home schooling paths
E-journal January 19, 2010

Hoard and Clutter Syndrome

by Ellyn Davis

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Like many of us who want to turn over a new leaf for the new year, I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to get a grip on my out-of-control living space by going through closets, storage areas, and papers. I’m trying to restore order to the chaos of clutter that has accumulated in our house, on our porch, and in every imaginable nook and cranny where things could be stuffed.

I swear that clutter breeds in secret when I'm not looking and pretty soon it is like those Tribbles in the old Startrek episode—it fills every available space. But, unlike Tribbles, clutter isn’t cute and cuddly.

The other night I was sitting in front of the TV going through boxes of old papers and a program came on about hoarders. “Oh my gosh!” I said to myself, “This is me.” But, thank God, it wasn’t really “me.” The program showed the lives of people whose homes had become little more than narrow pathways from room to room through mountains of “stuff.” In one woman's home, the only open spaces other than the pathways through the clutter were her toilet and just enough room on her bed for her to sleep. Every other surface in the whole house was completely covered with mountains of junk that would periodically topple on her when she brushed past it.

It turns out that this is a disorder that affects 1 in 40 Americans. It’s called Hoard and Clutter Syndrome. You can watch this video about it if you want.

My Hoarding Background

My father was a hoarder and a tinkerer. My Mom, my sisters and I called him a "junkaholic" because he was always finding odds and ends of things and stashing them somewhere in the basement. On trash day, he would patrol the streets of our neighborhood looking for things he thought might possibly come in handy someday.

I realized my father had grown up during the Great Depression, so always attributed his packrat tendancies to those years of deprivation. In the Depression, you had to make do, had to hoard, had to keep everything—because you never knew whether or not you would need it someday.

The Depression also taught him to squirrel money away because you couldn’t trust your money would be safe in the bank. My father had dozens of hiding places. In addition to the usual cash-stashing favorites such as the very back of his closet and under his mattress, he had belts with secret zipper compartments and hollow canes with removable bottoms to hold rolled-up bills.

We forgot about Papa’s cash-stashing ways when he died and gave a closet-full of his clothes away to one of the workers on his farm. The worker came back later grinning from ear to ear and thanked us profusely for the clothes. That’s when we realized we had probably given him some of Papa’s belts with secret pockets full of cash.

I thought I had escaped inheriting my father’s packrat ways until I tried to raise three small children and also run a business in a 3 bedroom, 1 bath home. Then not only did I have to deal with all the clutter that a family of five with three children generates as well as all of the clutter that a home office generates, but each month publishers sent me dozens and dozens of books and teaching materials to review. Even with bookcases lining every hallway and huge storage cabinets wherever I could squeeze them in, there was never enough room for it all, so hallways became narrow passages through the “stuff” and eventually totes full of books crept into the other areas of the house. I never had the time or energy to go through it all, and there was never any way to catch up, because for every book I finished reviewing, ten more arrived in its place. We learned to just “make do” living in a highly cluttered environment.

Now the boys are no longer children and the business is closed, but somehow a lot of the boys’ stuff wound up staying in the garage along with the leftover office furniture and supplies.

Then we moved to a smaller house, so there was no place for the extra “stuff” to go but the garage and a storage shed, which gradually morphed into several storage sheds. (I think storage sheds breed when you’re not watching too, just like clutter and Tribbles.)

I read somewhere that the average family has nearly $2500 worth of saleable "stuff" they never use sitting in their closets and garage. Our family is way above average, but, somehow, I can never get around to making that pile of money from my “stuff.” When I threaten to go through the garage and storage shed and throw out all the boys’ childhood toys unless they do something with them, they always say, “Mom, you could make a lot of money selling those old G.I. Joes and Legos on eBay or that antique toy chest on Craigs List or that old bunk bed on the Local Sales Network.” So I keep it all, fully intending to sell it for enough money to go on a cruise someday, but somehow never getting around to taking the photos and writing the descriptions I need to post all these “treasures” for sale.

But I console myself that I’m sitting on what could one day make me a small fortune (except, possibly for the Beanie Baby collection). And I tell myself that someday my grandchildren might want to play with all those toys.

Why We Hoard and Clutter

As I tackled my annual attempt at creating order out of chaos in my home this week, I began thinking about what it is that causes me to accumulate stuff. What is motivating all those people with Hoarding and Clutter Syndrome? What is motivating me to tolerate the clutter I do, even though I’m not sure I officially qualify as a hoarder?

I decided to do some research on hoarders and clutterers. According to the Mayo clinic and other researchers, people hoard for the following reasons:

  • A belief that the hoarded items will be needed or have value in the future (Check!)
  • A need for reminders of happier times (Maybe check…I do miss the times when the guys were little.)
  • A feeling of safety and comfort from being surrounded by familiar things (Check!)
  • Fear that there won’t be enough money to replace an item if you ever need it (Yeah, check that one too, as much as I hate to admit it!)
  • Feelings of being wasteful if things are discarded (Big, big check!)

Also, here are some risk factors and features about hoarding that researchers have come to understand:

  • Age. Hoarding usually starts in early adolescence, around age 12, and tends to get worse with age. (Hmmm. So does that mean that unkempt bedroom I had as a teenager was prophetic—a harbinger of worse clutter to come?)
  • Family history. People are more likely to hoard if they have close family members who engage in compulsive hoarding. 80 percent of hoarders grew up in a household with someone who hoarded. (Uh oh. My father was the quintessential packrat and my kids grew up in a very cluttered environment. Yikes! It’s a generational curse.)
  • Stressful life events. Some people develop hoarding after experiencing a stressful life event that they had difficulty coping with, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, eviction or losing possessions in a fire. (How about making a move to a smaller house?)
  • Social isolation. People who hoard are typically socially withdrawn and isolated. In many cases, the hoarding leads to social isolation. But, on the other hand, some people may turn to the comfort of hoarding because they're lonely. (Could it be that my house is cluttered because I feel lonely without a houseful of kids and animals?)
  • Perfectionism. People who compulsively hoard are often perfectionists. They worry about making the right decision about what to do with each possession — should they keep it or discard it? Trying to decide causes distress, so they avoid making a decision and simply keep everything. (In my case, sad but true.)

But, upon further research, I found the perfect excuse for my messy house. It turns out I'm a victim of faulty brain chemistry. Here's proof:

“For people with compulsive hoarding, decisions to discard personal possessions activated brain regions associated with processing punishing or unpleasant events. Refusals to discard personal possessions activated regions associated with categorizing, as well as intense emotional processing. These results may provide insight into why people who hoard have such great difficulty discarding items: Decisions to discard may be experienced as punishing, and thus be avoided in the future. Unsuccessful decisions to discard may result from the inability to properly classify the item and thus be able to take action.”

So it isn’t really that I’m messy, disorganized, a pushover when it comes to my children not wanting to take their stuff off my hands, lonely, or fearful that if I get rid of something I will need it next week. It’s that my father’s hoarding brain chemistry was so associated with a punishing, unpleasant event (the Great Depression) that he passed on that same brain chemistry to me.

Now that would be an easy out—“I’m sorry that the house is such a mess, dear. But it’s because I inherited hoarding brain chemistry.” Too bad I didn't try that one out on my husband.

My Take on Things
Personally, I think all the researchers have overlooked one very important fact about hoarding and clutter. When you are raising several children, trying to juggle meals, laundry, schoolwork, a home business, running all over creation taking kids to piano lessons, dance lessons, home school co-ops, 4-H meetings and who knows what else, and also trying to be a good wife, you just don’t have much time and energy left to even care whether your house is a mess—that is until it’s time for the next home group meeting at your place. Most of the time your day is so full that any major clean-up attempt is deadline driven.

So, for me, clutter hasn't particularly been a hoarding problem, it was mostly a time and energy problem. After an exhausting day, when faced with the choice of whether to go through the pile of papers in the box in the corner of my room or snuggle in bed reading a little one a book, the book would win hands-down, every time.


Helpful resources for the clutter-overwhelmed:

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Simply Organized by Emilie Barnes

The Messies' Manual by Sandra Felton

This Year I Will... by M. J. Ryan

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