Nowadays it seems that rarely a week goes by when we don’t see a programme on hoarding on the television. We watch in horror and fascination at uninhabitable rooms crammed full of stuff, stairs overflowing, blocked passageways and unusable, dangerous, kitchens and bathrooms. In the midst of this chaos is the hoarder – an individual who doesn’t always know and accept how bad things have become. They seem blind and deaf to their families’ distress.
Maybe we are fascinated because we all have a little, or a lot, of the hoarder within us. In fact, the most helpful and accurate way of thinking about hoarding is that it exists on a continuum – from minimalist living at one end through to overflowing chaos at the other. We all exist somewhere along this continuum and hoarding is always a matter of degree. Many of us struggle to part with things and we almost all have a room, or even just a closet, which is overflowing and fit to burst.
The extremes of hoarding we see on these TV programmes, though, have not occurred overnight. A person has been travelling along the hoarding continuum for many years and, over time, the problem has crept out of control. It is important to know that there are three main pointers which indicate we may have a real problem with hoarding:
Difficulty making rational choices about what to let go of – keeping anything and everything – however old and worn – as it may be useful one day. The hoarder sees value in everything.
Excessive anxiety when sorting through things and trying to decide whether or not to let things go – hoarders are emotional people, studies are even showing that they have a massive capacity for empathy – which can be part of their undoing. Hoarders have a special relationship to their possessions and the extreme anxiety which is felt when sorting and trying to part with things is a big indicator that there is a problem. A hoarder feels that parting with something is like parting with their very self.
The massive volume of belongings and ‘stuff’ which has accumulated – both valuable and worthless things are often kept side by side. Things that others think are rubbish are valued by the hoarder. Excessive buying has often led to a mountain of things, sometimes unwrapped and unused, strewn in inaccessible boxes around the house. This accumulation is to be distinguished from a collector who cherishes, values and displays things beautifully. A cruel irony of hoarding is that possessions are held onto, that usually mean the world to the hoarder, and yet they are often poorly looked after – so overwhelming has their hoard become.
If your problem is not too severe then becoming aware that you have hoarding tendencies is often enough to begin getting to grips with your ‘stuff.’ You can start to understand why you feel the need to keep things and can begin to actively challenge your behaviour and question your choices. You can part with things and test your feelings. You can create strategies so that your hoarding does not get out of hand. It is often an uphill struggle, and you need to be constantly aware, but you have that awareness, that choice, and you have a level of control. For great self-help support, try reading The Hoarder In You by Dr Robin Zasio, it will be useful to you.
Are You In Denial About Your Hoarding?
Sometimes, though, for those with already established hoarding disasters, denial has shielded you from reality. To try to begin to penetrate this denial, to get you to see that you need help, here are some questions to consider:
Is your clutter/hoard/stuff negatively affecting your life and your family?
Do you let people into your home – are you able to have friends in if they turn up uninvited?
Are you ashamed of your home and the state it is in?
Do your children invite friends over or are your grandchildren able to freely visit?
Do you feel so emotionally drawn to your possessions that it causes you anxiety to part with them? Is parting with any of your hoard like having your heart torn out?
Does it feel as though your possessions matter more than your family and friends?
Are other people telling you that you have a problem?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions then your relationship to your possessions is problematic. It’s important to know that even if your current situation seems grave and unmanageable, there is understanding and compassionate help available.
Help For Hoarders
In terms of therapeutic treatment, hoarding is seen as an anxiety disorder – which has aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder and addictive behaviour. We know that it is no-use bullying a hoarder or emotionally blackmailing them into getting rid of their possessions – there will be fruitless anger and tears and the hoard will just rebuild. It is also pointless continually tidying up after a hoarder and throwing out their possessions for them. The hoarder must be involved in tackling the hoard themselves. Alongside counselling, which will address the emotional problems at the heart of hoarding, there may well need to be support from professional declutterers, cleaners or trusted helpers to begin to physically tackle the hoard.
Alongside practical assistance, the following three pronged therapeutic approach is helpful:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – CBT
Because letting go of possessions provokes high levels of anxiety, cognitive behavioural therapy is vital to help to begin to address anxiety levels. Work can be done to help you let go of your possessions, to expose you gradually to anxiety and to help you cope with these strong emotions. Negative thought patterns and compulsive behaviours – such as overbuying and keeping things even when they are of no value – are also worked on. CBT addresses the anxiety, helps you cope with your emotions, and works to change the relationship you have to your possessions.
Hoarding comes from an emotional place. It may occur because of loss, there may be genetic components and there are often historical events which have triggered the collection and retention of possessions. It is vital that your therapist can also look at this aspect of the problem alongside altering present behaviour with CBT. If you can unearth why you are so deeply connected to your possessions then this is very helpful in truly tackling your hoarding problem at a deep and lasting level.
It is also important to look at the family of the hoarder. Over the years, all sorts of enabling behaviour will have developed. Family members may have unwittingly supported a hoarder by being over-sympathetic to their anxiety. Or, unhelpful bullying and blackmailing tactics, which are counterproductive at best and unhelpful at worst, may have been employed. All of the family members need to understand their role in the life of the hoarder. And it is most likely that family members will need to make some changes to their own behaviour.
If you are struggling with hoarding, or know someone who is, it is good to know that help is available. Alongside self-help, look for a therapeutic approach which encompasses each part of the problem: the present, the past and the family dynamic. This approach gives you the best chance to get a handle on this most difficult and painful of issues. Hoarding is much more widely understood now within the therapeutic field. So if you have a problem, do think about getting some expert help. It will undoubtedly be a hard road, but with patience and hard work you and your family can start enjoying your home again. However difficult it is and however long it takes, try to keep this one thought in mind: it is possible for you to truly enjoy your possessions rather than be controlled by them.