Reader Elizabeth explains the pain of growing up in a hoarding household

Reader Elizabeth sent us the following e-mail and corresponding photographs. Her message was heartbreaking and honest, and she has agreed to let us share it with you:

My parents have a compulsive hoarding problem. I don’t mean that they’re “a little disorganized” or “let the housekeeping get the best of them.” They’ve had this problem since I can remember–and it’s affected me for much the worse.

In high school, there was no free horizontal space in the house–no tables, no desks, no countertops–clear of junk. I had to do my homework on my bed or go to the library. (And, yes, I had the same problem as them, too!)

The photos [which appear below] were taken almost a year ago. In the ensuing time, the house has gotten much, much worse. This is pretty organized for them.

For those of you with children, keep in mind that you aren’t just getting rid of clutter for yourself–your organization has a direct effect on your child, whether or not they can articulate it. If you or your spouse has a problem with hoarding, take care of it sooner rather than later. My mom was the one with the clutter problem and it drove my dad crazy–but he didn’t do anything about it. If he had, even if she hadn’t liked it in the short term, we all might have had a happier life.

If you or someone you love has a problem with hoarding, please seek help. As Elizabeth has so accurately explained, hoarding affects more than just the person with the problem.

52 Comments for “Reader Elizabeth explains the pain of growing up in a hoarding household”

  1. posted by Misstea on

    My parents have a hoarding problem too. However, they don’t care, and are very happy. In the big scheme of things, excessive clutter is very low on the list of problems they could have. (My parents are kind, have no addictions and have raised us kids to be healthy, strong and well-adjusted). If the hoarding doesn’t bother them, I don’t think I should impose my ideas on them – they are adults and can make decisions for themselves. All I can do is live my life differently, and perhaps provide a different example of how a home can be.

    That said, I shared the rule of three (an item must useful, loved or beautiful, preferably at least two of the three) and my mom burned three bags of stuff yesterday, unopened. I am very proud of her.

  2. posted by Gerr on

    “Seek help?” How? What ways are available to address the problem without attacking or invoking alarm in the hoarder’s conscious? The need to hoard is the effect of an irrational fear or desire, and in my experience, any attempt to address it also causes an irrational response.

    P.S. I have an irrational fear of hoarding, so I’m the exact opposite in that I prefer minimalism in my environment. Being married to a minor hoarder and having my own infliction means we’re both almost always unhappy with the amount of “stuff” (junk or treasures) in our house.

  3. posted by Erin at Unclutterer on

    @Gerr–There are licensed medical professionals (psychiatrists and psychologists) who work specifically with hoarders to help them overcome their fears and work through their behaviors. Additionally, there are many professional organizers who are also licensed psychiatrists and psychologists. When we write that someone should get help, this is the type of help that we are suggesting. In addition to emotional pain and anguish hoarding can cause, it can also cause physical damage, which has been discussed in previous posts on hoarding.

  4. posted by ClickerTrainer on

    I grew up with parents who lived through the Depression. They saved everything, but we kids knew it was life that had taught them that lesson.

    For me, the effect of growing up with savers is this: I have the exact opposite problem. I periodically go through my house in a few days, getting rid of everything I haven’t used in a while. Nearly every time, I get rid of something I end up needing later. I have starting using a “staging” area in the garage, where candidate discard items have to rest for a while — sometimes I realize that I’ve been over-zealous in my cleaning.

  5. posted by Im gonna need this someday on

    Hah, ever so timely. My wife and I decided to clean out the garage this weekend, which was easily 90% percent of my own doing. Computer parts, dismantled tech for art projects long forgotten. Wood working projects, tools etc. strewn from door to door. I moved everything out to the side yard, bought a rolling tool chest and slowly moved each box in to the garage and put away the crap one by one. Moved trash directly to trash, dontations to the back of my car, card board boxes used for storing the piles were broken down and bundled for recycling. What a relief and great feeling knowing where everything is. There’s still some crap that I have given to much personal investment in, but it’s all combined into one box, out of the way and waiting for my artisitc revival. After we were done, I did the voice over they have on those do it yourself shows stating “Now were are going to craft an email thanking our Father for passing on his disorganization gene.”

  6. posted by Xyrra on

    My family is currently going through this. A great aunt and her son (91 and 68, respectively) were in an accident back in July, and ended up in a rehab center due to the severity of their injuries. They were supposed to be there for five weeks. My great-aunt has a daughter, who has always been a bit of a ghost to the family.

    To cut a long story short, the son has been systematically alienating his sister over the years, beginning when she married and moved out of state. When she visited them in the hospital, and tried to ask their mother about finances (Mom, you’re getting older, and I love you, what do you want me to do once you’re gone?, sort of way), her brother became violent, screaming that is was none of her business, as she had abandoned them so many years earlier.
    The son has his mother wrapped around his finger in a guilt trip which has apparently been at least 40 years in the making.
    Other family is trying to make arrangements, as it is becoming more and more obvious that these two will never make it back to their home. The aforementioned daughter had gone to the house to retrieve the cat. She has since been accused of stealing (insert random things here) incessantly. She has said it is a nightmare in there, stacks floor to ceiling, with narrow paths to walk around.
    My great-aunt is faking her inability to walk and move now, as she has nowhere to go if she is discharged from the rehab center, as a social worker would first survey her residence. She knows it will never pass inspection.
    An uncle is attempting to help them clean out. He took the son a steno pad, asking what the most important things were, and where they were hidden.
    Returned three days later to find the son saying “I need a second pad of paper.”
    Front, back, tiny print… itemized lists of things ranging from childhood toys to Russian weapons and collector’s plates.

    The story only continues to unfold, with new details revealing themselves as I speak to my mother each week.

  7. posted by Mrs. Micah on

    Clicker Trainer, I think my grandmother is the same. She lived through the Depression as the oldest child in a fatherless family. Her hoarding isn’t epic, but when we helped her move, she wouldn’t throw out children’s books from 1935, for example, because she might want to read them someday. I pointed out that the book was unreadable (falling apart) but she didn’t care, she kept it.

  8. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    @Gerr: Blogger and professional organizer Ariane Benefit has a nice list of resources for those dealing with a true hoarding issue.

  9. posted by E. D. on

    Both of my parents are hoarders, although my mother will periodically purge things. Her sewing room is nearly floor-to-ceiling with all kinds of stuff. I just wait until she starts commenting about “cleaning out” then encourage it as much as I can over the phone and email.

  10. posted by Anonymous on

    Write in to a show such as clean sweep to get help with the out of control stuff.

  11. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    Television shows like Clean House and Clean Sweep are not equipped to handle the psychological issues that affect hoarders, although the shows certainly may give the impression that they are. Hoarding is distinct from messiness: a messy person, even an extremely messy one, can be persuaded by logic to let go of things without experiencing the suffering and disorientation that a hoarder would endure if separated from his or her possessions.

    The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation has a very helpful website devoted to hoarding:

    There is also a site for children of hoarders:

  12. posted by Min on

    I am going through systematic decluttering of my house. (I don’t have a hoarding problem, whatsoever, in fact I tend to get rid of things I could probably use. But when? Why keep it forever, using up storage space, if you don’t know?)
    It has been AMAZING to see how much space I’ve freed up. My house feels airier, like it can breath, the whole house feels more spacious, simply because I am able to open closets and SEE available shelfspace!
    My father has the most crap-filled garage you ever saw. Tons of OLD automobile parts, dohickeys, whatamacallits, etc. It’s a MESS. It drives my mother INSANE. Unfortunately, he inherited this gene from his mother; my grandmother. Her house is a tinderbox, and I shudder to think of what will happen if she passes on and my DAD is left to clean up. She has stacks of newspaper, clippings, coupons, boxes and boxes of them. Her basement is full of old expired “non-perishable” food. One time she gave me some food and there were worms in it. I think it was a cake mix. She has a serious problem but won’t accept help or deal with it, this is apparantly how she wants it…

  13. posted by Melinda on

    In regards to the original post, there is another reason in getting rid of clutter and trying not to be a hoarder. Ask yourself if you really want your children to go through your junk when you die. I can say this, because I had to. It’s not fun.

  14. posted by Marla on

    Here’s another fantastic website for children of hoarders (raises hand – Hi, I’m Marla and my parents are hoarders. I have been hoarded household-free for eighteen years) :

    It’s important not to address just the objects – it’s the emotions behind them. It’s not just OCD or “postponed decisions” – it’s an avalanche of imagined consequences particular to those who need to surround themselves with stuff.

    It’s so not simple, having parents who hoard – and many of us are caught in a crunch ourselves, with our own stuff to manage and our own family and the remaining personal issues. Sometimes we can’t let them be, because if we stop caring for them, they will stop caring for themselves and their deaths will be hastened. Then, our children will never know the good that was their grandparents, only the aftermath.

    As I prepare to help move my parents from one apartment across the hall to another (the only one they would go to, with a second bedroom for our family to stay in when we come as long as it can be kept clutter-free), I shudder at how it’s going to go, because I can forecast it. I’ll show them all the canned food in their pantries, with all the expired expiry dates, one can, box, bag at a time, and they’ll say “I know but…”, and as I prepare to remove it, I know they’ll be planning that next trip to the store to get more – they’ll be forgetting that the last time the power was out in Buffalo (two times last year, actually)for weeks – that they went to a motel and ate in restaurants so they never needed it when they’d supposedly need it most…

    Thanks,, for all you do to keep me on track. And Elizabeth, warm wishes for all the best. Hoarders, and their children, travel on rough roads.

  15. posted by Anonymous on

    I grew up in a hoarding household. It was not only ugly to look at, but unhygienic. Roaches had a multitude of places to live and they did.

    I would not go anywhere near the kitchen cupboards and only used the fridge as storage for food that I actually ate. That included items that did not require refrigeration.

    My father kept a storage unit as well, full of clutter. When he left our apartment and city to move across the country, the job of cleaning up fell on me. It was truly the most horrific things I have had to do.

    Growing up this way played a number on me. I was always ashamed and never let friends come over. The few times I did, I usually felt it was a mistake as those people generally just made fun and never understood the affect it had on me.

    To this day, I fight my father’s urge to hoard on a daily basis.

  16. posted by Jason on

    I actually posted similar pictures on my journal at the beginning of the year, as my parents have a horrific hoarding problem. (Well, one hoards, the other doesn’t admit to it or do anything to help.) And they wonder why I refuse to do anything they ask… if they don’t care, why should I? Well, at least that’s how I see it, and it’s a matter of getting them to realize it (and then try to change). Somehow I don’t see things getting any better once I move out, though…

  17. posted by helix_r on

    While it might be very shocking to see pictures showing the detestation of hoarding, I think it is _very_ different from the kinds of challenges most people who are interested in de-cluttering are facing.

    Everyone can see hoarding is a problem, there is little to learn from it– although I guess there is a “rubbernecking” impulse involved here.

    I get much more out of seeing exemplary photos of people who have their **** together.

  18. posted by Mellon on

    My husband and I spent about 12 hours trying to sort through the clutter in my (54 yr. old) mother’s basement last weekend. It’s heartbreaking- things like toiletries and a lifetime supply of paper towles have been in storage since she moved in 5 years ago. Every few months I dive into the mess and it always ends with me very upset. She admits to a clutter problem, but says that she’s “comfortable” having her things all around her. She’s on disabilty and worries that she won’t have the money to buy things in the future. The worst part is that so much of it is garbage now. Thousands of dollars worth of craft supplies, antiques, power tools, all ruined from sitting in the wet basement.

    The other worst part is that she always finds ways of blaming me. For example, she can’t get to the cabinet full of cleaning products bc I put a box in front of it, so she had to buy more. Then she calls my sister to complain about me throwing out her stuff. Ugh!

  19. posted by ...oh NO... on

    oh boy, what a rush of memories this brings! Dear mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law lived next door to each other and both houses were filled, basement to attic with so much…garbage, stuff, memorabilia (?) that it was impossible to navigate from room to room. And both women lived alone (separately)in a 2 story, 3 bedroom cottage! Grandma loved to clip articles from newspapers and magazines, but never threw our the source material. She also liked to can and pickle every year and the house contained every shape, size, and color of glass container imaginable. Mother fell prey to the siren song of eBay, buys a ton of sewing materials and fabric, and refuses to admit that she has a compulsive hoarding problem. When Grandma passed on, it was up to us to try to empty her house in order to sell it. Unfortunately, Mother would have none of it and insisted on going through it all herself. Needless to say, she spent a small fortune shipping us items (from MN to CA) that we did not want or were absolutely worthless or had no meaning. Like many who have commented before me here, I have since realized that you can only help those who recognize the problem and/or severity of the situation. My husband and I are dreading the day when Mother passes on; My plan of action is to call the 800-gotjunk people to just back up the dumpster to the house and be done with it. No inheritance or memories (oh the blasphemy!) is worth the grief and anxiety of going through a ton of trash to yield a minimal amount of “treasure”, financial or otherwise.

  20. posted by Cyrano on

    You might want to check this out, too:

    It’s a guy in a forum whose mom has a pretty bad hoarding problem. You can see how bad it gets.

  21. posted by Anti-clutterer on

    oh.. my late grandmother was nearly like that… She kept EVERYTHING, bank statements from the sixties, every piece of clothing she ever bought, all receipts, everything… It was a real pain to clean out her home after she passed away, my mother actually threw out tons (yes, literally) of stuff. I have a golden rule, never bring anything into the house that you either love or have use for. It’s quite simple and works!!

  22. posted by Matt on

    How about setting a rule for yourself (or your loved one) that every time something new comes in, something old must go out? At least the problem won’t get any worse, and then you can focus on the piles….

  23. posted by KT on

    Oh, my heart goes out to all of you who grew up with this…I did, too. When I grew up, there was no diagnosis for hoarding; in fact, there was no awareness of it at all.

    There seems to be an association of hoarding with poverty, but such isn’t the case. It’s a mental disorder, pure and simple, rather like obsessive compulsive disorder. There is also an association with hoarding and agoraphobia that I haven’t seen documented elsewhere. Inability to deal with ambiguity is likewise an unreported trait of hoarders: they tend to be rigid and violent in their household rules, often in ways that are not normal (beating a child for not sorting every “new” rubber band by size, for instance, when a box is full of all different sizes of rubber bands.) The hoarding syndrome may be exacerbated or evoked by environment, but at the root it is genetic…my mother and grandmother had it…I was adopted and do not have it.

    The effects of growing up in a hoarding household are emotional (extreme social isolation, shame), intellectual (never learning how to organize things properly, learning inappropriate buying habits), and financial (the money goes into rebuying the same stuff because it is lost or spoiled before it can be used, so there is no money for college or inheritance later).

    I wish educators were better trained to spot hoarding households and there were intervention programs to get kids out of situations like the one I experienced. A child who grows to adulthood in a hoarding household has a lifelong problem built into them, one that will limit their social ability, organizational effectiveness, and cause them grief every day of their lives…even if they get help as adults…because there is a developmental step associated with learning to categorize meaningfulness of items that is learned WRONG from these households. This deficit impacts almost every aspect of their lives…they tend to be hyper organized where they can be…yet completely paralyzed in other areas where they have not yet identified an organizational system that works for them. This is a sign that they are intellectualizing what should be an (unlearned) emotional process. Worse, individuals who are not simlarly affected do not understand the struggle they are seeing, and are alienated by it — reinforcing the social isolation and deepening the shame.

    I hope there is a psychiatrist or a sociologist out there reading this: I will keep writing about it and offering my insights until something more is done to help kids growing up in this abusive atmosphere.

    BTW, I am the owner of Austin Freecycle — ;o)

  24. posted by Monica Ricci on

    I so feel for children who grow up in these environments. It is heartbreaking, to be sure, and no doubt confusing for the child once they realize that “other people” don’t live that way. My late mother tended to hoard certain things, but then in other ways she was organized. When I cleaned out her clothing after her death, I discovered four closets either totally or partially full of clothes that she never wore. Some still with tags.

    She also had very deep shelves in the bathroom and hall closet, which were FULL of all manner of lotions, creams, and other toiletries and such.
    Yet, all her papers were in order and there were only a few drawers of it, all in the same piece of furniture. There is no explaining it, it just is what it is and you have to do your best to deal with it accordingly, but it’s hard.


  25. posted by Corinne on

    My husband’s grandmother kept her children’s umbilical cords……..

    As far as teachers recognizing the signs – poor teachers. They are asked to recognize signs of everything in the children they teach, all while trying to give the children some knowledge and helping them to pass all these standardized tests with 30 kids in the classroom. I think we need to stop expecting our teachers to do everything that parents should be doing themselves.

  26. posted by Andamom on

    I’ve written in the past about my father’s OCD that resulted in his buying huge amounts of a particular good — like 98 cans of tuna fish. My mother and mother-in-law both are unable to purge items although I have been working with my MIL to help her. It isn’t easy — and I don’t have the time now to write in detail about how I have butted heads with all of them, how their problem has affected me, or how this issue has affected other areas of their lives. Suffice it to say that I regularly post about uncluttering and live an uncluttered life because I have seen how detrimental it can be — but at the same time recognize that people are not always able to help themselves.

  27. posted by chris on

    Did not see / read any excerpts from actual hoarders. Just son,daughters, siblings and such. I am a hoarder of (to me) iconic woods and metals and I like it. I can see why others don’t though. On occasion we purge the garage and yes I fell better organized and centered. More serene even. The road of life still seems to traverse the middle of the road. Keep ‘er between the ditches. Some of those items deserve colectability status and conversely some need and deserve the boot. Think about it in these terms: Stuff is just like a field of crops. Dom’t overplant. Weed out on occasion and harvest the best. Plow under the rest.

  28. posted by andy on

    Tell your mom I will buy that hooded vent looking thing and all the things that go with it.

  29. posted by Lee2706 on

    Not sure if my MIL is a true hoarder, but she holds on to the most random things (I guess there are varying degrees of hoarding). Wife and I found a old baby car seat in their garage; it had to be from the 70s. She was planning on giving it to us when we have our first child. We took it and then proceeded to dismantle it and dispose it. My wife also found a set of dried up oil paints that the MIL refused to throw out because of all the memories of her earlier artistic years.

    That is what I most afraid of when either of our parents pass away – that we’ll inherit their homes and the piles of stuff stored in the garages and closets.

  30. posted by Sheri on

    I too grew up with a hoarder but it did not ruin my life. In fact, I am NOT a hoarder because of this! I like to keep things uncluttered that is why I am here!

    Everyone is different that is the joy of civilization!

  31. posted by kitties! on

    Wow, thanks for this post. My parents grew up in a 3rd world country where you NEVER threw anything away. They continue to have a major hoarding problem, today, except now that they have money, they are obsessed with sales and “good deals”. Every room in their house looks like the ones you showed, except piled up even higher! I was horribly embarrassed by it when I was growing up in their house. I never had anyone over and it made me sad to see how organized and clean my friend’s houses were. I thought I was the only one! To this day, I refer to it as “their house” as though it has nothing to do with me.

    I ended up the total opposite, I’ve become an anti clutter devotee and won’t even let my bf put a glass down for more than 10 minutes without him turning around to find it washed and drying in the dish rack! I’m not saying that’s good, I’m saying that it gave me issues to grow up in a house where things weren’t just “things”, each object was/is emotionally loaded. For me, each peice of clutter is a sign that I’m losing control over my house and life!

  32. posted by Pattie on

    Looks like they enjoyed artistic activities. I’m a hoarder, and an artist and have been a teacher (more stuff to hoard, cause you never know when you might can use something in your classroom). My hoarding and constant “organized chaos” didn’t effect my daughter. She is very organized, lives in a small brownstone apt. in NYC, and isn’t a hoarder. My mom isn’t a hoarder, but my Granny always told me “waste not, want not”. My sister-in-law’s mom and stepdad are like your parents, or worse. She sees it, disdains it, but is exactly like them as far as hoarding. I have to get control of my stuff, although I have a 750 square foot space to store all my “stuff”. Probably the one thing that keeps me from “hurrying” to do that is I CAN always find what I am looking for.

  33. posted by timoni on

    I grew up in a family of hoarders, but we were extremely poor ($13K for a family of five; growing up on a farm in Nebraska). It’s been an interesting process trying to figure out what are the good habits (don’t use paper towels when there are rags around) versus bad (saving used batteries in case, y’know, they become usable again, or something).

  34. posted by John on

    I grew up with a father who was, and still is, a hoarder. He keeps almost everything, but rather than trinkets or supplies like many people have mentioned, his hoarding problem has to do with papers. Reading this article, the phrase that brought back the most memories was the fact that there was “no horizontal space” any where. I’ve had this problem all my life, as my father began hoarding before I was born.

    Sadly, as Elizabeth mentions, this does take a toll on a child’s life. Growing up, I could never invite my friends over, even if they just wanted to stop by because they were in the area. Now that I’ve been in college for 3 years living on my own, I find that I have the exact opposite feeling for hoarding. I constantly have to clean and organize everything, and determine whether or not I need things. If I don’t need an item, I’ll throw it in a storage box for some “safe keeping” and at the end of the semester, anything still in the box is out the window. I figured that if I don’t need anything in there for more than 3 months, I don’t need it ever. So far it’s worked, so I’m happy with my method, but every time I go home, I can’t stand my father’s situation. It has gotten to the point where our relationship has turned sour because of his hoarding. Sadly, he knows what he is doing and the effects it has, but being a doctor himself, he won’t see someone or get help about it, either to clean and organize it or seek mental help. It’s a tough situation with no solution in sight.

  35. posted by Theresa on

    I have parents who, if they aren’t hoarders, are boarderline. I know what Elizabeth and John are saying.

    Unfortunately for this problem, my parents are in fairly good health, have all their mental capabilities, and refuse to do a large scale decluttering/tossing – everything has to be read, unfinished projects haven’t been touched in years and on and on and on.

    I live with them, so I still get to hear all the complaining and help dig through everything and the piles to help them find something.

    What I throw out gets dug out of the trash and sorted through, and returned, or is kept for “recycling”. I tried Flylady, and filled several trash bags of my things for one of her poundage competitions. When I asked where the scale was, that took care of that, I got a gripe about how much it was going to cost to throw the bags, and from then on no Flylady, because “she says to throw things away.”

    I am an only child, and I dread the day they become incapable of caring for themselves, and the backlash I will get for going through and pitching so much of this.

    Fighting my own problems with it is bad enough.

  36. posted by Monroe on a budget » Blog Archive » But I might need it someday … on

    […] finding this blog, Unclutterer, and one of its popular articles, “Reader Elizabeth explains the pain of growing up in a hoarding household” […]

  37. posted by scorpio19th on

    I absolutely LOVED the photos posted by Cyrano from the plonkmedia forum. It was like a time capsule back to my parents’ house.

    Especially enjoyed his mother’s collections of glass crap. And my mother has every vertical surface hung with photos, rather than calendars.

    Otherwise, thanks for the memories!

  38. posted by Laura on

    My dad’s parents were hoarders and so my dad and his siblings are all hoarders. Unfortunately my family has a big house, which means several rooms (my old bedroom, under the porch, 2nd floor in the attic, and any other storage) is devoted to my dad and his stuff. He mainly collects books, paper, and old records, but recently he has expanded. My dad used to work, but now he is retired and my mom works, making him responsible for keeping up the house and purchasing groceries. He has the worst spending habbits. When my parents recently went to Europe, I went through a small section of one of his “junk” rooms. I found a lot of random candy and many food items. Fortuantely none of them were perishable. I also went through one of our medicine cabinets and found bottles that expired in 1988. I also found three shoe boxes filled with my grandma’s medication. She died six years ago.

    Both of my parents have this problem, but fortunately my mom is more willing to admit and deal with it. My dad is the complete opposite. I would love to be a professional organizer and have helped my mom and sister clean their stuff out, but my dad refuses. I think it is physically painful for him to let go of even the most unnecessary pieces of junk.

    Being the daughter of a hoarder has turned me into a super organizer. I just dread the day my parents decide to move. Our house is so accomidating to their hoarding habbit that moving to a smaller place will require a lot of work and purging. I am certain that I am the one they will call to help them move, requiring me to take time off of work, school, my family, etc. to help them. Hoarding is like a disease that can be passed on to children my their parents. I have determined that any children I have will not grow up in a house where they can not use many of the rooms due to unnecessary stuff.

  39. posted by dkong on

    Hmmm…at my house, my sister and dad have major hoarding problems.
    We DO have good counter and table space….but we have an attic filled with crap that we never use. The 2 car garage only fits 1 car…and we have one room in the house devoted to storing junk.

    I thought it was bad, but then I looked at those pictures. Our house is nothing like that…thank God.

  40. posted by Maisie on

    My in-laws are hoarders, or more accurately, I think it’s my mother-in-law. My father-in-law just puts up with it. Very little horizontal space in the house, and all three of their children’s former bedrooms are filled with junk, as are two other basement rooms. My MIL is retired and spends her days reading the grocery store flyers, clipping coupons for things she doesn’t need, then driving to grocery stores. Each day is a different store, depending on which store has the sr. discount that day. Then she stocks up on anything and everything because it’s on sale. This is her routine every week. She’s excellent at doing on the spot calculations to get the best deal, but she doesn’t see that buying all this stuff in bulk and then NOT USING IT is a huge waste of money. Not to mention that she’ll drive all over down (with gas at over $3/gallon) to get these “deals.” Penny wise and pound foolish, as my FIL says. She buys spaghettios on sale and she doesn’t even eat them!

    I haven’t bought paper towels or napkins or aluminum foil in over 2 years; I just tell my husband to take some from his mother’s garage or basement when he’s over there.

    They live in the same town as use, any my husbands siblings do not live nearby. My husband shows some of the same tendencies. He’s very organized, but he hoards. I dread the day that his parents have to move out or pass away. I know the cleaning of their house will fall upon us. I will be fighting two battles…throwing away their junk and preventing my own husband from keeping it and dragging it home to our house.

  41. posted by Sarah on

    Well, here’s my problem. My house looks like the one in the photo. There’s no doubt in my mind that I have a BIG problem. I hate the way I live. I really get into despair about it. I’ve joined, read books, joined support groups, seen several counselors or psychiatrists over the years,even wrote to an advice column. All those things make me feel better, but the house doesn’t improve. A little of it could be blamed on my adult daughter who moved home and brought her load of junk, but mostly it’s me. Counselors never seem to take me seriously. Probably because I am intelligent, well educated, and very well groomed. (of course, there have been times when I had to buy clothes or shoes to wear things that match.) No one seems to take my problem seriously. Oh, just work on it a little every day, they say. When one thing comes in, another goes out. That sounds good, but doesn’t happen for me. Also, it’s very hard to sit there and tell the person how truly nasty the place is. I tell them it’s really bad, but when they don’t believe me, I find it humiliating to have to go into detail. Even then, sometimes, they don’t really seem to believe me. Or maybe they don’t know how to deal with it, either. Also, I am reluctant to go into too much gorey detail for fear of legal intervention. I don’t know if I am a hoarder, or just extremely messy, or have some other mental problem. I can throw away trash, broken stuff, expired food,damaged clothing, newspapers, and obviously unuseable stuff without any problem at all. I do have a “shopping therapy” problem. I can’t afford an organizer, and after living like that for so many years, I don’t have any friends I could invite over to help me. Can anyone here help? Ideas? Thanks. Sarah

  42. posted by Jessica on

    Hoarding is a psychological condition that can really only be approached through acceptance of a problem, and subsequent psychological treatment. Medication is virtually useless in the case of clinical hoarding. Hoarding has ties to OCD, a need to control, and anxiety, a fear that these items, whatever they are, could have future use. The condition effects people of all ages and all financial backgrounds. Hoarding can result in physiological damage. Often hoarders can develop layers of collected items, and when air does not circulate, or the space go unused (except for storage,) issues such as mold and pests (like bugs or mice.) Such things can cause severe health problems, including in the most extreme cases, death.

    There is hope for those with clinical hoarding. Support groups are often helpful. A psychologist is a must. Family and friends often make excuses for their loved ones who hoard, so it is best that family and friends (especially those who live with the hoarder,) research hoarding or even attend a session or two with their loved one so they can properly support them. Excuses usually range from, “they’re just lazy,” to “they don’t know how to take care of themself.” Neither is the case.

    Here is an excellent resource with more information:

  43. posted by Samuel on

    I have a mother who could be perceived as a borderline hoarder.

    In 1988, My mother had several boxes of family heirlooms, etc. stolen by people she thought she could trust after moving to a remote location to “get away” after a difficult divorce 4 years earlier. She rented her house in Sydney to another woman whom had also become a single mother after divorce. Mum was generous to her and thought she was giving this woman a lucky break, but all she managed to get out of the situation was grief. The woman fled and left the house to a bikie gang. The gang members stole what had been left in storage in the house and garage and made a complete mess of the property, requiring $30k be spent in rubbish removal, cleaning and repairs.

    Really, the only one to blame was mum because she was so generous and gullible. She tended to do things for people that she wished people could have done for her in life (and never did) and in the process would either not hear from the ungrateful recipients again or be ripped off for being such a kind-hearted fool. It was a hard lesson to learn having lost so much and having her house trashed all at the same time. Instead of toughening up and resolving to attend to herself first, she became guilt-ridden and a bit morose about it. She continued to assist people (although not as foolhardy in her choices as before) and was baffled by how people felt entitled to what she had done to help them and wouldn’t keep in touch when things improved for them as a result!

    In order to deal with emptiness and the frustration of feeling unappreciated and ignored, the guilt at having rather ineptly enabled the theft of valuable heirlooms, the trauma of her divorce and the uprooting of her life that only ended in disaster for her, my mother collects “things”.

    She gets her “things” from second hand and charity shops, flea markets, friends’ throw-outs, council clean-ups on the side of the road and garage sales. She has an inredible eye for finding the good stuff, and is very selective about what she collects (unlike other mothers I’ve read about amongst the comments here – I’d be a bit messed up too if my mum was anything like that!). As a child we couldn’t go shopping anywhere without mum dragging me into garage sales on the way and coming home with useless glass or crockery items that she had umpteen of anyway. When I got older I started to gain an appreciation for most of this stuff, as mum had an eye for a good find, and the majority of supposed junk items she brought home from markets and second hand shops turned out to be very collectable antiques and vintage items upon closer inspection.

    When I discuss her collecting habits with her she oes admit that by accumulating all this stuff, it takes her away from herself and all her worries for a moment. It’s a bit of a thrill for her to be surrounded by interesting and sometimes unique and valuable objects that were once someone else’s. Every object has a story, she tells me. Trying to figure out where the items come from or the personalities of the people who owned them is a form of escapism for her. Acquiring the items that intrigue her, or appeal to her sense of style or remind her of the items she’s lost is only one part of a very gratifying healing process in her eyes. The warm, fuzzy feeling lasts her about a week depending upon how many items she collects, and then she’s compelled to seek out more stuff and have that feeling of escape all over again.

    The funny thing is, my mother hoardes things she doesn’t need nor can organise as part of a collection in order to make her feel better about herself and to try to heal something. Yes, it may sound very much like a bunch of American television psychobabble twaddle, but that’s the psychology at play.

    Fortunately, my mother realises that if she doesn’t sort through her stuff in time for when she dies, then it’s probable that alot of potentially valuable and collectable stuff she presently has will end up in the rubbish bin.

    Thankfully for her, I understand where she’s coming from on that issue. My sister wouldn’t be as reluctant to hold off turfing the whole lot in the bin as I would.
    I have heard horror stories about families spending MONTHS just going through their deceased parent(s) houses progressively sorting through mountains of possessions, sorting the trash from the treasure. There was a time mum became less selective and I was beginning to worry a few years ago that I would be subject to the same fate in years to come…so I gave her a hard time about her collecting which led her to almost cease her treasure hunts – she became so depressed by this situation that I became encouraging of her previous selective style of collecting and she’s thus a happy collector again.

    I’m astonished by mum’s commitment to cleaning up recently. Just the other week, mum asked me to help her go through a 4-door filing cabinet full or decades-old paperwork and shred old documents for her. After two days of drudge, she had turfed out 3 drawers full of redundant vintage documentation. She also allowed me to choose to put aside a dozen documents from the 1950s, 60s and 70s that are practically historic artefacts now.

    Just throwing things out willy-nilly you really can lose out on some very collectable and historically significant items to show to future generations. Archives and museums are always looking for items in good condition to add to their collections, that to throw perfectly good (yet useless to you) items seems quite mean.

    I know there’s some method in mum’s madness, and as much as her “habit” can be quite depressing for me at times (as I resent the responsibility that comes with valued and valuable possessions and the associated complications of everyday living – the theft of mum’s possessions really impressed upon me that the less you have, the less can be taken from you – why set yourself up for that kind of loss, and thus pain or hurt?), there’s a reason for why she collects, and because she can ariculate it, it makes it easier for her to now deal with it.

    The only way to make it easier for everyone (including her) in the long run is to help her deal with it NOW, no matter how unpleasant the reactions or circumstances. When she’s gone she won’t be able to provide a narrative or rationale for all the interesting stuff she’s collected over the years. I like to see that me helping her sort out all her stuff is an opportunity for me to get to know her and her life better and as some thanks for what wonderful things she’s done for me.

  44. posted by Dana on

    All of these comments bring back memories. My parents were packrats and I had similar experiences. I’ll just recall a couple of gems. In our original house there was a bedroom which my parents turned into a formal dining room, at least that was the plan. However, it got to the point where it was so packed that one of my brothers had to pry open the window from our yard to get inside to open the door.

    They sold that house when my father retired and started up a new collection at their next house. It had three bedrooms and in two years two of them were sealed off. Fifteen years later they moved again and my four brothers and I (plus wives) helped clean up. This involved two full sized dumpsters. I was helping one of my brothers clean a closet and we found the prize. It was one of my father’s suits that was still on a hanger and still had the receipt from the dry cleaner on it. The date on it was from October 1949. The day we found it was in May of 1998. It had made the trip from their first apartment and two moves. But at least it was still in the plastic from the dry cleaners.

  45. posted by Kaye on

    I came from a family of hoarders. Unfortunately, they are all dying out, and so the job of cleaning out their
    houses has been mine. This is a laborious job which I would not wish on anybody, but it has to be done. My word of WARNING: Do NOT bring everything into your home
    or basement to clean out and go through later. It becomes an overwhelming, daunting task which you will never really have time to do, and all the while it sits there collecting dust and making your house smell musty, irritates your family members who have lost space in their beloved home, and will cause you to become depressed (which you will deny, but those around you can readily see) until finally you face the music and get some medication to enable you to deal with the stuff and all its baggage–the memories and the grief.
    By this time, you will have lost a couple of years of your life. DON’T DO IT! Get rid of the stuff, don’t bring it home with you!! Don’t let the stuff steal your joy! Life is short. Eat dessert and enjoy your uncluttered home!

  46. posted by Wanda on

    My parents are clutterers to the MAX! My mother has to clear off the bed every night to sleep. She moves it to the table. And then when it’s time for a meal – she moves it to the bed. There is a “guest room” that has absolutely NO WHERE to sleep. It is filled with “collections.” There is literally no where to sit in the entire house – except for their two chairs.

    I visit them in the summer time when we can sit on lawn chairs outside and camp for sleeping.

  47. posted by Joyce on

    I believe we are hoarders, and I know there is an inherited factor with my Dad, Sister, and I. Both my husband and I have stories of special THINGS that were thrown out by our mothers. (My favorite is a Beatle Concert Ticket Stub, and negatives from beatle concert photos that were poor that were disposed of).
    nonetheless, I know I must move forward with organizing things I have that I cannot find.

    One issue I have not seen addressed here is that some of us do not have kids; who will sort our stuff if we don’t? I have two friends I help who are losing their vision and they also have hoarding issues. I am trying to help them clean and dispose of things, but within the limits of what they will accept. I vow to continue to work on this problem & I do see some light. I did NOT go to my church’s “day after garage sale pick up stuff & keep it” event this year. It was a good feeling to not bring things home—though I did just pick up a dishwasher for free last week (the sale it was from is in October) at church because I think we may need to use it.


  48. posted by js on

    I imagine somewhere there is a blog where people are complaining about their parents being anal neat freaks, who had emotional breakdowns every time things got a tiny bit messy and how this left them with emotional scars and the inability to keep anything neat.

    My parents were hoarders. It has a lot to do with psychology toward money and not wanting to throw away anything that might just possibly be needed or useful someday (even if the overwhelming probability is it never will be). I’m not sure it’s entirely in the wrong in contrast to the insane, stuff is cheap, throwaway, society we live in. But I prefer the third solution: donating used stuff to be reused by someone who actually needs it and seriously limiting initial purchases in the first place! Stop the problem before it even starts, don’t buy stuff!

    I’m decluttering more and more because I don’t want to be like them in hoarding. It makes life too difficult!

  49. posted by a.w. on

    we’re preparing to go overseas and are only allowed to take 2 suitcases each. i’m not a hoarder but i almost feel like i am just b/c we’re having to go through everything and get rid of everything. it’s amazing how much stuff someone who is NOT a hoarder can have! having to get rid of most of our possessions has been a huge learning process and has been so freeing. we’ve had a lot of yard sales and the things we’ve gotten rid of aren’t junky old trashy things, but good things that we just can’t take with us. but still, once these things are gone, i breathe so much easier! it’s amazing the effect that stuff can have on our lives.

    my mother is a hoarder. she didn’t used to be, but since i left home for college things really escalated (the house was rather messy growing up, but i wouldn’t have called it a “hoarding” household.) i truly don’t enjoy going to visit my parents at their house. i can’t breathe in there. i can’t relax and enjoy their company. all i can think about is all the crap that’s around me that’s absolute trash… like the years of soap operas taped on videos that have never been and never will be watched. thousands of knick knacks that so much money was spent on and they’re all pointless and a waste of space. piles of papers and coupons that expired who knows when… you guys know how the list goes. my dad hates it but i guess he won’t say anything. he’s only ever talked to me about it once and this was a year ago. i don’t think my mom realizes. how do i bring it up without completely freaking her out?

    i’m so glad that apparently i didn’t inherit the hoarding gene. i’m definitely the complete opposite.

  50. posted by Jen on

    My family is a family of hoarders on my father’s side. it’s a sickness that it’s hard to make go away. My grandfather and his brother are horrible hoarders. My grandfather is a total slob. My great uncle is a total neat freak about all his stuff.

    I just saw my grandfather (age 94) last week at his (and my grandmother’s and aunt’s) apartment. They have been threatened to be thrown out of the apartment b/c of unsanitary living conditions. Even after all these threats, my grandfather still wouldn’t throw away his precious boxes. So one night as he was sleeping, my aunts threw away 180 boxes of old newspaper and string. rotting boxes, rotting newspaper. I asked how old the papers were. alot of it was older than me (31). 180 boxes in a bedroom of a small 900 sq foot apartment. when he woke up in the morning, he flipped out and demanded to call an attorney so he could sue his daughters for throwing out his garbage.

    It really can ruin your life. all the clutter. My dad follows a similar pattern but it’s w/ old electronics. He can’t bare to throw things away that *might* be able to be fixed. and he flips out bad when i threaten to throw it all away….screaming, yelling, hissy fits.

    I found myself following a similar pattern w/ crafting supplies. i’ve seen the err of my ways though and have reduced alot of my clutter, but it’s an on going process. 🙂

  51. posted by Juha on

    This seems to be a usual problem nowadays. Also my parents (especially my mom) are having hoarding problem. The amount of clutter has been untolerable during my childhood, and it has affected my life. The biggest problem were the unthinkably large piles of almost unread, old newspapers and other magazines. There are still some rooms in our house, that are almost completely filled with newspapers and other clutter. Only my room is almost free of clutter, though I have to declutter it anyway when I’m going to home next time. Our loundry room and bathroom has also always been badly cluttered, it’s not fun to take a shower in the middle of a piles of clutter and dirt…

    I have to admit, I hate to go home because of that amount of clutter, and want stay there as litlle time as possible…

  52. posted by Monroe on a Budget » But I might need it someday … on

    […] finding this blog, Unclutterer, and one of its popular articles, “Reader Elizabeth explains the pain of growing up in a hoarding household” […]

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