Hoarding: A Closer Look

“Ten years ago I nearly suffocated in my home.”

“You’re never really free of your past.”

“It doesn’t matter how much time passes or how far you come, it can be really difficult to separate yourself from the person you used to be. For some people this might be trying to erase the memory of an awful haircut, for others it might be a period of alcohol-fuelled depression – for me it’s my life as a hoarder. Every day when I wake up and look around at my room I’m grateful to be able to breathe clean fresh. I’m grateful to be able to see my carpet, to see the light streaming through my windows and not be surrounded by mountains of magazines, books and letters.”

“When I was in the throes of my hoarding I was beyond the help of any professional decluttering service. My home was a lost cause to any professional team of cleaners and even my friends had given up on me. Luckily, I still had my Mum to help me out. She’d gone through a similar phase when we were young and when she saw how I was slowly following her footsteps she knew that I’d need help to get through my problem. I’m eternally grateful for her patience and support – without her I would not be able to sit my clean desk in my dining room and write this piece explaining hoarding.”

What is hoarding?

Hoarding is when a person collects or acquires an excessive amount of items. These items can be anything at all. They could be disposable objects that have little or no value or they could be very valuable indeed – the important thing is that the person feels the need to keep a large amount of items, to the point where the belongings become unmanageable. Now, if you leave a lot of dishes in the sink, let bills stack up and are generally untidy that doesn’t make you a hoarder. You only have a hoarding problem if the amount of clutter that you have obtained interferes with your everyday living or if the clutter is causing you negatively affecting your quality of life or that of your family.

How is this different from collecting?

Many people have collections of things and sometimes these collections can border on the excessive but that doesn’t necessarily make them a hoarder. Someone who hoards will beĀ obsessively compelled to do so, they won’t be gaining any pleasure from the action and there will be no structure or organisation of their items. At the beginning they may hoard items to ease their anxiety, but this is not the same thing as gaining pleasure.

Why do people hoard?

People hoard for a variety of reasons, as with all OCD manifestations the route of the behaviour is usually anxiety. Often you’ll find that there a variety of reasons for a person to hoard, they might start as the result of a depression, then as time goes on they may become more and more socially isolated as a result of their new compulsion, which could then lead to psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia or manic paranoia. All cases are different and should be treated as such.

How is it treated?

Hoarding is a complex and difficult condition that is not simply cured over night. A great deal of patience is required on the part of the hoarder’s support network, as the compulsion to hoard is often deeply embedded into the person’s psyche. A therapist might choose to take the hoarder through a course of cognitive behavioural therapy in order to understand why the hoarding has begun, but it’s crucial that the hoarder takes the responsibility of clearing their own home.

My Stuffed Toy Army

It’s amazing what behaviour parents will accept as normal.

I was a child obsessed with having and keeping things, but what started with a frustrating quirk would eventually turn into a condition that would serve to impact every facet of my life.

Having and keeping things is in many ways a habit that is baked into human nature. We’re descended from hunter/gatherers and, for me at least, ‘gathering’ would become something that I would obsess over. That’s a part of the symptom that so many people fail to think about when they refer to themselves as being ‘a bit OCD’.

The definition of ‘obsessive‘ is:

‘an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind’

The key word to think of there is ‘continually’. That’s the key difference between someone who is ‘a bit OCD’ and someone who lives everyday with a form of OCD. It’s not just an odd, casually charming personality defect that you choose to pull out every now and again as a party trick, it’s a constantly pervasive thought, an impulse or need to do something that eclipses all other thoughts. In my case it was an obsession over my belongings.

My parents had not noticed the beginnings of my compulsion at this point in my life, but they had begun to become unnerved by the manner that I treated my stuffed toys. Unfortunately, a 2-year old child jealously coveting their toys was not something that my parents saw the need to worry about. I was an only child, so sharing my toys never cropped up as an issue until my started my Mother started organising play dates.

Like any other kid I had my favourite toys when I was a baby, but unlike other kids my favourites never fell out of my favour. Each new addition to my collection would be exalted as a new heir apparent to the kingdom of plush toys that I had come to amass, born into a family of equally cherished creatures that I would look upon proudly each and every day. My parents knew for certain that something was up when I didn’t allow my new friends to play with any of the toys. I’d say that they didn’t like being touched and that no one could touch them. My obsession had become as large as my collection and soon it was the only thing that I thought about – ensuring each and every one of those toys was safe, untouched in their preordained position.

My parents didn’t seek help for me, perhaps fearing what kind of diagnosis I would be given. It’s impossible to know if I’d have turned out any different if they’d taken me to get help sooner, I try not to think about it too much but they’ve both exhibited regret in letting me leave home with over 150 stuffed animals.

University was a tough time for me, it was a stressful period of change that led to me leaning on my compulsion more than ever, but it also led to me meeting some fantastic compassionate people who saw my habits for what they were and led me to getting the help that I’d so desperately needed for most of my life.