Inside the House of a Hoarder

What I saw when I cleaned out my aunt's home.

Americans are drowning in stuff, or so says a recent study from UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families. Conducted from 2001-2005, the study surveyed 32 Los Angeles-area homes to determine the role and amount of stuff in the typical American household, and that amount is staggering. Across three rooms, one home netted some 2,260 objects in plain view, so that’s not counting items stashed away in drawers and cabinets, or those items relegated to the basement and closet. We are literally struggling to find places to simply put all the things we own in 2012.

Such is the natural course of consumerism in the 21st century: Get stuff, use stuff (maybe), store stuff, forget about stuff, and, finally, get more stuff. Concentrate and compulsify that sentiment, and what do you get? Hoarding, or the irrational drive to obtain and keep as much stuff of varying value as you possibly can at the expense of having a functional life. It runs in the family, and roughly two to five percent of the population is afflicted by the disorder.

That last bit of information is especially jarring for me, given that my Aunt Laurie (not her real name), in her mid-50s, has been living with her house stuffed to the brim with tons of arbitrary items for as long as I have been alive. Well, until recently, that is—a couple weeks ago, my family and I made the trip to her home to remove some 10,000 pounds of random items that were trashed, scrapped, recycled or given to charity. Good Will had to turn us away on the second trip of the first day of cleaning because they ran out of room. The guys at the dump, bless their smelly hearts, got tired of seeing our faces.

Most people hoard just one or two kinds of items, usually due to what psychologists call a “perceived future need” for the objects in question. My aunt, however, hoarded everything: clothing, cleaning supplies, exercise equipment (still in the box), lotions and potions, food that rotted in the place she put it after the initial purchase, kitchen appliances (there were five toasters), old papers and printed emails from her former employer, jars upon jars of buttons and matchbooks—you name it, Laurie hoarded it. And all of this purchased or kept seemingly with no real intention at all of using anything.

The average age of hoarders in most studies is around 50, but researchers say that hoarding’s onset begins during the teenage years. From what my parents tell me, Laurie’s hoarding behavior goes back at least that long to some degree, but it seems to have ramped up in the years since my grandfather died and my siblings and I outgrew the need for my extended family’s daily care in our teen years. Recent research indicates that hoarding has strong ties to depression and anxiety, not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as has commonly been believed in the past—in fact, only about one-fifth of hoarders report OCD-related symptoms. Death and abandonment, understandably, could exacerbate hoarding to quell those existential crises with which we are all so familiar.

Rock-bottom seems to have come earlier this month, when my 93-year-old grandmother (who lives with Laurie) snapped her femur in two, prompting a response from emergency professionals to Laurie’s cluttered home. Upon their arrival, glances of disbelief and disapproval abounded, with one officer antagonizing my aunt with sarcastic “did you just move in or something?” kinds of questions. Horrible though it was, that event seems to have made Laurie realize that she could lose her home and everything dear to her because of the amount of stuff she owns, and surely no small amount of blame for my grandmother’s injury weighs on Laurie’s shoulders. Like other hoarders, she did not see a problem with her behavior and would have never sought help on her own otherwise.

That’s not to say that throwing all of her shit away was all peace, love and understanding. It was a vicious fight even with her permission, often punctuated by the clatter of god-knows-what as we lifted boxes, bins and bags of whatever into the backs of pickup trucks and dumpsters. Her attachment to these items, however useless in my eyes, was still evident. She even admitted to it later, saying that she thought “these things would make me happy,” only to later realize that things cannot bring happiness—at least not in the long term.

My aunt is by no means stupid or lazy, and the same can be said for a majority of hoarders out there. It seems to come down to a mixture of mental disorder and materialism in overdrive; Laurie fully believed that the UPS man could hand-deliver happiness to her in a Home Shopping Network box. As an irrational disorder, it is extremely difficult to break, and most hoarders have relapses into their stockpiling behavior—Laurie included, as evidenced by the once-full Pod that she emptied back into her house after the first time we cleaned up. Solutions to the problem, unfortunately, are often not quick or effective because it is a chronic disorder not rooted in rational thought. Fixing the problem often feels like trying to ice skate uphill.

The best we as a culture can do, though, is not allow hoarders to be turned into the new media sideshow through shows like Hoarders, Buried Alive and any of the one-off made-for-TV documentaries on the subject. Because, really, with more than 2,000 possessions in each of our homes on average, how different are we from our over-cluttered counterparts?