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What It Was Like to Grow Up in a Hoarding Family

It was the family secret for as long as I can remember. It was the reason why our friends weren’t allowed to spend the night. The reason why we never had slumber parties. The reason why we didn’t sit down as a family to eat. It was the reason why D. picked me up from our first date from my great-grandmother’s house and why he has only been in the house I was raised in two times.

My father came by hoarding “naturally.” His mother was a hoarder of sorts. She saved every scrap of fabric she ever owned along with bread bags, soup cans and butter tubs. She made house shoes for every member of the family each year out of those fabric scraps and I can still remember what it feels like to wear them. I have heard that people who lived through The Depression tended to keep things because they knew a time when they had nothing. Maybe that was why my grandmother treasured every little scrap. Maybe he learned the behavior by watching her. This might explain why I was destined in some way to develop hoarding tendencies when I was on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). I was the product of the perfect hoarding storm. I bought bottles and bottles of nail polishes, scented candles, clothes I never wore, books, etc. I was so emotionally numb, I was constantly searching for something that would give me just a tiny glimmer of happiness. No matter how much I bought, it didn’t fill the void. That feeling, combined with observing the attitude that everything had value and must be saved, slowly turned me into a hoarder too.

We moved to the country when I was fairly young, under the guise of needing a bigger house, but I think it had more to do with needing more space for stuff. My father had a metal building the size of a small warehouse that is cram packed full of things. At one point, there were paths between the piles, but over time the paths disappeared and the objects on the former paths were just stepped over or stepped on. Presents from “Santa” were hidden in the building, never to be found again. Years later, my mother told me I had asked for a pair of white pom poms from Santa one year. I never saw them. They are still there. Hidden. Probably made into a nest by a rodent by now.

When we first moved to the country, the house was spotless. Everything had a place and was kept in it. I vaguely remember it and have seen pictures for proof it did exist at some point. A clean house. An uncluttered house. Pictures of rooms that didn’t have piles of laundry in the middle of the floor. Pictures where there wasn’t a sink full of dishes. Pictures of rooms that weren’t stuffed with shopping bags full of clothes that still have the tags on them.

The main thing about a hoarder is that you cannot force them to change. You cannot force them to give up their stuff. I know. I have tried. I remember filling my car in high school with black trash bags full of junk and trying to get to the dump before my dad got home, only to be caught and have to hold a flashlight out in the driveway while he dug through those bags and yelled at me for throwing away “good stuff.”

Relationships where one person seems to value stuff more than they value people can be very difficult. I understand now that it wasn’t a choice for my dad and as he got older, I became more tolerant and understanding … learning to just say “thank you” when he gave me something he bought at Goodwill instead of arguing. It’s a form of anxiety mixed with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hoarders can’t just turn it off and stop. He couldn’t help it. It’s a control thing. For a hoarder, having stuff around comforts them in a way. It calms the anxiety that the question “what if I need it later?” causes. I know now that it takes a lot of work and therapy to overcome hoarding, and no matter how you wish someone to stop, they just can’t easily do it.

I still catch myself wanting to save things that don’t have much value. It’s a weird feeling to throw it away while I’m trying to rationalize some reason for keeping it. But on the other hand, I get a good feeling out of using things up and clearing stuff out. It’s complicated.

I used to watch the hoarding shows that are so popular now. I don’t anymore. It’s just too painful, mostly because it seems so cruel. It has been turned into some sort of a freak show and I don’t know why anybody would subject themselves to that kind of public scrutiny. I know they promise to help them clean up and to continue therapy, but we very rarely see any follow up to know whether or not those things happen. The producers and directors have an amazing opportunity here to really educate the public on why people hoard things, but I haven’t seen an episode yet where they do. It’s not something to make fun of. It’s a serious mental health issue we should educate others about.

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Thinkstock photo via SIphotography