You’ve probably heard someone say, “Oh my gosh, I’m such a hoarder” when their house is a little messy, but the reality of hoarding is a lot deeper than that. At its best (which is usually right after my sister-in-law has been over to clean), my apartment is cluttered, but usable and clean. At its worst, I can’t use the sink or the stove, and I can’t walk from my bed to my bathroom without tripping, and the couch is piled with stuff. When things are bad, there are usually at least three full trash bags piled up, the litter box reeks, and the fridge is packed with stale, moldy food.
I can smell it and see it, and the self-loathing cycle cranks up in high gear. “How could you do this? What is wrong with you?!” are the opening salvos. Following up are, “You are disgusting and you deserve to waste away alone in your filth. Even your cats deserve better than you.” And then deep, ugly depression sets until I’m either able to yank myself out of it with the help of my therapist, or my sister-in-law comes over and cleans up. I pay her for it, which helps me feel less terrible about the arrangement.
Either way, it’s a not a fun situation.
I’ve hoarded since I was young. The cleanliness level of my room was an ongoing saga since adolescence that resulted in a multitude of tearful arguments between me and my mom. My grandmother was an undiagnosed hoarder, and having grown up in that, my mother is neurotically neat and tidy. Thus hoarding became a symbol of defiance in our codependent relationship. The thought was “I feel like the entire whole of my being depends on you and your whims and I hate it, but can’t admit it. So I’m going to passive-aggressively thumb my nose at your cleanliness.”
One thing leads to another, and hoarding morphs from subconscious rebellion into a ritualistic coping mechanism. Add into that a childhood spent in a boom and bust cycle of relative comfort morphing into poverty and back out again. You’ve got a recipe for some serious attachment to things.
I hoard lots of things, but mail is my number one. I love mail. I love getting mail. I love things that come with my name on it, whether it’s junk mail, bills or cards and letters. I can’t say specifically what it is about it. More often than not, it’s that feeling that someone somewhere in this universe knows I exist. There is a record I was here. My imprint is here. And when you take into account my long history of abandonment by various and sundry people throughout my childhood, you can see why that’s important on a deeply visceral level.
This fear of being forgotten and abandoned, of disappearing amongst the sea of humanity, is at the core of my hoarding and attendant anxiety. Hoarding is an anxiety disorder. It is not a behavior existing in a vacuum. It is a response to specific anxieties that manifest in an unnatural attachment to things. I keep things because my fear of abandonment gets projected onto things. No, the yogurt cup does not have feelings and therefore will not feel sad and alone if I throw it away. But part of me, part of my energy, is on that yogurt cup, and how could I throw part of myself away? Same with the mail. It has my name on it; I can’t throw it away.
There’s a lot of talk about hoarding in popular culture, and nearly all of it misses the point in some way. The most famous, I guess, is the A&E show Hoarders.
There are a few reasons why the show isn’t the greatest representation of the disorder. First off, they show extreme cases. The average hoarder is not necessarily living like the people featured in the show. On the exterior, you could never tell I am a hoarder. There are signs if you know what to look for, but the average person could never guess. We hide in plain sight. What to you looks like a lady buying an assortment of little things at Target is me buying my 50th bottle of nail polish I’ll never open or a magazine that’ll join the stack on my coffee table for the next year.
Second, forced cleanups never work. Think of it like addictions. You send an alcoholic to rehab without them being on board? They’re going to go right back to drinking as soon as they get a chance. If they don’t have buy-in, they’re never going to do it. Same with hoarding. Not to mention the trauma of having your stuff ripped from you will likely aggravate your condition and not only make you more likely to keep more stuff, but also LESS likely to eventually seek help in order to avoid that kind of trauma a second time.
And, that’s an element to hoarding that gets ignored: Avoidance. We are avoiding trauma. I don’t ignore the litter box because I am keen on keeping cat poop in my house. I avoid the litter box because the past times I’ve cleaned it, I’ve felt like the worst human being in the world and terrible cat parent. So, to avoid that feeling, I avoid the litter box and, at the end of the day, I still feel like a terrible person. Rational? Logical? No. But if you’re looking for rational thought, anxiety ain’t the place.
If you have a hoarder in your life, patience and understanding are key. Encourage them to seek counseling or find help through support groups and the like. Have an honest conversation with them about it, and try to avoid blaming and being harsh. There are a host of other disorders that travel with hoarding disorders such as depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder and others. Encourage them to seek treatment for those as well. If you’re afraid for their physical health and wellbeing, tell them so. And ask how they would like you to help. If you live together, set boundaries. Tell them they are not allowed to place things in your space and hold fast to that.
If they’re not ready for the help, don’t push it. You’ll make things worse. The key to accepting help is that you have to trust the person who’s making the offer. Letting you into their hoarding is letting you into the darkest, most personal place. They’re letting you into the physical manifestation of their heart and mind. Treat that act as the honor it is, and show respect.
Respect their boundaries. Cleaning is a mentally exhausting enterprise for me, especially when it involves throwing things away. If they’ve had enough for one day, give them a break. Take them to do something that has nothing to do with cleaning. Let them mourn the loss of their things. It hurts to let things go.
DO NOT throw away things without their consent. This causes unnecessary trauma and will make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to have the trust in you necessary to continue recovery. My sister-in-law never throws anything away without asking me if it’s OK first. We set up an agreement, she can throw away any food packaging or anything else that will draw bugs or vermin, and I don’t get any say so over that. But I get to pick through the mail, and I get the final say on what stays and goes. When my dad cleaned out my kitchen, I got to keep ONE empty pickle jar and that was it. These negotiations seem silly, but I got to keep my illusion of control while still having my mess cleaned up.
Recovery isn’t easy. There’s lots of crying and yelling and hurt and pain and going to painful places and poking around in it. There’s panic and fear and self-loathing. I have to work at it every day. And, when things are bad in other areas of my life, the hoarding behaviors creep back in. It’s a continual work in progress that lasts a lifetime.
I’ve been working on my hoarding for a year. It’s a tough process, and I’m nowhere near 100%. But I’m getting better every day with every new coping skill. My hoarding is linked to my disordered eating and my self-esteem issues and they are so deeply intertwined in my psyche that you can’t treat one without treating them all. But it’s been worth it.
For more information or to get help for yourself or your loved one, check out these links:
These books have also been a huge help:
[Crossposted with permission from UfYH]