17 Tips for Hoarders
~ Arthur Schopenhauer
Hoarding is an anxiety disorder that manifests as persistent difficulty parting with possessions (regardless of their value), which results in the accumulation of a large number of possessions that fill up and clutter your home to the point you can't use it as intended (e.g. you can't shower because you store junk mail in your bathtub). It can be an embarrassing thing to talk about, but hoarding affects 2-5% of Americans, and might be more frequent in abuse survivors. After all, it's not surprising that abuse would cause anxiety problems: hypervigilance, panic attacks, OCD, or hoarding. Hoarding makes sense especially if you were neglected as a child, never knew if there's going to be enough food or not, so now you keep buying more and more of it, to be sure you never go without again. Many pet hoarders feel that they are "saving" their cats/dogs/etc from getting killed/neglected/harmed otherwise, which also makes sense if you've been abused. Finally, simply being raised in a dysfunctional family can also contribute to the problem: either adults had no patience/desire to teach you the basic housekeeping skills, or nobody in the household bothered to maintain an organized and clean home, because they were too busy drinking, fighting, abusing each other.
This page is not a manual on how to quit hoarding in 15 easy steps. Hoarding takes years to develop and years to overcome. Pressure to just quit it cold turkey only increases the anxiety (which caused it all in the first place) and the problem snowballs. The tips below are simply various practical suggestions that might help improve your quality of life, one step at a time.
Identify the problem
There's a difference between hoarding and collecting/stashing. When you hoard, the items you keep and your home overall become unusable, while when you collect or stash - you can and do use both the items and your living space. For example, my grandma liked to purchase food in bulk because it's cheaper, so she had two large closets used as food storage. However, we did eat that food, it did not gets spoiled or go past its expiration date, and was not blocking our way. On the contrary, my dad's home was hard to enter because of frequently collapsing piles of random items he was not using but couldn't part with: bricks he stole from construction sites over the years, a broken piano he found on the street, took apart, and stored in his kitchen cabinets, or 12 identical ladies handbags (got ruined when his 5 gallon can of paint remover leaked on them). This isn't collecting or stashing, this is hoarding, because he wasn't using the items he had and his home was a fire/health hazard.
Address your anxiety
Hoarding is an anxiety disorder: it's how you comfort/distract yourself when you feel anxious. Cluttered home is a symptom, not the cause of the problem. You can clean it up, but if the underlying issues aren't resolved, it will get cluttered again, or you'll come up with a different coping mechanism, likely unhealthy as well. Therefore, it makes sense to focus on the bigger picture: get yourself some therapy, start a journal, pay attention to how you feel, see what makes you anxious, talk about it, use grounding techniques, etc.
Store items of the same type together
I.e. - all canned food in one place, all pencils in one place, all unopened mail in one place, etc. This makes your belongings more accessible, so you have less urges to buy items you already have plenty of. When you store things where they belong, it allows you to see which items you're OK with and which you have too many of, e.g. more perishables than fit in your fridge, more clothes than fit in your closet, more cleaning supplies than fit in your bathroom undersink cabinet, more china than fits in your cupboards, etc.
Quit impulsive shopping
This is the number one source of clutter. You can buy (or otherwise acquire) any item(s) you want, but you can't do it spontaneously. Even if something is on sale. Even if someone threw away a perfectly fine, expensive, rare item that you've just realized you desperately need and that won't be there tomorrow. Only get what you've planned to get. I.e. you're welcome to buy 200 tupperware containers at once, if that's what you want, but you need to have a pause between the impulse to buy them and the actual purchase. The more time the better, but at least 24 hours. It can be a hard adjustment to make, but there's no way for your clutter to not grow if you keep bringing it in and struggle taking it out.
Digital materials are much easier to organize and take no physical space. Photos, music, movies, books, newspapers, journals, address books, bank statements, utility bills, etc - can all be stored in cyberspace instead of your home. If you don't know how to go about it - ask for help, many people will gladly link you to good software and show you how to use it, especially if you mention that it's to help you battle a hoarding problem. Nobody has to come to your house for this, so you can maintain your privacy.
Showcase your memorabilia
Some items have no practical use, but we keep them for their sentimental value: family photos, kids' drawings, dried petals from your wedding bouquet, grandma's postcards, etc. To keep them organized and protected, get a scrapbook (as big as you want, but only one) and place them all in there. If you have large paintings or posters - hang them on walls. If you collect books - put them on shelves and dust regularly. This way items that are precious to you won't get torn, soiled, broken, or lost, you'll know where to find them, and will be able to show them to others too.
Repurpose & upcycle
People who hoard are visionaries: you can see how a seemingly useless item could be turned into a valuable possession and make someone happy. For example, my friend weaves colorful rugs out of old t-shirts; they are 100% cotton, machine-washable, and she can make them in any size and color she wishes. It's a win/win: we all receive beautiful rugs for holidays, get rid of unwanted t-shirts, and are grateful to her for both. Upcycling and repurposing fosters creativity, saves the Earth, and makes cool gifts. However, it's important to keep the end goal in mind: people do it to get rid of clutter, not to acquire it. When there are too many projects, none of them come to completion; sometimes it's better to just let go of an old t-shirt.
Even brand new items often get damaged when stored in a cluttered home; if you have unused items that are still in an OK condition - consider donating them. It's unfortunate that you spent money on things you don't use, but holding on to them only aggravates the loss by robbing you of your living space as well; give them to someone in need, it will benefit both of you. If you aren't ready to part with some of your possessions, at least sort them by type, box them, and label and seal the boxes with duct tape. This prevents them from getting damaged, allows you to stack them, and makes it easier to let go of them. You can't do anything with an unsorted pile of random items anyway: it's not usable, sellable, or donatable, while a box of pencils can go to a local school, a box of shoes - to a homeless shelter, etc.
The "keep or toss" trick
When I'm sorting through clutter, what often happens is that I pick an item and start thinking of ways I can use it, or where I'd like to place it, or whom I might donate it to one day - getting distracted from the task at hand, so nothing gets done. Instead, only make one decision at a time: are you keeping this item (for whatever reason) or are you tossing it? "Keepers" go to the left, "tossers" go to the trash bin on the right, place the item on either side within 5 seconds and move on to the next one. When you're done, take the trash outside and sort through the "keepers" by which room do they go in: kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, etc. Again, don't think about anything else, just sort by room, and then take the piles to whichever room they belong in. Doing things this way, one decision at a time, helps you stay on track and actually accomplish something.
The "bulldozer" trick
Doesn't work for everyone, but if most of your clutter is trash (so you don't have to spend time thinking on each piece) - you can be done with any room in a couple of hours. How it works is - you grab a broom, enter the room you want to clean, and push everything into one pile in the center (not in the corner!), so that your whole room is clean except for this pile. Don't look at the items, just everything to the center, like a bulldozer. And then you get a pair of rubber gloves and a box of commercial quality garbage bags, sit down next to your pile, and bag it all, putting aside occasional items that you actually need to keep (like your passport). Take the bags outside, pick up what you kept, and call it a day. It probably sounds bizarre, but this approach shifts your perspective: instead of your familiar, cluttered room, you suddenly have a clean room with a pile of trash in the middle. Helps with motivation to get rid of it, once you see it this way.
The "ten items a day" trick
It takes much longer than the bulldozer approach, therefore requiring consistent motivation over a long period of time, but it's less drastic and stressful, and also easier on those with physical disabilities. The trick is simple: you pick 10 items to toss, every day, preferably at the same time (makes it easier to remember to do it). It doesn't matter what the items are: a used paper plate, a broken armchair, an expired can of kidney beans, a bag of trash - any ten items you're ready to part with. You won't see results right away, but if you can keep at it - this might be the best approach, from the psychological standpoint, because it changes your daily habits, making it easier to maintain a clean home once you achieve it.
Roaches, bedbugs, fleas, mice, rats
Clutter offers pests plenty of room to hide from chemicals, and plenty of food to ignore baits, so the only way to get rid of them is to get rid of the clutter. Just consider these numbers: one female roach produces enough offspring in her lifetime (about a year) to cover the area of a football field. If they weren't hiding in your clutter, but standing neatly lined up one next to another on that field, it would take 96 pest bombs going off at once to exterminate them, or a few gallons of bait with no other food source present. You see that the insecticide products you buy at a supermarket are a joke to your roaches, and the only thing they will accomplish is give you respiratory infections and skin rashes. Decluttering, on the contrary, gets rid of pests 100% of the time, simply because there's no way for them to stick around without food, water, or shelter. Remove trash, scrub away yummy grease and soda spills, and get rid of water: glass of juice left on the counter, dripping kitchen faucet, etc. All of your pests will be gone, except for bedbugs (if any): those live in your mattress, drink your blood while you sleep, and can survive up to 400 days without a meal, so there's no way to get rid of them by simply withholding food and shelter. For bedbugs you have to get professional exterminators, no other options really.
It's embarrassing to think about, so people often avoid addressing hoards that smell: spoiled food, animal (or human) feces/urine, dead animals, etc. It is indeed hard, but these hoards are good to start from because you don't need to sort through them and make decisions, which is often the hardest part. What you need to do is put on gloves, hold your breath, place the stinky stuff in a strong trash bag, and take it outside. It's 15 minutes of extreme discomfort, but it will make a drastic difference to your quality of life and self-worth. Once it's done, you don't have to do anything else for the rest of the day: give yourself a high five and do something comforting and rewarding, like a Netflix movie.
Friends and family
Hearing your doorbell ring can trigger huge anxiety, but visitors are what helps you stay afloat: statistically, hoarding gets out of control right after people sever ties with family/friends and nobody comes to their home anymore. Clutter grows gradually, so it's easy to miss the point where regular mess (perhaps embarrassing, but harmless) makes your home unsafe to live in: fire hazard, infestation, unsanitary conditions, structural damage, etc. Your friends and family would notice if/when that happens, so their perspective can serve as a reality-check. Having people come by also helps against social isolation (which contributes to anxiety which causes hoarding), and provides strong motivation to actually clean up. You might not realize it, but house mess is something everybody has once in a while, like diarrhea, negative balance in checking account, or dirty socks. It's embarrassing when these things get out of hand, but not everyone is a hypocrite who'll judge you for a mess caused by an anxiety disorder, while we all have it once in a while for no particular reason. You are much more than your messy home, don't hide from your neighbors, friends, and family.
The thought of authorities getting involved can certainly cause panic, shame, and anger, but knowing what to expect might make it easier. What usually happens is: they send a social worker to visit you and see if there are any health/safety hazards, how urgent is it to fix them, and how willing/able to do it are you. This is actually helpful because clutter can feel overwhelming and you might not know where to start on it. These social workers evaluate homes for a living, so they won't get shocked, disgusted, or overwhelmed - they've seen it all. And they'll tell you what to focus on, e.g. the pile of clothing in your bedroom can stay for a while, but that gasoline canister in the kitchen has to go right now, and old furniture in the basement needs to move to the side within a week, to open access to water heater. They can also refer you to various programs/organizations: companies that remove junk for free or at a low cost, exterminators, local church to get volunteers to help you clean up, counselors (you might qualify for a free one), sometimes even financial help (e.g. to replace bedbug-infested mattress). The social worker will keep visiting you once in a while, to check on your progress, but if you stay on track it will be over eventually.
Children & pets
You have every right to privacy and freedom to chose your lifestyle, but if there are children or animals involved - it's their life too, and their right to safety should come before your right to privacy. Ignoring the problem and waiting for someone to report you may result in child endangerment and/or cruelty to animals charges, while contacting authorities yourself makes a much better impression: it shows that you care about your kids/pets and are trying to do the right thing, so the authorities will work with you rather than against you. Still, children might be taken away till you clean up enough for them to return, and extra animals (more than allowed in your area) will probably have to be put up for adoption. Of course it's stressful and even traumatic, but your kids and pets deserve a safe and healthy home, so please think of their welfare too.
When your landlord, the fire department, adult protective services, or some other type of authority feels that your home is unsafe for you to live in and is threatening to evict you, institutionalize you, condemn your house, etc - it can be very stressful, even traumatic. However, ignoring them won't help, so try to talk to them: hear what they are saying exactly (which part of your clutter they have a problem with, how much time you have to fix it, what will happen if you do, what will happen if you don't, etc), explain your circumstances and hardships to them too, so that they understand your situation better and can come up with solutions. Unless the house is literally about to collapse, they usually give you some time to clean up - or at least to pack up your most essential items (like IDs, family photos, minimal clothing, etc). It might feel unfair, wasteful, even like a violation, to have to get rid of things you paid money for and could have sold on eBay, donated to someone, or used yourself. The important thing to keep in mind is that they aren't trying to hurt you. They're stepping in because it looks like you're unable to keep your home (and yourself) safe, so someone needs to protect you from getting hurt by your clutter, because you matter, people care, and can't allow you to get sick or even die.
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
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