Lots of us hate throwing things away, but having too much stuff can take over our lives…
We all find ourselves needing a clear-out occasionally. Some of us like to collect things like ornaments, figurines or shoes.
But when does collecting stuff become hoarding?
Jo Cooke, director of Hoarding Disorders UK and author of Understanding Hoarding, says that around two to five per cent of the population have hoarding disorder.
She says: ‘Symptoms include experiencing emotional distress with the thought of discarding an item. Hoarding — as opposed to collecting — is when rooms cannot be used for their intended purpose and the disorder impacts on the functionality of a home, when beds cannot be slept in, baths are full up, or back doors cannot be opened.’
Jo adds: ‘The difference between hoarding and collecting is that while both hoarders and collectors place value in their possessions, collectors will typically display their possessions in a proud and organised way.’
Consultant clinical psychologist Nadine Field says that hoarding is on the spectrum of obsessive compulsive disorder, and yet there has been little research on it. She explains that in some cases a hoarder may have had a very dictatorial upbringing or grown up in a chaotic background, or even been a refugee.
She adds: ‘It’s not uncommon for a person who has lost everything and all identity to hoard objects from the past that give us a sense of “being”.’
Nadine says that most hoarders do not realise they have a problem, even when they have to ‘tunnel’ through newspaper to get from one room to another.
‘They often feel threatened if other people comment,’ she says. ‘Social isolation is therefore a common symptom. It is only when the hoarder is ready to recognise that they’re unhappy and it’s actually taking over their lives, that help can be sought.’
As well as the psychological problems, hoarding can have a dangerous effect on health.
Jo Cooke says: ‘Some hoarders are compulsive shoppers and will get into debt. Others’ families may suffer massively when they can’t use the bathroom or kitchen, or find a place to sleep.
‘Sometimes the hoarding means there can be nowhere to wash clothing, loss of heating or hot water, structural damage to the house, mould, mildew, and potential for rat infestations. There are also risks of slips and trips, and hazards such as fire.’
So if you’re worried that you might be a hoarder, what can you do?
Nadine Field says cognitive behavioural therapy is the only way to get better.
‘People need to feel that their therapist understands them, then they can gradually work up to understanding why this has happened,’ she says. ‘Then the therapist can help them to sift through their belongings without the fear of having everything they identify with being removed from them. It’s a very delicate process and requires an extremely sensitive and experienced practitioner.’
Edited by Julie Cook
‘I stuffed it all in a barn and hoped it would go away’
Thirty years ago my husband and I bought a farm. I started buying things for the house, but then I’d find myself buying lots of other stuff too.
I’d go to auctions and bring back furniture we didn’t need. I’d buy extra pushchairs for the kids that we never used. I’d always keep the boxes things came in. Soon a barn was stuffed to the brim and the doors couldn’t open.
Then the stuff started spilling into our home. I had dozens of buggies, chairs, clothes and knick-knacks. The cupboard where I kept it all would no longer open.
Then a couple of years ago, our farm was repossessed and we lost our home. It meant I had to clear out 30 years’ worth of hoarding.
I ended up ordering 15 skips. I chucked as much as I could and left the rest.
Now we live in a much smaller house. It’s been upsetting having to abandon our home, but liberating too — because I can’t hoard any more. I now feel much freer when I open a cupboard and nothing falls out on me.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I know now I had a hoarding problem for many years. It took us losing everything we had, but now I feel free of ‘stuff’.
From Ann Jones, 55, of Somerset
‘It started when I lost my brother’
When I was 21 I lost my brother. He was just 16. Afterwards I was bereft and found myself keeping things. I was so distraught, but somehow collecting things with emotional meaning — birthday cards, Christmas cards, gifts — made me feel better.
As the years passed, I had boxes full of cards and notes from people, as well as containers full of books, ornaments and clothes. I had over 100 pairs of shoes.
Soon two entire rooms in my flat were full from top to bottom — I couldn’t even open the doors.
When I was 30 I realised I had a problem so I saw my GP — she referred me to a counsellor who confirmed I had hoarding disorder.
After six months of counselling I realised I’d been hoarding to try to replace my lost brother with things.
Since then I’ve managed to throw out lots of stuff, but I have a long way to go.
I still find it hard letting go of little presents or cards. But I am slowly getting better.
From Shirley Hellyar, 38, of Glasgow