionally exhausting–for all parties!

So, if a hoarder in your life ever asks you to help them with their home, you can rely on the following road-tested guide as you work. This will keep you both less frustrated and more productive (and won’t destroy your friendship along the way)!

While They Sort, You Clean

One of the most irritating things about cleaning out a hoard is finding all the collected dust and dirt all over items, the floor, and even the walls sometimes (depending on how stacked-up the hoard is). When I’m trying to clean out my own collection of stuff, having to dust, sweep, and wipe off everything is a HUGE distraction from my real task. So, as the hoarder’s assistant, your primary task is to clean–dust surfaces, mop, sweep and/or vacuum newly exposed floor areas, wash or wipe off usable items, etc.

This takes a lot of the “cleaning” pressure off your hoarder friend so they can focus on the monumental task of sorting and purging items; it also serves as a confidence boost, as the hoarder sees progress being made. (Plus, it keeps you from having to figure out what to do with all these items which have no meaning to you–see next point.)

Don’t EVER Throw Anything Away Without Hoarder’s Permission

Speaking as a hoarder myself, this is my worst nightmare: somebody coming into my house like a tornado of cleaning power, and throwing away EVERYTHING in sight, no matter what it means to me. You might think a brutal purging spree is “just what they need to get started,” but I’m telling you, that’s a friendship-destroying move right there.

Clean and straighten to your heart’s content, but do not throw ANYTHING away until the hoarder has had a chance to check it. Something that looks worthless to you may not be worthless to them, and it will make things a lot less emotional if you just let them deal with it. One helpful tip: if you come across items that look more like garbage
(old receipts, broken/dented objects, crumpled papers with writing on them, etc), create a separate box for them so that they’re not just scattered atop more obviously keepable items. (If they’re having difficulty getting rid of even a wadded-up food wrapper or some crumpled gift wrap, however, gently encourage them to think about what use the item would have.)

Allow Breaks in the Cleaning Process

Both you and your hoarder friend will need breaks fairly often, due to physical exhaustion if nothing else. Breaks are necessary, otherwise your energy will flag early on and both of you will be sorely tempted to quit. When you take breaks, by the way, leave the room you’re working on and go somewhere cleaner, even if that means leaving the house so you’re not just sitting there surrounded by all the work you need to help with. This will refresh both of you, and make the process a lot easier.

Do Not Judge or Ridicule–Just Help and Listen

For a person who is trying to recover from hoarding, a purging process is not only physically demanding, but emotionally distressing. The hoarder can feel shame that they “let the house get this bad,” or they can spend the whole time fearing that they’ll “accidentally throw away something important.” (These are in quotes because I’ve thought these very phrases myself.) Hoarding is often a secretive, intensely private habit, and when another person becomes privy to the secret, it can leave the hoarder feeling painfully vulnerable.

As their assistant, then, you need to be as soothing and trustworthy as possible as you work alongside them. Your hoarder friend will need a lot of support and reassurance–they may need to talk out their feelings about the process, or they may even cry while working. Be there for them, facilitate the process of purging and cleaning as much as you can, and keep any negative words to yourself, since discouragement or judgment in any form can be more hurtful than you ever imagined.

If They Get Daunted, Help Them Restart–Or Find a Stopping Place

During my massive cleanouts, I tend to get daunted very easily; sometimes, I just look at the enormity of the task and want to either cry or vomit. I feel safe in guessing I’m not the only hoarder who reacts this way, either!

If your hoarder friend is getting daunted early on in the process, it’s up to you to be their cheerleader; you can keep dusting and mopping as they rest, visually demonstrating the progress you both are making, or you can stop and give them a pep talk. Keep it all positive, though–don’t shame them for this reaction, but help them conquer it!

However, if the purging process has been going for quite a while (several hours), and the hoarder is getting daunted because of mental and emotional exhaustion, it’s better to find a stopping place rather than to push them to keep working. Finish the section you’re working on together, and let that be enough–remember, this hoard wasn’t built up in a day, so it won’t be taken down in 24 hours!


When you’re helping a hoarder in your life, it will be demanding on you, but it’ll be even more demanding to them. Being a positive, encouraging, helpful hoarder’s assistant will be key to them finishing the job. Trust me, we recovering hoarders REALLY appreciate awesome people who are willing to help!

Hoarder Confessions, part 2: Help for Hoarders

As I discussed last week, hoarding is not a “weird” problem–it’s actually something that a lot more people do, and while some people are happy living with their various collections, some hoarders, like me, feel trapped by it.

I speak mainly from my own experience, having been a hoarder as long as I can remember. My main reasons for hoarding: I hate throwing away items that cost a good bit of money, even if they aren’t doing me any good anymore, because all I can see is dollars going in the trash. I also hate throwing away broken things, because all I can focus on is the waste of a good item…I end up keeping some broken things in the hope that I can somehow clean them up and fix them to work again.

However, one can only keep so many items before the collection begins to overwhelm your life. I am now in the fourth year of trying to dig out my life from amid the detritus…it’s not been an easy road, to put it mildly. But I’ve discovered a few tricks along the way that are helping me break through, and I hope this article will help fellow hoarders as well!

#1: The “Month Box”

The boxes pictured above have been the biggest help to me in deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. I call them the “month boxes.”

How It Works

The “month box” is a temporary storage place for items that need re-evaluation. Often when I’m cleaning and organizing, I become overwhelmed with the weighty task of discarding and purging items. Sometimes I’m getting rid of so much stuff that it makes me anxious. What if I’m getting rid of something I’m going to need later, just because I’m caught up in “purging?”

This fear has brought cleaning and organizing to an utter halt in the past; to ease the fear of discarding an important item, I have the “month box” set aside for items which I don’t really want to get rid of, but which I’m not sure that I need to keep. The ideal “month box” is small enough to keep it from becoming a junk storage place in its own right, but is big enough to hold a good number of items. (I’ve got two “month boxes” going at the moment, simply because one box has a couple of big, more fragile items and the other has a lot of smaller items.)

The most important thing about the “month box:” if after one month has passed, I have not touched any of the items in the box, then they can likely be safely purged.

This has helped me keep on cleaning and organizing without so much of the crippling fear of “losing something important,” and it also holds me accountable for either keeping or purging items at the end of a set time frame. (That box on the left is coming up on its month deadline here in about a week…eek, I better get moving on that!)

#2: The “Important Box”

I don’t know about other hoarders, but I do know that my house’s mess tends to “eat” important things, like medical paperwork, keys, bills, phone chargers, car registrations, spare change, appliance manuals, etc. The mess then regurgitates these items in various random places throughout the house…I kid you not, I’ve found spare change in kitchen drawers, thin appliance manuals stuffed between stray towels in the laundry room, and all sorts of weirdness.

When you’re trying to purge, these items serve as a HUGE distraction. All of a sudden, you have to shift out of “purging” gear and into “save-this-item” gear–you have to absolutely stop everything you’re doing and go find where this item is actually supposed to be. VERY ANNOYING, especially for us hoarders who have a hard enough time shifting out of “save-this-item” gear in the first place!

Thus, the “important box” is a set place where these items can live until you’re otherwise done cleaning and organizing the space you’re working on.

How It Works

As you discover important items hidden among the hoard, just stow them in the “important box,” and make sure that the box doesn’t get mixed up with other cleaning/organizing boxes. (I use a small, bright blue plastic bin as my “important box”, which stands out among the white bins and random boxes I usually use for cleaning and organizing.) Keep the “important box” close at hand, but not directly in the way of your flurries of cleaning effort.

Once you’re done cleaning and organizing for the day, it’s time to deal with the contents of the “important box.” This is imperative–if you don’t empty the box at the end of your purging, then it’s just going to attract more junk to lay on top of it. Trust me on this. Take the “important box” around the house with you, putting like items with like, until the box is empty; THEN you are officially done organizing for the time being! (For instance, put the random appliance manual near the appliance itself; put the keys near the door or in a purse as appropriate, etc.)

The “important box” keeps you from getting distracted and bogged down with one item while you’re trying to tackle a large organizing/purging project. Believe me, it works a lot better this way!

#3: The “Sorting Chair”

For me, the process of purging, cleaning, and organizing is physically exhausting, as well as mentally stressful. Not only do I feel like the purging process is about as easy as wading through quicksand, but I rarely have anywhere to sit while doing it. Usually the nearby flat surfaces, including chairs and beds, get covered with sortables in a matter of seconds. My injured joints and flat feet can’t take the strain of standing for even half an hour, and so sometimes I quit the cleaning and organizing project before I’ve even properly begun because of pain.

Thus, I have found that a simple folding chair works–I call mine the “Sorting Chair” (with a nod to the Harry Potter series, LOL).

How It Works

As you process each small section of your hoard, carrying your “month box” and “important box” along with you, have your “sorting chair” nearby, so that you can sit as needed. Sorting and purging of items can still take place while seated, since you can set a trash bag beside you and your Month Box and Important Box nearby, but at least you’re not getting as exhausted.

You wouldn’t think just a place to sit would be any help to organizing and cleaning, but it can help you regain some energy and keep you from getting tired so quickly. Cluttered collections in and of themselves are visually and emotionally daunting to tackle, so don’t give yourself any other excuses to quit. (Again, trust me on this–I’ve lived this truth often enough, sadly.)

Plus, if you’re able to stand for longer periods of time and don’t need your chair as much, it can also serve as another flat surface to work off of, whether you need to move a stack of stuff so that you can get into other areas of your house, or whether you just need a higher place to set all those magazines for a minute while you sort and purge them. (Bonus: when you’re finished with the chair for the time being, you can fold it up so it doesn’t take up extra organizing space!)

Next Time: The Hoarder’s Assistant

If a hoarder in your life has asked you to assist with their excavation project (hey, sometimes dealing with your collection is kind of like an archeological dig!), next week’s article will have tips on how to help. It’s not just a matter of holding a trash bag for them, after all!

Further Reading

WebMD: “Hoarding: More Than Just a Mess”

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!