Sifting through the hoard

Over the years I have watched “a life of grime”, “my hoarder mum”, “life laundry” and “how clean is your house?” and saw hoarders on TV whose homes were filled from top to bottom with the detritus of their lives. The homes were unhygienic and bursting at the seams. Some were infested with insects, mice or rats. It was obviously problematic. I’ve read and been curious about how some people reach the point they just can’t throw anything away.

I’ve done assessments with families who live in dirty cluttered spaces, filled with what is perceived as rubbish by outsiders but to them are mementos of loved ones who have died, have some intrinsic financial worth, or are imbued with sentimental value (or in the case of one or two people with more unusual thinking, with feelings that would be hurt if they were discarded). I’ve wondered why they can’t see the risks this is causing for them and their children, and realised how habituated we become to our own environment.

And each time I empathise because I can see some of those traits in myself. I collect things like art deco pottery and art nouveau metal or glasswork. My husband collects vintage Star Wars toys and retro video games (along with containers overflowing with consoles, cables and controllers). I have boxes and jars filled with ribbons, buttons, shells, stones. I have various hobbies that accumulate future materials (from pyrography to mosaics, silk painting to silver polymer clay, to making glass jewellery and other small items in a miniature kiln). More than that, I don’t like to throw things away if they could potentially be of use to someone.

I justify some of it with intellectual rationale. I loathe wastefulness, and the disposable consumerism that characterises the modern age. I can’t bear that everything has become disposable, is burning up the planets resources in manufacture and then going into landfill at an ever greater rate. I’d much rather reuse, repair and recycle whenever possible. I want to teach my children about being frugal, and about finding enjoyment in creative activities rather than consumption. The dress that tore has such pretty fabric that could be used for another project. Last year’s Christmas cards can be clipped with pinking shears into this year’s gift tags. The pretty wrappers from these chocolates could go in the making box to use in craft projects. The trousers you’ve grown out of should go to the charity shop.

I was also an early fan of eBay and Freecycle, and realised that almost everything has value to someone else. So I would sell items worth more than the hassle of posting them out to the buyer, and freecycle everything else. From the extra items of pottery I picked up at car boot sales, to clothes we grow out of, to the wood flooring that came up after we had insurance work done in the house it would find new homes. We’ve sold books, toys, video games, collectables, antiques, electronic items, pushchairs, car seats, cots, jewellery and furniture. We’ve given away spare fence panels, a lawnmower, a microwave, two TV’s, a hi-fi system, bags of used jiffy bags, metal car ramps, two sofas, carpets, even 56 baby fish from our pond. We take clothes and toys to the charity shop every 4-6 months. And the amount that went into the bin reduced. I also changed my shopping patterns to include reduced items to prevent them ending up going to waste, and to try to reduce the packaging used. We also try to recycle as much as possible of our rubbish (our council collects paper, card, plastic containers, metal, glass and garden waste and we compost food waste in a “hot bin” to fertilise our home grown vegetables).

The problem is that my heap of clothes for taking up, taking in, letting out or repairing outpaces the time available for me to sew. The collecting of the hobby items exceeds the time I give myself for creative projects. The piles for eBay and Freecycle grow when I don’t have enough time to spend on that kind of internet busy work, and we haven’t quite got the hot bin working optimally (by which I mean that in the year we have owned it we are yet to produce any viable compost, perhaps because we have not added enough shredded paper and chipped bark to keep it aerated). And I end up keeping things I love even when they are pretty much worn out and we can afford to replace them, from a favourite top where a hasty encounter with a door handle punctured the sleeve to comfy but scruffy shoes. My disposal threshold has become too high.

Steadily over time the amount of stuff we aren’t using in the house has increased. But we are lucky to have a fairly big space to live in, and plenty of hidey holes for storage, so this hoarding has not been so obvious. We also have high standards of hygiene and the wealth to supplement our own tidying up with weekly professional cleaning, so this doesn’t feel like the kind of hoarding that I’ve seen on TV. We just have places in the house that are filled with stuff. There is a heap of slightly or un-used hotel toiletries in the upstairs bathroom because I don’t like the idea that they would be binned by hotel staff if I didn’t take them home. I have various repositories of lovely smellies and candles that seem to accumulate whilst we use more pragmatic alternatives. There is a chest in my bedroom of fabric, and boxes of threads, buttons, ribbons and beads. There is a filing cabinet in the garage filled with art glass, and an old sideboard filled with items for my future mosaic project, along with the tools and junk that garages usually accumulate. The extra bedroom has become a den filled to the brim with video gaming stuff. There are boxes in the loft with art deco pottery item that don’t quite fit the collection I display in a cabinet in the front room. There is a collection of StarWars toys in what used to be the airing cupboard. I have a box of my old school work in the loft, and boxes of the art work the kids have made. We have seven bookcases full of books, plus half a cupboard of activity books and magazines that haven’t been completed. The dining room holds piles of items we are planning to sell on eBay or Amazon, or give away on Freecycle, along with craft materials and books we haven’t found a place to put away. And in the lounge there are heaps of paperwork that need filing and things that need taking to work, or returning to the place we bought them.

Its too much. And it is beginning to feel contrary to the logic that made it accumulate: Things need to be useful, not kept for the sake of it. So, starting this weekend, we are going to go through the whole house top to bottom and clear out the clutter. This time, to make sure we do it properly, all the contents of each room are getting heaped in the middle and then put away. Each item can only stay if we use it or love it and it has a place to go. Things that we love but that need fixing can only stay if they will be repaired before Xmas. Everything else needs to go in the bin, or on freecycle, or to the charity shop ASAP.

Its another reminder of how the dividing line between pathological and functional is blurry, and often a matter of socio-economic status and which side of the table you sit. In a tiny home without the help of a cleaner this would be a problem level of hoarding, in my lifestyle it isn’t, just as the hedge fund trader can fund a drug habit without the pitfalls so common amongst users of the same substance in poverty. It seems to me that hoarding is a basic human survival instinct (to store what might be useful if next season is not so abundant) that doesn’t translate well to the modern context, where supplies are available 24/7. Perhaps some people have stronger triggers to hoard, like not wanting to let go of a loved one who has died by dealing with their possessions, or have different perceptions of the standards that are normative in terms of clutter and cleanliness in the living environment. But it is clearly another trait that exists along a spectrum, with a somewhat arbitrary threshold at which is is considered a problem or symptom of poor mental health. And it reminds me once again, that there but for fortune I could be receiving rather than providing mental health services.

So here I sit, overwhelmed by the chaos that is normally hidden in the storage holes of my life. I’m already embarrassed by the sheer volume of stuff involved. Crates of excess coat hangers, hundreds of elastic bands, pens and mouse-mats promoting medication, heaps of recyclable packaging from parcels, toys related to developmental stages the kids have long since passed. But its a therapeutic process to sort it out, and I think it will be a psychological as well as physical weight lifted when it is all gone.