Why do people hoard stuff?

On the last two Monday nights, I’ve watched A&E’s show “Hoarders.” In case you don’t know what it is, it’s a one-hour show in which real-life hoarders work with professionals to “unhoard,” that is, to throw away a bunch of their junk and de-clutter their lives that have become unmanageable and unhealthy (and often, unsustainable) because of all the stuff they keep. Or, as A&E puts it:  

Each 60-minute episode of “Hoarders” is a fascinating look inside the lives of two different people whose inability to part with their belongings is so out of control that they are on the verge of a personal crisis.

In each episode, a cleanup crew scoops up all the junk and throw it away, leaving the hoarder with a “clean” house. Here’s a link to some before & after photos from last night’s show.  It’s a fascinating show.

The program ends at 10:00 PM, so last night I went to bed with images of really messed up houses in my mind. Here are my day-after reactions:

  • Watching “Hoarders” makes me feel relieved that I am able to throw stuff away.
  • The show is not simply, as the network states, “fascinating.” It’s entertaining, which is of course bothersome because it doesn’t seem right to be entertained by the misfortunes of strangers. Still, once I watched 5 minutes of the show, I knew I would keep watching (and watch it again next week).
  • Hoarding doesn’t help the hoarders deal with their real problems, but they sure think it does. How human is that—to have a problem, and then to create another problem in dealing with the first problem?
  • If I produced the show, how would I better explain the “reason” for hoarding—as if there is ever a legitimate reason to keep garbage and other stuff that someone will never, ever, ever use?

In other words, what are real differences between:

  • hoarders, and
  • people who may keep a lot of useless stuff but who are not hoarders, and
  • people who keep stuff not knowing why, but who do not become unsanitary and unhealthy in doing so?

Well, I ran across a useful website that helped me figure this out. Here are some misconceptions held by hoarders:

1) The moment I discard of this item I discard a part of myself.  (OK, I admit, I’ve thought this.)

2) The moment I decide to throw something away I may be making the wrong choice.  (Yep, I’ve thought this.)

3) The moment I am unable to know how to categorize an item, I will place it in sight so I will know where it is.  (I do this with my desk at work, and with things that do not “belong” in the junk drawer at home.)

4) The moment my object has a use, I have to keep/use it so it doesn’t get wasted.  (Ah! A thought I haven’t had!)

5) The moment you decide to throw something away, you no longer are the person in control and what happens to this item will be in the hands of others.  (Oh good, I haven’t thought this, either.)

6) The moment you throw something away, you may forget its content or the way it looked and it will be gone forever.  (Haven’t we all done this with an old favorite sweater from an ex-boyfriend, or a comfy pair of shoes that are no longer comfy?)

7) The moment you throw something away, you let go of that specific part of your life, however insignificant it may be.  (Well, I would think this if I tried to throw away my high school yearbooks, maybe, or photo albums. But not the Rice Krispies box, or the toothbrush from 1982.)

–After all this info, I still don’t really understand hoarding, but I do remember an animal hoarder I ran across volunteering through our local Humane Society. She supposedly loved her animals, but she had 70 cats and dogs in her house and right outside her house with woefully inadequate food & shelter. She couldn’t afford to spay or neuter the animals, much less vaccinate them or ever take them to a doctor when they needed to be seen. Her home was soaked with urine and feces. Some puppies froze to death in her backyard because she didn’t give the pups and mother dog enough shelter to live. Her animals (and her house) were full of fleas. Yet she “loved” the animals.

I would have had empathy for her, except she lied to authorities about the condition of the animals, about the number of animals she had, and about how “most” of them were spayed and neutered. She bred the small dogs and sold puppies for $125, sick, unvaccinated, and flea ridden. She also knocked on doors and solicited donations IN THE NAME OF our organization, our county Humane Society, when she was not affiliated with us. So she was sneaky, and even devious. Eventually our county passed a law simply for her—she couldn’t keep that many animals, so she moved away to another state where she could hoard away to her heart’s content. (But we gave them a heads up and they passed a law before she arrived!)

So my own personal experience with a hoarder was not a situation where I felt the hoarder was just an unfortunate, mentally ill person who couldn’t control her compulsions. She carefully planned her deceptions and hid them to the best of her abilities. I suppose it was still a mental illness, but what are you going to do with someone like that? Animals are suffering at her hands. Shut her down!

Back to the general issue of hoarding. I’m not really sure if I am so concerned with why people hoard stuff, as I wonder how they got there. What happens to someone who just holds onto her high school yearbook, versus the woman on the TV show last Monday who had collected 3 feet of trash throughout her house—and had now been cleaned up TWICE through the years? And could the hoarder have controlled the hoarding at once point, before it got completely out hand? When did she give up? When was it OK that her house looked that way? When was it OK that her false teeth were buried in the waste? When was it OK that her toilet no longer worked? When was it OK that she didn’t have running water (for the last 5 years)? When was it OK that she chose her garbage over her 8th-grade son? When did she choose living in a garbage dump over just holding onto some stuff? Did she lose her ability to choose, or did she choose all those things?

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2 Responses to Why do people hoard stuff?

  1. Alyssa says:

    One of my coworkers has talked about this show. I no longer have cable, but I’m not sure I would watch it if I did. I think I’d be too afraid of seeing myself in it. I probably fall in the category of people who keep a little of useless stuff. I have a ridiculous amount of stuff, and I can always find something to do that is far more interesting than going through it.

    I’ve joked that the reason I’m allergic to dogs and cats is so that I won’t become a hoarder, but based on your account of the animal hoarder, I don’t think I need to worry. I agree that she exhibited a great deal of premeditation and prevarication. Not the typical animal hoarder who actually believes he/she is helping the animals.

  2. Pingback: On Housecleaning and Shedding Baggage « Belief in People

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