Hoarding Or Not?

by Ramona Creel

What's Wrong With Loving Your Stuff?

There's a saying in my family, “If one is good, 20 must be better” — and my mother lived according to that credo until her dying day. If she loved it, she bought a lot of it, bought a few more the next trip to the store, then picked up a couple extras just to be safe. While cleaning out, we found at least 100 purses in her closet (many of which hadn't seen the light of day since I was in high school.) She had clothing and shoes that she hadn't been able to wear in 50 years stashed away in her closet. I found paperwork in her filing system that went back to 1954. The craft room was filled with old half-finished projects dating back three decades (my favorite was a bicentennial needlepoint quilt that my mother started in 1976 and kept swearing she would complete “someday” — she might have pulled it out when I was about 12 and added a few stitches, but otherwise, that thing lived in a shopping bag all the way through my childhood until I went to college!) And my mother was never one to pass up a bargain at the supermarket — she could have single-handedly alleviated starvation in a medium-sized third-world country if she had donated her kitchen to the World Hunger Organization (as long as those children in Ethiopia didn't mind freezer burn, overdue expiration dates, and a lot of spam!)

You see, the problem is not just that my mother owned a lot of stuff, but that she owned so much of everything that a good bit of it went bad before she ever had a chance to use it. Three years ago, a neighbor gave my mother several lugs of figs from his tree. She canned them and stored them neatly away on a shelf in her pantry. Well I'm sorry, but a single 77-year-old woman living by herself is never going to be able to eat two dozen jars of figs in any reasonable amount of time — when we finally opened them, they had grown hair and turned moldy. My mother never really understood the concept of “expiration” — she truly thought things would last forever. She would find canned goods on sale at the store and load up, then be surprised to discover that they were no longer edible when she finally opened them 10 years later. We found cans going back to 1998, and ended up throwing out 99% of what was stored in the pantry, fridge, or freezer. In fact, a large part of what my mother had stashed away for use “someday” went in the garbage — dried up paints, melted candles, holiday decorations that had disintegrated in the heat of the attic, clothing that was munched by silverfish, and shoes that had become moldy with disuse. The irony is that my mother hated to waste anything, which is why she kept things forever, magically believing that they would be useful at some point down the road — but instead they just rotted away in storage, which then created more waste. A vicious cycle.

A Fine Line Between Collection And Pathology

So does this mean that my mother was a compulsive hoarder? I don't think so. My mother's biggest problem was “excessive acquisition” — she was a child of the Depression and had spent her formative years going without essential items like milk and shoes and soap powder. So somewhere in the back of her mind, she worried that there might come a day when she would again be without — and she stockpiled to protect herself from that possibility. My mother also derived a great deal of joy from finding a bargain — she figured out that spending less on each purchase meant she could shop more (“need” never really entered into the equation.) It made her incredibly happy to get a $160 brand-name purse for $2 at the thrift store (even when she already had 20 others in the closet at home) — or 3 dozen cans of corn for $1.50 at the “bent and dent” store (even if they were already out of date and would go bad within a month.) My mother's urge to accumulate was like a cancer, a form of self-destructive replication that eventually takes over its host.

But truly compulsive hoarding is a different matter altogether. It goes beyond simple acquisition and into the realm of dysfunction. Real hoarding impairs a person's mobility — these are the folks for whom every flat surface is covered with piles, and they can only get from room to room via a tiny little path carved through the middle. My mother (like 99% of the people I know) had a “junk room” filled with crap she never used, and her active living spaces were quite often messier than I would have liked (again, like 99% of the people I know) — but her home was functional. Pathological hoarding keeps people from being able to use living spaces for their intended purposes, it interferes with a person's daily activities. I've worked with A.D.D., C.D., O.C.D., and hoarding clients who couldn't cook because the stove was piled high with unopened mail, who couldn't shower because the bathtub was full of overflow from the closets, and who slept on the couch because they couldn't find their beds under all the stacks. This was not my mother! And hoarding can often become terminal, when the clutter causes fires or impedes rescue workers from administering aid in the case of an emergency. When paramedics came to take my mother to the hospital, they had no problem getting in or out of the house. I never worried for her safety in her own home — and even in all our cleaning out, we never found a corpse buried under any of the piles. Wink

While it might seem that my mother was resistant to discarding anything (especially if you ask my sister), that's not completely true. She refused to get rid of stuff that she loved or thought she might use (which was a lot more than she really needed) — but she didn't hoard used tin foil or pieces of string or old coffee grounds (she did understand the difference between “trash” and the “good stuff.”) The woman was entirely willing to toss a newspaper once she had finished reading it (but she had so many subscriptions that she was looking at a backlog of 20 year's worth of publications to read “someday.”) And even though it took a long time, once my mother decided that something served no purpose for her, she let it go — last summer, we donated about 10 contractor bags of fabric to the Gee's Bend quilting collective, and at least 20 boxes of books to the local library. In fact, every time I talked to my mother this past year, she was always bagging stuff up for donation or shredding old papers. But it had to be her idea — she would not be forced to clean out before her time (again, like 99% of the people I know!)

I know organizers who would have easily classified my mother as a “level 1 hoarder.” But that diagnosis could be applied to (you guessed it) 99% of the people I know! Seriously, where do you draw the line? I have plenty of friends with collecting fetishes — bibliomaniacs and keepers of the shot glasses and even one woman with a spectacularly expensive assortment of high-end snow globes. And I know plenty of successful people who don't have a horizontal surface that isn't covered with “stuff.” But if the person is functional (pays the bills on time, holds down a job, isn't spending beyond their means or stealing, maintains a basic level of cleanliness, doesn't let the clutter impede personal relationships, and isn't living in a hazardous environment) — then where's the harm? My mother had a rich and full life, was involved in her community and well-loved by friends, and the clutter never really got in the way of that. As my sisters and I said while cleaning out, “At least it made momma happy.” She enjoyed the stuff she used, and she enjoyed the POTENTIAL behind the stuff she never got around to using, and I guess that has to be good enough.

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at www.RamonaCreel.com. And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.