When It’s Not Just Clutter


3-5% of Americans suffer from hoarding, a condition recently recognized as a psychological disorder.

That statistic shocked me. Does it shock you?

Hoarding is in the spotlight right now because stuffed homes are becoming a public health and safety risk.

Hoarding goes beyond a guest room used to store unwanted things or a large collection of vintage Cabbage Patch Dolls.

Understanding Hoarding in the New York Times explains more about the disorder. Two facts that interested me from the piece:

  • 50% of hoarders suffer from major depression.
  • Men and women suffer in equal numbers.

One psychologist quoted in the piece said, they (hoarders) acquire to self-soothe or feel a rush—an urge fed by dollar stores, yard sales, big box warehouses and shopping channels.

Self-soothing or looking for a rush from shopping sounds familiar. That’s one of the ways I ended up with a lot of things in my home that I rarely used.

I’ve never suffered from hoarding but I have a lot of empathy for those that do. It must be terrible to live in a prison of your own possessions and feel like there is no way out both literally and figuratively.

How can you help a hoarder? Popular television shows have marginalized these people to freak show status.

They don’t need to be shamed. They need help.

If 50% of them are suffering from major depression perhaps that’s a place to start. If you know someone with this problem offer companionship before an afternoon of de-cluttering.

More reading: a longer article, Task Force Offers Hoarders a Way Out,gives more insight on the public health and safety dangers of hoarding and how community task forces are working to help those suffering from the disorder.

Photo Credit: Kevin Utting

Do you know someone that suffers from hoarding? Have you been able to help them or get them the assistance they need?

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  • I worked with a hoarder for about a year. I was her psychotherapist. She had tons of defenses up to the fact (fact) that she was a hoarder. She could explain every choice and why it was necessary and made sense to have a house so full she couldn’t move around freely, much less find things, have people over, etc etc. Various friends were trying to help her clear her house but it amounted to nothing when she was unwilling/unable to face that she was hoarding.

    It was really difficult work. I’m thankful she was willing to come in for counseling to address all of it.

  • I have several family members that are hoarders. It ranges from very mild (meaning, there are still some places to sit, the floors are visible, but there’s junk, laundry and general stuff stacked everywhere) to extreme (filthy floors, barely a viable path from one room to the next.)

    I suppose that having this family connection, and having grown up in one of the milder cases, has spurred my life-long desire for less. I wasn’t always as tidy and minimalist as I am now. It took some growing up, and having a child to realize how having too much stuff can genuinely affect relationships. I was spending so much time trying to keep up with all the stuff that I was doing more cleaning and straightening than spending time with my new husband and child. It took a couple years, but I can say with full certainty, I could have my house tidied in under a half hour.

    In my experience, they need to want help in order for things to shift and change. No junk team, or organizing help will do any good if the hoarder is not on board. It’s very hard not to feel hurt or slighted when the stuff becomes more important than having family over.

    I absolutely agree that when hoarding exists, it is a cover for a deeper hurt. Stuff, and our ownership of it, can grip many lives.

  • I am an adult child of a hoarder. At 40, I still have issues from growing up in such a situation; a situation where I could not have friends over, had to answer the door with just a crack so no one could see inside, and respiratory issues from severe reactions to dust-mites, mold, & pet dander. I have suffered a lifetime of digestive upset from stress, and what I can only assume was never ending food poisoning from food past expiration when I was a child. My mother and father were post-depression children. We were also very poor, so my mother went into a tailspin of anxiety, depression and extreme OCD. This led to hoarding and cluttering “things we may need” & this was especially evident with food. My mother has always been an extreme control freak and a little narcissistic.
    After my fathers death, my husband and I also suffered a severe tragedy financially. We had to go bankrupt due to my husband health issues, and a bad auto accident that left me in physical therapy for a year. We moved into my mothers, and indeed I realized she was depressed, anxious and spending every day buying things she never used and would never use. I have slowly been helping her de-clutter, but one cannot imagine the fight of getting rid of old dishes and brick-a-brac I deal with. EVERYTHING is a treasure. She is going on 80 and still thinks she needs a bigger home and tons of stuff. I am a counselor and breaking through it all is a non-sop fight.

  • While those hoarding shows may exploit someone’s problem, I find them helpful and a motivator to me to unclutter and gut my home of it’s overabundance quite frequently. If I’m not on it all of the time, things just add up.

  • I don’t find those hoarding shows anywhere near as exploitative as say, Toddlers and Tiaras and the like. My MIL is a hoarder and before those shows I had absolutely NO IDEA what to do, say, or how it worked. Unfortunately though just like on the show most of them do not want help nor do they think it’s a problem.

  • Thank you for this.
    I love your compassionate approach. It is so often missed.
    So often we try to fill the voids in our hearts with something~whether it’s stuff we can buy, too much food, alcohol, drugs, endless activity. It’s easier to judge those who chose to try to fill themselves with something that is not our own temptation. We must look past these “things” to each others’ hearts.

  • When my husband and I first got married we actually lived in a family members house who was a hoarder (she had moved into another house years before).
    I spent about 2 months cleaning the house out of everything (including carpets, bleaching walls, and removing rotted cabinetry). It was incredibly stressful for the owner because I was touching her stuff. I packed up most of it, but even things that I had been told were ok to throw out (I was told I could only get rid of trash) would cause intense stress for her. They even got angry when we trimmed the shrubs growing over the pathway, and the canned nuts I threw out that had been expired for 6 years, etc.
    It was incredible to me how much personal value they put on even the smallest things, and seemed to think we were mean for just MOVING their things.
    I was already on a minimalistic path before that experience, but working in the house alone would turn most people to an extreme need for not owning anything…
    I can not tell you how much more stuff I threw out after we moved in.

  • Interestingly, I was once talking to an American pastor about houses in Britain. I explained how very much smaller they are, as a general rule, and how we don’t have basements. His first reaction was “so is hoarding less of a problem than over here?”. I’m sure anyone can hoard, but I think all the extra storage space that American houses have, coupled with the lower cost of consumer goods, does lend itself to the hoarding temptation. British houses do often have attics, it’s true, but they’re often not very easily accessible. Certainly not like just going down a staircase to a basement.

    It’s such a sad modern illness, I think. For centuries, humankind has battled against need and want. Now we’re battling against plenty. It seems upside-down.

  • Its also scary to think that hoarding and acquiring too many things, come hand in hand with not being satisfied and content in who we are, and being at times, envious. When I was a teen a lived for about a year with my fathers cousin. She was an older woman, with her son, and husband living together in a three bedroom apt. If you saw her outside, she always seemed happy, but the truth was, she was not. She never felt satisfied with her weight, or marriage. Even though she didn’t seem depressed to me, her discontent was obvious at home. My saturdays and sundays were spent at the mall every weekend with her shopping while both her and her husband would yell at each other with walk talkies ? through the whole mall. Because they couldn’t stand to shop together. So as a teen I learned to shop when I was upset or mad too. To this day I go to the mall, and usually after I come out I rationalize it later, that what I bought, could have waited, or could have done without it. So we also do hoard or over buy because we learn it.

    • forgot to explain, the three bedrooms she had, were full of clothes she never wore. Or she would wear it once and on to the pile. I learned to do this, to think that every occasion deserved a brand new outfit. Heck, even rich people repeat clothes.

  • My sister is a hoarder. I have no idea what to do for her. The house has gotten so bad that my brother-in-law got a shed and moved his office out there because he can’t take it anymore. The stuff in the house is preventing a good cleaning and they have two cats.

    My sister doesn’t mind getting rid of stuff except she has to find the perfect home for it (she won’t just give it to goodwill). If it’s broken she has to fix it first before she finds a person to take it. She also shops constantly. She is always showing me the many new things she has acquired. One of the particular things she does, which both baffles me and I find disturbing is the constant house improvement. She started with re-doing the kitchen of their house. It was left in a state of half done. Then it was the bathroom, then the other bathroom, etc.. She has basically tore up the whole house with half done improvement projects. Last week I visited and there was a wall between the hallway and the bedroom ripped out and my niece informed me that her mom was going to wall in the dining room to give her, her own bedroom (there is not a second dining area or eat in kitchen, so I have no idea where they plan to eat when this happens).

    I have tried to help her clean up, but that really didn’t help. I tried having a yard sale with her, where we were supposed to be getting rid of stuff together. She ended up shopping in the part of the half of the yard sale that was from me and then stuffing all her leftover stuff in her garage when I took whatever I didn’t sell to charity. Now I keep seeing a bunch of my discards cluttering up her house more. Lesson learned: don’t have a join yard sale with a hoarder when you are trying to help her. I have even tried ignoring it in hopes that the problem will go away. Now I see that it is destroying her marriage. My brother-in-law has completely given up.

    She seems to want help, but is in denial about the source of the problem. She keeps thinking that she will buy some magic item that will solve all her problems. She just needs an organizational set of containers and the mess will go away. If she just re-decorates the kitchen, then the mess in the kitchen will somehow be less messy. We have a fairly honest relationship where I can give her my honest opinion about stuff. I have tried to appeal to her logic, but it is as if I speak another language and it just doesn’t compute. I don’t particularly like getting into other people’s business, so I tend to stay out of it, but in this case I feel I need to intervene somehow. The poor thing is literally tearing her house apart. The problem is, I need to do it in a way that she will receive it and it will be productive.

    She is kind of isolated and she lives about 45 minutes from the rest of the family. All I can think to do is make an effort to spend more time with her and try to be a positive and more constant influence on her life. I keep praying that G-d will give me wisdom on how to address the problem and reach her.

  • I am not sure if my parents were hoarders or not. I never saw the television show because I don’t have one. I have been striving to be a minimalist for the past two years. Then last year my father died. I was his executor and when I had to start cleaning his house out………I began thinking, “My parents were hoarders!” The stuff they had was not new or useful. Nothing I could even sell. That would have helped. It was old stuff from the 1950’s on. They had a gas station in 1954-1962 and had every bill, receipt and scrap of paper that had to do with it. Not to mention, they had moved to CA, back to NY, then to FL, on to SC, back to FL and finally back to NY. All those old things they moved with them. Why? I had to pay for dumpsters to get rid of the stuff they saved. It was a nightmare!

    That situation has helped me in getting rid of more of my stuff in my house. I am trying to get rid of even more items since it is only my husband and I here now. No hoarding for us!