Hoarding … when your clutter becomes your prison
I’ve written this page on hoarding as a follow-up to Organise Your Clutter!, because since I wrote that page, a while ago now, I’ve realised just how devastating a problem it really is. I’ve come to this conclusion after a great deal of detailed research into the subject, and I’ve looked into the psychology of the—— Oh, what the … okay, okay, I’ve been watching Hoarding on TV!
There, that’s the truth … you got it out of me, happy now?? That’s the extent of my research! I’ve watched and been amazed at how bad this problem is for (apparently) a growing number of people. It takes over their lives. It ruins their property. It weakens, and in many cases fractures, their relationships with family and friends. And it’s a problem that has no easy answers. So I decided to write a page on the subject. I don’t know if I can shine a light on it and provide any useful information, but I’ll try.
Why a page on hoarding?
Why did I decide to write a page specifically on hoarding? Didn’t I cover this in the previous page on the problem of running a disorganised household (Organise Your Clutter!)? Actually, no, not properly anyway. At the time I wrote that page I was unaware of the extent of the hoarding problem, or the complexity of it. In writing this page I’m trying to put things right. I would hate anyone to think I don’t appreciate the problem, or how bad it can become. And, reading the previous page, that would be an easy conclusion to come to, I guess.
Like I said (above), I don’t know if I can add anything really helpful, or come up with any answers, but I’m willing to try. And I think the fact that I’m making an effort to analyse the problem might, in itself, be a help to some people. I hope so, anyway.
Hoarders … ordinary people with an extraordinary problem
Hoarders can seem very strange to the rest of us, which, I suppose, it what makes it such compelling viewing. We sit and watch the TV programme and mutter things like “How can he live like that?” … or “What was she thinking, letting her house get in that state?” … or even “They can call it hoarding or OCD, or put whatever label they want to put on it, but these people are just too lazy to clean the damn house!”.
Well, we can say things like that, but the truth is that, for the most part, these people are just like me and you. The only difference is that they have a problem. In this case, it’s a mental, or psychological problem. Here’s the thing … these people
- are often very intelligent
- have sometimes been quite accomplished in their field
- are often very caring
- are often very emotional
- and often they have experienced something that has been traumatic, something that has left a deep emotional wound, and one that’s never really healed
Regardless of what you might think when you watch the programme, hoarders are often not particularly lazy, or unintelligent, or anti-social. They don’t do it out of stupidity, or malice towards neighbours (or indeed their own families), and they don’t do it out of choice. They do it for the same reason a drug addict keeps using, or an alcoholic keeps drinking. They simply can’t stop.
OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
They’re just ordinary people. But they have got themselves mired in a destructive cycle of acquiring all kinds of ‘stuff’ and clinging onto it as though it’s more important than anything else in their lives. Including their nearest and dearest. This stuff, regardless of the form it takes, often represents important memories that they’re afraid of losing touch with. It becomes, in effect, memories in physical form, and the idea of disposing of it is simply unthinkable.
The behaviour that they’ve become trapped by is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It’s basically the same thing that makes some people go back half a dozen times to check that they have actually shut the front door, even when it’s perfectly obvious, even to them, that they have.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is the condition that, in some cases, means that a person has to wash their hands dozens of times a day, even to the point of causing damaging skin conditions, and OCD can make some people repeat the same action time and time again, for no apparent reason, such as opening and closing cupboard doors a set number of times, and counting them religiously. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is quite a widespread condition, and in many cases it can be irritating but harmless.
In this case though, OCD means that the person keeps doing some very harmful things, such as buying items they don’t need and can’t afford (and storing them forever, sometimes unopened), keeping worthless items, storing food items (even some that are well past the safe use date), buying trinkets endlessly, and creating collections of all kinds of things, some of which start off quite understandably but then veer off into the bizarre.
My opinions on OCD and hoarding
I should point out that I am not a trained psychologist. I am giving my personal opinions here, opinions based on my own extensive resear—- … er, I mean based on careful study of several episodes of ‘Hoarders’.
I’m not trying to minimise the problem of hoarding, or pigeon-hole it. I appreciate that it’s far too involved for me to fully understand or explain in a page (or maybe even at all). But I think it’s worthy of discussion. And that’s what this is, the beginning of a discussion. If you would like to add to it, you’re more than welcome to do so.
I’ve watched the programme carefully, trying to understand what makes a person a hoarder, and what stops them getting well again. And trying hard not to be judgemental. It can be difficult sometimes, specially when the psychologist who has been invited in specifically to help is being repeatedly challenged or ignored by the hoarder. Or when the team that’s helping to clean the house is busy doing their work, and the hoarder at the centre of the problem seems intent on slowing the process down to a glacial pace, unwilling to let even the tiniest, most (apparently) worthless piece of clutter be junked. Yes, it can be difficult, but I remind myself of what I’ve learned during my long and detailed resear—- (hell, you know what I mean!).
I’ve learned that …
- hoarders cling to things because they represent memories
- they live in fear of losing those memories for ever
- they’ve often (always?) suffered an emotional trauma that has never healed
- they are victims of obsessive behaviour, that, in itself, is a psychological disorder
- they often have very low self esteem and self worth
Why are hoarders so obsessive and so low in self confidence?
Hoarders, it should be remembered, were once just like me and you. Yes, they probably had a trace of hoarding about them, but who among us can say they haven’t? Did you ever collect things as a child? Do you still collect things even now, even if it’s only low-value things like jars or newspaper clippings or magazines or old clothes you just don’t want to part with, even though you know you won’t ever wear them again? These things don’t mean you’ve got a problem, only that you … well, collect a few things. Nothing wrong with that. It’s when it gets out of hand that you have a problem.
Usually, from what I’ve seen (in my detailed research ) the hoarder experienced an event that was life-changing. It might have been the death of a partner, or a parent, or even a child, and sometimes in the most gruesome and devastating way. Any one of these things can, in itself, be traumatic for anyone. And usually, a person will ‘get over’ that event, given time. I’m not saying they will forget all about the partner, or whoever, but the old saying that time is a great healer certainly has some truth in it. With the relentless advance of time, the wound gradually heals, to a greater or lesser extent, and the hurt lessens.
An emotional hurt that never healed
For the hoarder, though, that healing has never happened. The issue has never been fully resolved, or even addressed. For one reason or another the healing process was interrupted, or never even started to begin with, and the wound is still raw. The hoarding is a distraction, a way of taking the hoarder’s attention away from the pain, while also providing a physical link to vital memories. And I guess, after a while, it snowballs and gains a life of its own, becoming first a necessity, and later an albatross round the hoarder’s neck.
Of course, since they have lost someone very special, and moreover, they haven’t been able to deal with the loss, it’s not that difficult to understand that it leaves them feeling insecure and inadequate. They are no less worthy than any of us, but living with the knowledge that they have failed to deal with this loss the way folk usually do, and living with the unsightly consequences (mounds of garbage in every room), is it really surprising that they feel depressed about their situation? Is it a shock that they almost always reveal themselves to be of low self esteem? The results of their condition are literally all round them, spread out for everyone to see, and they bring with them feelings of deep shame and embarrassment.
Is there a cure for hoarding?
From what I’ve seen, there is no cure. Well, there’s certainly no easy answer. The psychologist who’s helping the hoarder deal with the problem is usually very patient, and very structured in his or her approach. They make it clear from the outset that the person will have the final say on each and every item before it’s disposed of (if, in fact, it is to be disposed of). They talk the person through the process slowly and gently, asking what memories this particular thing brings up, or how parting with this other thing would make them feel. They are the very soul of tact and consideration, yet sometimes even they fail to make any real headway.
It’s a slow, tedious process. But it can work. Sometimes, the hoarder lets things go very, very slowly, and almost always very reluctantly. Occasionally, they will enter into the spirit of the thing after a while and achieve great things, doing more clearing out and cleaning in a day or two than they have in the past several years. More often they will struggle on with the process, taking pains over virtually every item, often getting teary eyed and breaking down sobbing. This stage, of getting very emotional, seems an important one. Maybe at this stage the person is finally, and probably for the first time, addressing the issue at the very heart of the problem.
One of the hardest hoarding problems to understand is when the hoarder lets the house get into such a state of disrepair that it’s literally crumbling away beneath them, and parts of the house are filled with filth and unsanitary garbage, and sometimes even excrement.
This is clear evidence that this isn’t just a storage problem gone wrong, but that there is a serious psychological issue involved. No-one in their right mind would allow their house to descend into such a state, ever.
It can only mean that something seriously wrong is behind this behaviour. In such cases, only very careful and prolonged psychological care can steer the person towards a normal way of life again.
Have I helped anyone? Is there even an answer?
The truth is, I don’t know if this page has helped clarify the problem at all. I hope I’ve managed to at least shed a bit more light on the causes of it, if they were unclear. Have I actually helped anyone? Who knows? Well, maybe … it might be that someone who knows a hoarder (perhaps a relative) will read this and understand it a little better. Maybe someone will be a little less eager to judge, and more prepared to deal with the situation patiently and tactfully. And maybe that’s all I can hope for.
Maybe I was treating the problem of clutter too lightly in my earlier page. But that was clutter, not hoarding. There is definitely a difference. When your house is cluttered, it’s a step up from when it needs a good tidying up. Hoarding is way above both of them, way up there on a different level altogether.
Hoarding is a cruel and damaging condition that can go unchecked for years, even decades, and often does. It chips away at a person’s self-esteem and ruins lives. It wrecks the hoarder’s social life and damages their property. It destroys everything it touches. So, if I’ve helped even one person with this, writing this page hasn’t been a complete waste of time.
I think I’ll stop now and leave it at that. The last thing I’d want to do is cling onto it and hoard it.
There are other pages devoted to helping you get organised, and they’re not scattered haphazardly all over the site. The links to them are all conveniently organised in the sidebar!
>> Get Organised! links in the sidebar >>
Readers have already contributed their own pages on this subject.
Maybe you’d like to as well. You can – just fill in the form below.
Well, I’m not a hoarder, but I used to have OCD. My particular obsession
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I’ve always collected stuff. My mother had a lot of stuff. Every now and then things would get passed on to charity shops of someone who might find …