Hoarding

Mikael Wagner
6 min readJun 10, 2022

The first time I understood the word hoarding was while I was watching a television series that shared the lives of people that love shopping for things they may never use in their lives. I thought it was a fun show to watch and to laugh about with friends. The sad part is, I never knew that real people or people that I may know could be potential hoarders. Do you know anyone who is a hoarder? They may be a friend, partner, spouse, or a family member.

When visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, I stayed at my sister and brother-in-law’s home. Upon arrival, I stood for a moment in total shock, I kept thinking, run as fast as you can and don’t stop until you are back on a plane flying home. They have a beautiful two-level home where great memories and good times were created over the years. This time, all those sweet recollections disappeared in an instance like a puff of smoke. Every room was filled with junk from floor to ceiling. There was barely space to even walk. As I looked around for hidden cameras and a talk show host that would jump out from behind a box to surprise me and say, “Smile, you on candid camera.” Well, it never happened. After 45 minutes of absorbing the chaos, I started analysing what I was seeing, where, and how I would start the process of decluttering. Apparently, this has been happening for many years. The reality is that it can be decluttered, but at what expense. My biggest fear is if it will stay clean and organized once the task has been completed. Friends that have gone through similar circumstances with their parents or other older relatives informed me that my effort was good, but not to expect any long-term changes.

Hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs. Hoarding involves the compulsive need to find and keep objects, pets, or trash regardless of their value. People may hoard clothing, cleaning products, food, household items, hangers, shoes, books, boxes, grocery store bags, old newspapers, exercise equipment, obituary programs, or photographs of people they don’t remember, magazines, costume jewellery, new and broken electronics, and boxes of unopened mail, whether it’s important or not. It was a shock to my internal system. My experience led me to dig deeper into why hoarding exists.

Someone that hoards may exhibit the following symptoms and/or behaviour:

  • Inability to throw away possessions.
  • Severe anxiety when attempting to discard items.
  • Great difficulty categorizing or organizing possessions.
  • Indecision about what to keep or where to put things.
  • Distress, such as feeling overwhelmed or embarrassed by possessions.
  • Suspicion of other people touching items.
  • Obsessive thoughts and actions such as fear of running out of an item or of needing it in the future, checking the trash for accidentally discarded objects, such as paper clips.
  • Functional impairments include loss of living space, social isolation, family or marital discord, financial difficulties, and health hazards.

One of my biggest flaws is to always look for the logic in most things. Time and people have taught me to let go of the need to continue to search for an answer that may not exist or make sense to me. So why do people hold on to things that from my view, that may not be needed?

People hoard because they believe that an item will be useful or valuable in the future. Or they feel it has sentimental value, is unique and irreplaceable, or too big a bargain to throw away. They may also consider an item as a reminder that will jog their memory, thinking that without it they won’t remember an important person or event. Or, because they can’t decide where something belongs, it’s better just to keep it.

Several of my colleagues shared personal stories with me that has helped me to better understand the issues of hoarding. Many stressed the trauma of growing up poor or without certain things in life. As they grew into adulthood, obtained college degrees and employment, they decided to make up for lost time by purchasing all the things they never could secure in their earlier life. The purchasing of designer clothes and accessories, expensive cars, beautiful furniture, and other items to remind them of their success. From the number of people that shared information, most said that the items obtained had no meaning after purchased, nor did it make them happy. Many of the items were never worn, used, or enjoyed the way they thought they would be. Today, they are all in the process of decluttering their lives, homes, and closets to be able to breathe and enjoy their lives in the present. All of their input made a difference in my life today and moving forward.

A lack of functional living space is common among hoarders, who may also live in unhealthy or dangerous conditions. Hoarders often live with broken appliances and without heat or other necessary comforts. They cope with malfunctioning systems rather than allow a qualified person into their home to fix a problem.

Just to be clear, hoarding is different from collecting items. Collectors have a sense of pride about their possessions, and they experience joy in displaying and talking about them. They usually keep their collection organized, feel satisfaction when adding to it, and budget their time and money. Hoarders usually experience embarrassment about their possessions and feel uncomfortable when others see them. They live in clutter and denial, often at the expense of liveable space, feeling sad or ashamed after acquiring additional items, and they are often in debt. Yet, they keep shopping for the same items although they may never be used and left in unopened boxes.

After 8 weeks of non-stop cleaning, decluttering, and hauling junk away, the question in my mind was if it will it stay clean after my departure? In short, the answer is No. Attempts to “clean out” the homes of people who hoard without treating the underlying problem usually fail. Families and community agencies may spend many hours and thousands of dollars clearing a home only to find that the problem recurs, often within just a few months. Hoarders whose homes are cleared without their consent often experience extreme distress and may become further attached to their possessions. This may lead to their refusal of future help.

So, what lesson did I learn from this extremely difficult project with my family? Lessons in Life taught me to stay focused on the goal and understand that convincing someone of the importance of letting go of useless items is not possible. The attempt to try to change the minds of those happily living in chaos is impossible. Again, it’s not the purpose of the task. Once understood and accepted, the path became clear and time can’t be wasted worrying if more newspapers, magazines, clothes, or electronics will be collected and stored in boxes in every single room, closet, and open space. Tip of the day is to take care of oneself. During the process, stress caused shingles to enter my body in an effort to slow down and refocus on taking care of myself. The saying, let it go, now makes a lot of sense.

Have you ever experienced hoarding up close? What was it like for you and how did you recover? Please share your encounter. If any information or advice is needed about the process, please feel free to reach out to me. Believe it or not, I am still healing from the experience.

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Mikael Wagner

Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.