Growing up, I was introduced head on into the world of hoarding by my mother. I did not realize what it meant and considered it normal to live amongst the massive accumulation of stuff that surrounded our house. The ironic thing is that I also learned you could be a “hidden hoarder” so that others entering into the environment would not notice its existence. Unlike the hoarder that leaves everything out in the open for all to see, the hidden hoarder hides things everywhere. Things exist in every nook and cranny of the space provided. Closets are packed to overflowing, drawers and cabinets spill out with objects when opened, items are stowed under beds and behind the couch. To the naked eye, the house looks “in order” with the hidden hoarder, until close inspection is done.
The attic in the house we grew up in was an amazement. My father installed racks to hold clothing from one end of the attic to the other as the attic ran the full length of the house. Here was clothing of every type on the racks, for every season and every occasion. If I were attending a friend’s Birthday Party, there would be no need to go to the store, as the attic contained tons of toys and gifts abounding. My mother would take the key, unlock the attic door and come down with the appropriate gift. Shoes were wall to wall, along with purses and accessories. The problem was that the attic was always under lock and key, so my brother and I figured out how to pick the door open and then we would delight ourselves in looking through all the STUFF. If we were caught, it was the hairbrush to the buttocks for us!
The refrigerator contained food of every type that NEVER expired. Along with a freezer stuffed to the gills. My brother and I grew up eating stale and expired food. If the meat or cheese had mold growing on it “just cut it off”, it was fine to consume then. You could guarantee that every time we had company, the food we served was stale and way beyond its expiration date, (although there weren’t as many expiration dates on food back in the 1970s). I would cringe at my birthday party as my mother proudly presented platters of stale chips and cheese doodles causing my friends to wrinkle their nose as they dug into the “goodies”.
To this day, my mother’s home remains the same. Every drawer, every inch of closet space, underneath beds and the garage filled to the brim with STUFF. The one time I tried to clean my mother’s refrigerator out of the stale and molding fruit and food was a nightmare. I went in behind her back when she was not home. I took two huge black garbage bags and began discarding the rancid items. We lived in Florida and it was well over 90 degrees outside. I lugged the garbage bags out to the bins and dumped the expired food. When my mother came home, about 5 hours later, she soon realized what I had done. To my utter shock and amazement, she acted in a panic and hysteria as if I had killed her dog. She ran to the garbage cans, where the food had been rotting in the 90 degree sun and proceeded to place each and every disgusting item back into the refrigerator. I had no words. That day, I came to realize the full extent of her disorder. I have never tried again to clean out the refrigerator or organize clothes to bring to Goodwill. My brother and I have confronted her as to her disorder to no avail and we both realize that we will be the ones to clean out the house when she passes. Until then, it will remain as is.
According to The Mayo Clinic, “Hoarding is an anxiety disorder in which an individual fails to throw away a large number of possessions with no value. Hoarding is believed to be a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It is believed that approximately two to five percent of the US population is thought to have full-blown hoarding disorders. Hoarders usually retain plenty of possessions in their homes and cars and may claim that they have a personal attachment to each item that prevents them from parting with it.
Symptoms of Hoarding are getting and saving an excessive number of items, followed by a gradual buildup of clutter and extreme difficulty in discarding things. Typically, the first signs of this disorder surface during the teenage to early adult years. As the age of the person progresses, so do the symptoms. It is a private behavior and usually not spoken about by family members. The Hoarder also has a tendency towards indecisiveness, perfectionism, avoidance, procrastination and problems with planning and organizing. The feeling a Hoarder has in accumulating this massive amount of clutter is one of safety and security. They place more attention on things as opposed to people or relationships. My mother was very much like this when we were growing up. She would have everything under lock and key and a spanking would ensue if we “touched” her stuff. It gave me even more desire to “touch” her stuff and I would seek out ways to get into her jewelry, makeup, whatever. It became my obsession to see WHAT was behind the closet door or in the drawer. Because of this, I have allowed my daughter access to anything and everything I own. She has full permission to riffle through my makeup, jewelry, clothing, anything! I am the exact opposite of my mother in that regard.
For some Hoarders, they tend to have so many possessions in the home that it is impossible to move through the home as there are objects blocking or preventing a person from physically moving throughout the space. There may only be a single pathway that exists allowing a person to navigate the clutter to get through a room. I thank God that my mother was a “hidden hoarder”, so we did not have to deal with that issue. During my years in Mary Kay Cosmetics I have seen many a home such as I just described since I would typically go to a customer’s home to conduct an appointment. I guess I was conditioned to it enough that I was able to work with the person, despite the absolute mess of the surrounding atmosphere in the home.
It is my belief that many Hoarders were born out of the Depression Era. I have heard the stories from my Grandparents and elderly people that lived through that time and what it was like. Everything was rationed so you clung to everything, as “there might be a future use for it”. My mother grew up in that era. She had me at the age of 34 yrs old and my brother at the age of 36, so she was much older than most of the mothers I came in contact with back in the 1970's. Add to that the fact that my father was 15 years older than she was, so they both grew up in a time where food and commodities were sparse and saved where nothing was thrown away. My Grandmother (and many of her generation) would iron out tissue or wrapping paper for reuse, wash out plastic baggies and reuse tinfoil. When I compare this to my daughter’s generation where everything and anything is thrown away, even if unused, unopened and clearly donatable to an organization for the needy, it is a major contrast. I have sat and listened to my mother and daughter discuss this issue at length, with no conclusion in sight.
What can be done? I believe that the earlier the disorder is addressed, the better the chance for overcoming the compulsion to Hoard. As the person ages, it becomes almost impossible to disengage them from the behavior. Psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy” is most commonly used to treat Hoarding Disorder. Anti-anxiety medication as well helps, in conjunction with the talk therapy. There are actual people trained to work with Hoarders and will come out to the home, assess the situation and work with the Hoarder to disengage them from the lifestyle and compulsive disorder. As of this writing, there is a television show called “Hoarders” depicting these very scenarios! There is always a person trained to get the Hoarder to gradually clear out the house as well as getting them to come to terms with their disorder. It is quite fascinating to watch the process.
It is a sad thing to witness the life of a Hoarder, sad as to the realization of the cause of the symptoms, or the need to surround themselves with things and clutter to feel secure. At the age of 90, I realize my mother will never outgrow this disorder, although she does now admit to it and is “trying to clear things out before she passes”. It no longer embarrasses me to the extent it did when I was younger as I am well aware of the cause and have empathy for her disorder.
If this is you, or someone close to you, I strongly urge you to start first with the talk therapy and anti-anxiety medication in attacking this disorder. If progression is not seen, an intervention can be done by the family members or loved ones of the Hoarder. They can help in getting the person to realize the extent of their disorder. If nothing works to that point, I would call in a professional Hoarder assistant to help disengage the person from the behavior. I am listing some associations below that help with this disorder.
With You On The Journey,
Help for Hoarding
IOCDF - These are professionals who work with those impacted by hoarding disorder. They have Hoarding Task Force members and researchers who work with those affected. International OCD Foundation PO Box 961029, Boston, MA 02196 617-973-5801
Hoarding Cleanup 1-800-462-7337
Live Call Center 8:00am till 5:00pm for all time zones 1-800-462-733
NAMI www.nami.org (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
38003 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington, Virginia 22203
Main Call # 703-524-7600
Association of America - Anxiety Disorders
Help with staging an intervention/Help with animal hoarding
800 Maine Avenue, S.W., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20024