Years ago, my cousin in San Diego invited us for a beach weekend. Who says no to that? My husband and I set out with the kids on a road trip to spend time with extended family and acquaint our little Arizona offspring with the ocean.
After a six-hour drive, we arrived in a tidy neighborhood of modest mid-century ranch homes. So far so good. The front walk led through a serene patch of tidy grass surrounded by a neatly trimmed hedge — California dreaming.
And then we went in.
Four-foot piles of clothes, toys and household items cascaded from the walls to our feet. The piles were covered with a variety of tablecloths. The counters were clean but chaotic, with containers of food, papers and dishes. A tower of brown paper grocery sacks teetered by the fridge.
We could not set down keys or sunglasses or wallets for fear of them disappearing into the mayhem. That night I lay nervous, visually overstimulated, heart racing, in a sleeping bag on the living room floor.
“We need to leave,” I whispered to my husband. “We need to go to a hotel.”
Well, there’s no way to make that exit politely, and we were young and broke and a hotel was out of the question.
I blog frequently about hospitality, and here I am breaking one of my own rules for both host and guest: suspend judgement.
It’s easy to be judgmental of hoarding, to ascribe character flaws like laziness, materialism or greed to people who are mired in piles of useless stuff.
It’s less easy to judge if you realize hoarding is an anxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of American defines hoarding as “the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.”(1)
The ADAA lists these symptoms and behaviors related to hoarding:(1)
- Inability to throw anything away
- Severe anxiety when attempting to discard items
- Great difficulty organizing possessions
- Distress and embarrassment about excessive possessions
- Suspicion of other people touching items
- Obsessive thoughts such as fear of running out of something, fear of needing things in the future, checking the trash for accidentally discarded objects.
- Functional impairments, including loss of living space, societal isolation, family or marital discord, financial difficulties, health hazards
In the morning, my husband, trying to be helpful, grabbed a paper grocery sack of garbage and took it to the bin outside.
“Where’s the sack?” my cousin asked when he came back in.
“In the garbage can.”
“I keep the sacks.”
She sent my husband back outside to rummage through the trash for the dirty paper bag. The beginnings of family discord may be inferred here.
Is It Genetic?
My mother — my cousin’s aunt — has sunk progressively deeper into hoarding over time. I ceased to be able to enter her house years ago.
My son, who spent a couple of nights there recently, described sleeping on a narrow bed surrounded by piles of “collected” dishes on all sides like a porcelain house of cards. He shivered under a tablecloth because my mother couldn’t find the blankets.
An OCD Collaborative Genetics Study by Johns Hopkins suggests a genetic component to hoarding. The study located a region on chromosome 14 which is linked with compulsive hoarding behavior in families with OCD.(2)
The study diagnosed hoarding in 12 percent of participants who reported having first-degree relatives described as pack rats or collectors.(2)
So, am I doomed?
Upon finishing this article, I plan to declutter a few cabinets, a more socially acceptable expression of anxiety.
I am unable sit through an episode of “Hoarders” on Netflix as it incites the urge to stand up and start cleaning nervously. And surely, with three dogs — and at one time four — I am seriously at risk of animal hoarding.
I can’t imagine a scenario in which one can have too many Jack Russell terriers, and I actively worry about elderly Jack Russells in need of adoption. “Compulsively reading animal-adoption websites ...” is listed as a symptom of animal hoarding.(3)
Guilty as charged.
I try to manage the temptation by being mindful of my mood and anxiety level when I'm thinking just one more dog would fix everything, and by honestly assessing the workload (sweeping, vet visits, feeding, bathing) required by my current pack of three.
Be mindful, be well and be at peace.
Reviewed May 23, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) Hoarding: The Basics. ADAA.org. Retrieved May 20, 2016.
2) Hoarding Disorder: Is it Genetic? ChildrenofHoarders.com Retrieved May 20, 2016.
3) What is animal hoarding? Is it like hoarding lots of objects? Can people be cured? ADAA.org.