Stuff versus relationships

Professional organizer extraordinaire Monica Ricci returns to Unclutterer to talk to us about the anxieties hoarders experience. You can follow Monica on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog for more organizing tips.

On a recent episode of A&E’s Hoarders a key concept was brought to light by my dear friend and hoarding expert Dorothy Breininger. The important concept is stuff versus relationships. It’s so sad to see individuals choose their stuff over the people in their lives. To those of us watching the show at home, the hoarder’s behavior doesn’t initially seem to make sense.

In my industry, I often encounter clients who have a history of choosing stuff over people. It’s not just hoarders who do it, either. People often choose the comfort of stuff over relationships because relationships can be scary. People can reject you. People are sometimes critical and judgmental. People can be mean, insensitive, and heartless. People can leave you, abandon you, and disappoint you. But your stuff never will.

That is, until your stuff chokes the life out of you.

It could be easy to watch the television show Hoarders and lose sight of the humanity of the people featured. But we shouldn’t. All of us can empathize with the anxiety that the hoarders feel — we’ve all felt abandoned, disappointed, and ridiculed by others. We can understand how someone stopped focusing on the people in their life and turned to their stuff. Hopefully, with time, treatment, and assistance, the hoarders featured on the show can turn again to people and let go of so much of their stuff. I also hope that you continue to make the same choice.

24 Comments for “Stuff versus relationships”

  1. posted by LDH on

    I actually feel like it’s nearly impossible to not see the humanity of those on Hoarders. I find it compelling and well done, but I actually can’t watch because it makes me cry.

  2. posted by Lose That Girl on

    I’ve just recently begun watching the series. I find it so desperate and frightening. I cannot imagine how heart-wrenching it must be when your loved one is trapped in the hoarding vortex. It’s compulsive viewing, no doubt and not all stories will have a happy ending where all the clutter and garbage are cleared for good. Overall, I find the whole premise freaky and uncomfortable but I cannot stop watching. I just hope that once the cameras stop rolling, the help continues.

  3. posted by Celeste on

    I watched reruns of it this weekend; I think you just have to see it as mental illness, period. It’s not about “stuff” any more than alcoholism is about “drinking”.

    The one about the woman in Milwaukee who hoarded spoiled food….it’s amazing to me that she hadn’t become ill. I wonder if she actually had, but her powers of denial wouldn’t let her see.

    I also find it interesting that this show appears to focus on people who are renting, and whose landlord has forced their hand in dealing with the situation. With a homeowner, it’s much harder to force anything until the decision is made to condemn the property.

  4. posted by Maggie on

    I found the stuff vs. relationship part of a recent episode really poignant in the mother who clearly was keeping herself company with all of her stuff. She mentioned on several occasions that her kids weren’t there all the time, but her stuff was, and that was just so sad.

    I really like the show because although I’m nowhere near the mindset of the people featured, I can oftentimes see similarities (like occasional “retail therapy”) and get a much-needed kick in the pants to live more simply.

  5. posted by cerrissa on

    I once worked with a group of students to build a small house for a man as a charity project because his current home was a broken down trailer home with no bathroom that he had packed full of trash. his mother(who had passed away) had a home next door that was also falling down and full of saved trash. as we went through the trash and recycled a lot of it, we noticed that each bottle, scrap of paper, and everything in the homes and on the grounds had a date, time,and the place or person’s name he got it from written on it. His hoarding is a compulsion. He was using each piece of trash as a diary, writing down each moment as it was happening. For him to let go of these things was like losing those moments forever. AS soon as his new home was built he began the same hoarding process there. Our solution was to make really high ceilings so at least there would be an area he wouldn’t be able to fill up.

  6. posted by JuliB on

    I agree with Celeste – it’s a mental health issue, not one of clearly picking stuff over people. Perhaps at the ‘almost healthy’ end of the scale it is.

    They focus on renters because the producers are looking for timely/urgent situations. I visit a squalor website (because I think I have tendencies to it and I pick up some good coping tips there) and one woman is actually going to be on the show, so she had the inside scoop.

    Her issue isn’t urgent, but her young son is starting to show symptoms of hoarding/squalor as well, and they are all worried that he may be starting early.

  7. posted by April E on

    Thanks for this post. I am nowhere near being a hoarder (thank god) but in my small battles with decluttering, I too need to remember to value people over stuff. This weekend I was struggling with the decision to part with some books. Maybe it will help me finally let go of them if I look at them as barriers to having people over to my home, which in a small way they are.

  8. posted by Carol on

    Thank you for this article. I’m a recovering compulsive hoarder. You probably wouldn’t know I’m a hoarder at all from the looks of my place but I’ve been working on the problem for 15 years now. What really made me realize the problem had become unmanagable was when I realized I would chose my stuff over people.

  9. posted by infmom on

    To my parents, anything that didn’t matter to them couldn’t possibly matter to anyone else. Thus, a lot of the things I valued got discarded when we moved, and they could never understand why I was so upset about it.

    Sometimes the memory is enough, but sometimes only the actual item will do, and sometimes you only find that out after someone else gets rid of whatever it was.

    I don’t believe in hoarding, but I do understand what motivates it. Over the course of a couple of years I went on eBay and bought replacements for some of my lost childhood treasures. It made me feel a lot better inside.

  10. posted by Sarah on

    Thanks for the article. I aspire to be a professional organizer (in about 10 years or so), and have real concerns about dealing with the psychological aspect of hoarding. I appreciate the insight.

  11. posted by Katie Alender on

    My biggest problem with the show is that splitting each episode between two subjects really cuts the time you spend with the hoarders and therefore a viewer’s connection to them. And the whole “two days” ticking clock went against everything the therapists tell the hoarders, so I found that frustrating. It’s like the format sets the people up to fail (at least in the eyes of the home audience).

    But the subject matter is totally compelling. It broke my heart when that woman’s daughter (who had cancer) said, “Family is more important, Mom, please say family is more important.” Because of the tight formatting, that particular woman came out looking more selfish than afflicted, which is a shame.

  12. posted by Mike on

    I was roommates with a mild hoarder whose parents were full-blown squalor hoarders. It was the most puzzling thing ever. I’m usually a bit of a clutterbug, so to have it bother ME was a sure sign that something was way over the line. My roomie genuinely seemed to believe that there was value in holding onto all his stuff. His notions were, unfortunately, reinforced during the great collectibles/toys boom of 1999-2001, because he sold off many of his saved 1980s action figures and such for some pretty good bucks.

    By 2004, I had to physically take down some of the piles of boxes and show him the mold and rot growing on some of his possessions for him to recognize that something you don’t ever use is basically clutter and unhealthy to boot. He at least got rid of the old t-shirts and towels and such after that, but still clings to thousands of books, toys, etc… only now, it’s his wife’s problem.

  13. posted by knitwych on

    infmom, my mother was a great one for throwing away things (of mine) that she considered junk, and would even snark at me, “Well, you didn’t buy it; I did, so it wasn’t really yours anyway” or similar comments when I complained or cried. (Her stuff was, of course, more sacred than anything in the Vatican.) I’m glad you were able to replace some of your lost childhood treasures. I’ve picked up a few as well, and they are nice to have around.

    There have been a few times when I found myself sliding down the slope toward hoarding, but I managed to catch myself. The absolute best decluttering decision I ever made was to jettison my mother and all her baggage, which frequently included that “I don’t want this piece of [email protected] anymore, so now it’s yours – BUT it’s a priceless! family! heirloom! and you can never, ever get rid of it!” game, which led to my acquiring a lot of stuff I didn’t want and really, really hated.

    It took me a while to figure out that sometimes relationships can clog and clutter life just as much as physical items, and that getting rid of them is every bit as healthy as clearing out moldy papers and other physical health hazards.

  14. posted by Lori on

    I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house as I was growing up. She had a serious hoarding problem. Her house was two stories tall and had fourteen or fifteen rooms filled with stuff. As a kid I thought it was kind of fun to explore in all of that garbage, even though I knew she had a problem.

    One time when my cousin and I were over at her house, she gave us some milk and cookies. My cousin and I each took a drink of the milk at the same time and promptly spit it out. It was full of chunks from being who knows how old. To this day I can’t stand to drink milk, and when I buy it at the store it has to be very cold and the expiration date needs to be at least two weeks out.

    After she passed away it took over three months to clean her house out and two full days to auction off all of her belongings, and that was after throwing out tons of garbage. Needless to say, I like my milk cold and fresh and my house uncluttered! She was a really great grandma though, and I felt sorry for her for needing to have so much stuff.

  15. posted by Andy on

    My mother is a hoarder. I find the A & E program very helpful in trying to understand all the hurtful things she has done to family members. She has a beautiful home with a fabulous view. The house is not as bad as those on the hoarder show but very hazardous to her as she is near 90. There is paper stacked up near the fireplace and trails through the house. She recycles but never ever throws anything away. She has all the cars she has ever owned just driven off into the woods and left. She has every Reader’s Digest from the very first issue. These magazines are not stored in boxes and preserved they are in stacks in the basement.

    She had a serious illness a few years ago. I stayed with her and dad for six months while she recovered. Dad had Alzheimer’s. I cleaned out much of the clutter. There were hundreds of empty cardboard boxes; she may need one to mail something! I found receipts from 1968 shortly after her home was built on one table that was stacked from the floor to the bottom of the table with more stacked on the top of the table. I uncovered an old Victrola my 35-year-old niece didn’t even know was there. She was confined to a wheel chair watching TV constantly. I decided it would be good for her to have something to do. I got the ‘junk’ drawer from the kitchen and told her she may want to go through it as she now had the time. I gave her three boxes for stuff, one to throw away, one to donate and one to keep. She donated nothing, there were two tiny scraps of paper in the throw away box, she kept everything even the broken scissors.

    She always got up at 6 AM. This meant I had to be up at six too. I got an average of four hours sleep each night as my dad with is Alzheimer’s was up during the night and I had to watch after him so he would not wander off. She would not even consider altering her bedtime to accommodate dad. She expected him to keep her schedule! She never thanked me for anything I did for her and dad.

    After her recovery I went back to my home dad would wander off with out her knowledge. He was rescued by many neighbors and brought home. Someone out of compassion called Adult Protective Services. She blames me for this and is no longer speaking to me. Dad should have been placed in a facility for his protection. I now suspect she was not willing to give him up because of her hoarding. She would not relinquish control. Dad was a possession. The clutter was a hazard and disturbing to him, as he would walk around in circles. Many times tripping on stuff left on the floor and telephone cords.

    She owns some commercial property and had trouble with tenants who were conducting auctions. They moved out without paying rent and left a horrendous mess. She did nothing to clean it out until she was cited by the city for code violations. My son in an effort to help her during her illness took care of meeting with officials. He used his own funds to hire a crew to clean out the mess. I saw letters officials had written about what a nice young man he was and they had confidence he would correct the code violations. Because of him they gave her more time. She is financially independent and could easily have paid to have all the violations corrected. This was several years ago, the building is still not ready to rent. She is squandering an income opportunity.

    Did she thank him? NO! She now blames him for the city citing her, claims he went to them and caused all the problems. That is not what happened I saw the letter from the city listing all the violations. She is very upset he did not have local charities take all that ‘valuable’ stuff. He called them, they declined the offer, as it was just old broken junk. If it had any value the tenants would have taken it with them. She said he should have donated the books to the library. The books were old and moldy. She is so mad at him now she doesn’t even speak to him, he is devastated as he was trying his best to help her.

    I live out of state. She told me I could move back home to one of her houses to be near to help if necessary. I retired from my job of 15 years and prepared to sell my home and move. I planned to find another job in my profession after moving. I called her to tell her I was ready to move. She said well the house isn’t ready. I was shocked as she told me it would be vacant and ready by a certain date. She had talked to the party living in the house. She now denies she told me I could live in the house and thought I retired awful early! Now I have no job. I found out recently the party living in the house had actually moved. I wonder why she lied to me. Is she clinging to one more possession?

    The people in the Hoarder show are doing a service to the public by cooperating in exposing this illness. I now understand some of the hurtful things my mother has done, believe me there are a lot more. I am searching for remedies but know she will not take responsibility for anything; there is nothing wrong with her! Her thinking is very twisted. It would be nice to be thanked for doing something for her. Thank you is not in her vocabulary!

  16. posted by Sue on

    The woman who had clearly chosen her stuff over her children and husband was a tough one for me to watch, because I really couldn’t understand her. I understood how the threat of the husband being removed from the house was actually more of an incentive for her to keep it messy, since he was an alcoholic and it was not a loving marriage. However, when she was asked whether a broken vacuum cleaner or dinner with her family was more important, she hesitated. When the daughter with cancer stepped in and said “dinner with the family, mom”, I shook my head and almost cried for the daughters.

    The woman in a previous episode was similar. She had driven her entire family away. Her son had come to help, and she couldn’t see that her actions were pushing even him away. Instead, she had a stronger emotional attachment to his baby clothing than she seemed to have for him. Sad.

    I can feel for the 21 year old kid who kept trash, the woman who hoarded food, and even the woman who hoarded cats, much more than I could feel for these two women.

    I don’t know why my reactions were different for those two women. I know it’s a mental disorder and these people can’t just snap their fingers and make it go away. Maybe because these two had clearly pushed their loved ones away, while the others hadn’t.

  17. posted by Katie Alender on

    In reaction to Sue’s last paragraph, I’m struck by the thought that, while of course we should have compassion for people with addiction, some of these people might just be selfish folks–with or without their hoarding issues. So maybe these women were selfish and did push their families away–and maybe the hoarding is an easy scapegoat. You know, if your kids stay away from your house because of the clutter, you can tell yourself it’s not because of your own behavior.

    Just a thought.

  18. posted by s on

    @Andy –
    Your story is sad and difficult and I’m so impressed how you’ve worked to keep things together. Please don’t forget to take care of yourself as well. Anger towards your mother won’t change her mental condition. You say there’s “nothing wrong with her,” but you also mention her “twisted” thinking. That may not be an obvious physical illness, but it is something wrong, that might respond to some treatment. It won’t be easy for any of you.

  19. posted by Monica Ricci on

    Clearly this topic garners a lot of interest, and it’s a well warranted discussion. Please understand that in my post, when I said “Choose people” I never meant to diminish the mental illness aspect of hoarding. I am fully aware of how compulsions work, and never want to seem as though I am without knowledge or compassion.

    It occurred to me when I was watching the episode that the majority of people with clutter issues *do* have the ability to choose people over things when presented with a choice, and by doing so, they can to improve their situation by changing their thinking.

    When I said “when you have a choice, choose people”, I was speaking to those who *are* able to make choices rationally and are not battling hoarding compulsions which require professional therapy. I hope this clears up any ill feelings I may have caused by my post.


  20. posted by Tejal on

    This is my first visit to your blog. Followed it from Leo’s Zen Habits. I really like your articles. And Hoarding is a problem that I’m dealing with my MIL. It does not look so bad as I’ve seen photos and videos on Children of hoarders. But it is at a point where it is on the verge of spilling over the house.

    I have found squash bottles dating back to 1987, toys from my husband’s childhood that he never saw, but are still gift wrapped. She collects currency coins, ranging from 25 paise (Indian currency) to the 10Rs.coins. But if need arises, we can’t use them. And yet nothing is thrown away. Me and my husband are not allowed to clean anything, lest we throw away her precious stuff. If we try to clean up anything in the middle of the night while she’s asleep, she inevitable wakes up and demands that we leave her house.

    We have no place to store anything, so we’ve not bought anything in 6 months, but her buying spree never stops. She buys new things and then stores them. They never see the light of day for the next 5 yrs.

    She will not seek any medical intervention. She will not come to see any therapist. And she blames us for try to prove that she’s insane and getting rid of her. We just want the hoarding to stop.

    Unfortunately this show is not available in our country. I would have loved to see it.
    But its true that our relationship with my husband’s mother is deteriorating to a point where she’s started lying about the things she buys just so we don’t tell her off.

    We really are at our wits end, and I so can sympathize with Andy. Your situation is worse and I’m scared we’re approaching the same place that you are in.

  21. posted by AG on

    After watching the 09/21/09 episode of Hoarders, I wholeheartedly agree with Monica Ricci’s first posting.

    Hoarders tend to prioritize their stuff over people.

    Watching Patty lose custody rights of her children because of her shopping compulsion was indeed heart-wrenching. However, when the thrill of buying things “on sale” consistently overrides her parental obligation to provide a safe and habitable home for her children, there are consequences. And the cumulative effect of these decisions can have disastrous consequences.

    What I find very intriguing was that Patty was seemingly obsessed with ensuring that nothing “of value” was wasted in the purging process. Hmmmm.

    Money is a thing. Why wasn’t she equally concerned about ensuring her family’s money wasn’t wasted in the purchasing process? Why doesn’t she abhor the waste of valuable money as much as the waste of “valuable” things?

    Her money has potentially more value & utility than the merchandise she exchanged it for. Each time she bought discounted merchandise that collected dust & remained unused, she wasted the family’s money on needless consumer goods. Had she forgone the shopping sprees & saved that money instead, she could have hired the cleaning crew years ago to help provide a safe & habitable environment for her children. She could have financed her own “fresh start”.

    But at the point of sale, what’s more important, another gift set from Target or a safe & habitable home for your children?

    It’s hard to sugarcoat the reality that Patty repeatedly prioritized the acquisition & preservation of things over the security, safety, & well-being of her children.

    That reality doesn’t make her a horrible person, but it does require her to acknowledge her consistent bad judgment.

    She was willing to change, but waiting until critical mass to make this all-too-important decision ultimately destroyed her marriage and stripped her of custody of her children.

    All things considered, Patty had to decide if the destruction of her marriage and the loss of custody of her children was worth the 1,400 moving boxes of “things” she saved.

  22. posted by Steph on

    Interesting. Is the opposite also true– that people sometimes hoard stuff to be helpful, to “bulk up” their own worth A “if I have this and it’s useful to someone, then I become useful to that person, too” kinda thinking?

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