If you don’t have the tendency to hoard, it can be hard to understand those people who do so. Why do they feel the need to hang onto things that most of us would think are rubbish or completely insignificant? For hoarders though every single item has some sort of importance to them and to them, it’s not junk.
That’s not to say that they don’t feel embarrassed and ashamed about the state of their homes but dealing with it is extremely difficult. I came to realise this over years of counselling clients who were themselves hoarders or who had a family member who held onto every single item over the years, even empty food tins, small lengths of string and years-old newspapers.
Hoarders have a huge difficulty in discarding or parting with possessions – they feel that they need to save them at all costs, regardless of whether they present a fire hazard or obstruct walking spaces (or even sleeping areas). In fact, many hoarders feel a deep sense of shame about what amounts to an addiction and often stop inviting friends round, sometimes isolating themselves in the process.
Children and partners of hoarders also find life difficult as they also can’t have friends round and their home becomes a constant source of friction. They often want to help, but find that their help is refused. It can cause marital break-ups and adult children often leave home as soon as possible.
People with a hoarding disorder usually save items because they have serve as a reminder of happy times, or they represent people that they loved. They think that their items will be useful in the future and don’t want to waste anything in case it’s needed later. Most of all, they often feel safer when surrounded by all the things that they’ve saved.
Things pile up and become disorganised so that there are often stacks of paperwork, books, newspapers and clothes. This is different from people who have collections of, say, stamps or books by a particular author. Although collections can be large, they’re not usually particularly cluttered and don’t cause the distress that hoarding does. In fact, most people who collect items are often proud of them and want to show them off to other people.
It’s not entirely clear what causes this disorder but often people develop a hoarding disorder after they’ve experienced a stressful life event that they’ve had a lot of difficulty coming to terms with – this could be the death of a loved one, eviction, losing possessions in a fire or burglary or getting divorced. Other sad life events like the loss of a child can often precipitate hoarding too.
If you live with or know a hoarder, you’ve probably already realised that they’re resistant to your offers of help to sort out their belongings. No-one really wants someone else coming into their home and telling them that the things that they’re so attached to are junk and need to be thrown out. Hoarders need kindness and persuasion to encourage them to seek out help. In the meantime:
- Find out as much as you can about this condition by reading websites and books about it.
- Don’t take their possessions away – although this can be tempting, it won’t resolve the real problem and could destroy your relationship.
- Recognise their victories, however small, by praising them if they throw away something, even if it’s very small.
- Don’t enable their behaviour by offering to store some of their items for them.
- Don’t clean up for them – ultimately, they need to recognise that things are getting in a mess and that they need to take action to stop things getting any worse.
- Encourage them to seek help and treatment. This is possibly one of the best things that you can do to help them.
Talking with their doctor can help and counselling is a positive way forward where, gently, over a period of months, the counsellor can find out what the items mean to the hoarder, how they feel about sorting them out and whether they might start in a small way to make some headway with the clearing and cleaning process.
Some communities now have agencies to help with the hoarding problems once the healing process of counselling is under way. It’s important that the hoarder themself knows how the problem originated and that they want to be able to resolve it.
Such a process won’t happen overnight but with time and patience, a lot of hoarders can start clearing their homes and become happier and more fulfilled in the process.
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