July 11, 2014
The Many Faces of Hoarding
The subject of hoarders fascinates and mystifies me. Viewers bewitched by the topic kept the TV program “Hoarders” running for six seasons on the A&E cable channel, and “Hoarding: Buried Alive” on TLC for seven seasons. I watched a few episodes in disbelief as residents navigated a labyrinth of narrow walkways carved through mounds of clothing, old newspapers, pizza delivery boxes, pet food cans, plastic bags, children’s toys, and whatever else came through the front door. I wondered how people could live that way. What keeps a person trapped in stuff physically and mentally? The look inside the homes and lives of hoarders sparked compassion for those ensnared by things that belong in a landfill, and bolstered my pride in being a tosser-outer.
People land somewhere on the continuum between hoarder and tosser-outer. My grandmother used to iron and re-use wrapping paper, and press aluminum foil with her fingers. She used elasticized plastic covers like mini-shower caps for her stewed prunes to avoid wasting plastic wrap. My parents told stories of their adolescent years in the Great Depression. They spoke of onion sandwiches, patched clothing, turned shirt collars, scratchy darned socks and doing whatever was necessary to keep something functional because there wasn’t money to purchase a replacement.
Mom took these lessons in frugality to heart. After she died, Dad and I filled trash bag after trash bag with stacks of magazines, stockpiled vitamins, old purses, shoes, and knick knacks stored in the basement. I looked with disdain at the evidence of her need to hang on to things because they might become a valuable antique or she might want to reread an article she read fifteen years before.
I am an unsentimental purger of stuff. When it comes to physical possessions, I hold things loosely and keep piles to a minimum. What I couldn’t see, though, were the heaps of emotional junk stashed in my heart’s basement.
When a counselor walked me down the steps and beamed her insight all around, I discovered this tosser-outer was a basement hoarder. The mound of unacknowledged anger took up the south wall. I never knew what to do with anger but stash it. I’d collected minor slights and snarky comments in the corner. There was a shelf for injustices, and a pile of shattered hopes. Two piles were reserved for self-imposed unrealistic expectations and those others imposed on me. Add one for ingratitude and another for kind actions left undone.
The counselor patiently listened as I inventoried the grievances, and then challenged me to discard them. She advised, “Look at them once again as the person you are now, not the person you were then, and let them go.” She was right. These weren’t things to keep hold of or a plug that might fix a leak.
There was no reason to hang on to them, but it was terrifying to envision an empty basement. The junk was there, and it had become a part of me I was afraid to lose. There’s security in keeping a stockpile of laments on hand for the next pity party. There’s a sick comfort to be found in the familiar even when it’s useless junk.
I needed someone to point out the piles and convince me I had the resilience to deal with them. The road to freedom has meant many trips up the stairs and out to the curb, many prayers of and for forgiveness, and many tears as I repeatedly let go.
I get hoarding now. As much as the footage disgusts me, I understand the desire to hold on to something. I see the roots for my fascination with the compulsion, I have them, too.