I'm A Hoarder In Recovery — And It's Not Like What The TV Show Would Have You Believe

"One of my triggers, I’ve discovered, is holding onto gifts. As a result, gift-giving holidays like Christmas can be a minefield."
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“Remember that time last year?” I hissed. “I worked overnight on Saturday, and all I wanted Sunday morning was to sleep, but you were out cold from your big night out. It’s not like I could let our toddler run around unsupervised. You coerced me into staying awake.”

The argument between me and my spouse Zak over what was fair in our relationship was escalating rapidly. He was about to go for the jugular.

“You want to talk about coercion?” Zak’s tone of voice was quiet, but I’m not sure I had ever seen him this angry.

“Every time I felt like I couldn’t invite a friend over because your shit was all over the house, I felt coerced. Every time you said you’d clean up and then you didn’t, I lost a little more trust in you.” If he had slapped me, it would have hurt less.

We went on to scream at each other about the bench at the foot of the bed (always useless for sitting down on because it was already full of clothes and papers), the dining room table (unusable due to the pile of mail stacked up on it from the last three months, in addition to multiple partially completed kitchen projects), and the inside of my car (none of his goddamned business, as far as I was concerned).

Largely because of the viciousness of this fight, in April of 2019 I initiated therapy for Hoarding Disorder (HD). When I tell people that I am a hoarder, I worry that they picture floor-to-ceiling stacks of newspapers blocking every hallway in my house and a sink swimming in rotting food. Surely I also keep 47 cats in various stages of starvation with feces matted into their fur.

What you see on ”Hoarders” is not what living with HD is actually like or, at least, not for me. I simply relate to objects differently than neurotypical people do. Researchers have found that hoarding entails a difference in brain architecture.

How does that manifest for me? I deposit emotions onto practically everything I touch. After I’ve interacted with an item, it becomes hard to throw it away; the idea of getting rid of things I use frequently makes me feel as though the ground is shifting underneath my feet.

Hoarding snuck up on me. I remember my mother always asking me to clean up my room when I was a child, but whose parents don’t? I suspect it got worse when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, although it’s hard for me to be sure in retrospect.

I lived with my parents for a while after college, mostly because they spent half the year in Pennsylvania, and it was useful to have someone at home to take care of the house. When Zak asked them for my hand in marriage, my mother shrugged and told him, “Well, you’ve seen her room.”

Researchers observe that hoarding disorder often appears to lie dormant, waiting for personal trauma to precipitate previously hidden hoarding tendencies. It also seems to run in families. For example, my grandmother was born in 1897 and lived through the Great Depression as an adult. She used to fish items out of the trash when I was a kid. To this day, when I go to throw something away, I am haunted by the thought, “How dare I throw this perfectly good thing away, when others have so little?”

My therapist likes to explain HD as a disorder of avoidance. Hoarders prefer to avoid sitting with yucky feelings, so we don’t deal with the mess in our spaces. However, therapy has helped me examine my motivations for holding onto items that “normal” people would discard. One of my triggers, I’ve discovered, is holding onto gifts.

I see presents as tangible proof that people care about me. Some pre-rational part of me is convinced that if I throw away a gift someone has given me, I am also throwing away that person’s love. As a result, gift-giving holidays like Christmas can be a minefield.

All throughout the season, I have to deal with presents like that new overly scented lotion gift set from that Secret Santa party, and the Christmas sweater so ugly that I don’t even want to wear it ironically. I also have to make room in my bookcase for the new novel from my favorite author, because my spouse won’t let me just keep buying bookcases.

Getting rid of presents from mere acquaintances, such as that office Secret Santa gift, is not generally such a big deal. But let’s say a close family member gets me a present that I just don’t like. Whenever I think about getting rid of it, waves of guilt wash over me for not liking it when they spent time and effort getting it. It’s just easier to stick in a drawer to figure out for another day.

But then the only time I have off is the weekend, and there are so many other ways to spend that sunny Saturday morning. After all, I will only have so many Saturdays with my daughter before she is out of the house for good.

As a result, the piles of clutter around the house get bigger. The cabinets fill, slowly, with things. For example, when trying to downsize, Zak and I had a battle royale around the question of how many mugs a family truly needs. Why, when we already had 12, couldn’t I part with one or two?

In therapy, I practiced disposing of low-stakes items. Cognitive-behavioral techniques have proven effective for me. If an item of clothing is stained or too small for me now, it’s easier for me to let go of it than it used to be. I interrupt my internal dialogue to point out that I truly never will wear this again. Getting rid of low-stakes items is a bit like exposure therapy for people with phobias: Once you get practice in letting go of things you are only somewhat attached to, it becomes easier and easier to let go of things you care about more.

The single thing that has helped me want to tackle my hoarding most has been considering the impact it has had on the people I care about. I don’t want my partner to feel as though he’s not free to live in his own space. I don’t want to model clutter everywhere as normal for my daughter. Now, when I am making decisions about disposing of items, I consider how my choices will impact the two of them. No keepsake is more important than my connection with my family. Once I realized this, my relationships with both of them improved.

HD is surprisingly prevalent. My therapist has told me that whenever she describes her professional focus to strangers, they always reply, “Oh, I know someone like that.” However, lay people don’t see how common it is because hoarding usually takes place in spaces out of public view. Because such a stigma surrounds hoarding, people like me who suffer from the disorder are not often “out” as hoarders. In fact, there is a good chance you know a hoarder.

In preparation for this Christmas, I’ve talked to family members about how my house is already too full of items. If they feel they must get me a present, I ask them to consider the gift of experiences. I would much rather spend time with the people I care about than receive any other gift.

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