When I was a child, I didn’t know what exactly was different about my grandmother, but I was aware that she needed stuff. A lot of it.
Most weekends and weekdays were spent shopping.
If she saw one item she liked—be it a pair of shoes, a set of towels or even a can of chicken and dumplings—she had to buy several of them. Most of these “finds” as she called them never ended up in the house but instead in one of the two meal storage sheds on her property that were literally filled from floor to ceiling with her finds.
Looking back, it was pretty clear that my grandmother was a hoarder.
She was hardly alone. An estimated 2 to 5 percent of the U.S. population suffers from a hoarding disorder. Thanks to the popularity of shows like Hoarders and Buried Alive, most people are aware of hoarders. However, few know what it is like to live with one.
Growing up, my grandmother often had to worry where her next meal was coming from. It isn’t like the family was poor but according to her, my great-grandmother would often spend the entire week’s grocery money on a new dress or hat for herself leaving Grandma and her six siblings to fend for themselves. As a young woman, she married during the height of The Great Depression.
It didn’t take a psychologist to see what might have triggered this hoarding behavior.
However, being aware of what might have caused it doesn’t make it any easier to reflect on what life was like growing up with a hoarder.
In a nutshell, it was annoying. At times it could be downright hellish.
For example, I can remember being seven or eight years old and getting buried underneath a mountain of trash bags stuffed with various items. (My grandmother had sent me into one of her storage sheds to retrieve a garden rake hanging on a wall and the only way to get to it was to walk over the bags. I slipped and thought I was actually going to suffocate underneath those bags.)
I can also remember being a teenager and feeling the frustration of trying (unsuccessfully) to get her to part with some of her “treasures” including broken appliances and manuals to various electrical goods she no longer owned.
Nothing that I or anyone could say could convince her to part with her things.
Eventually, though, I (along with limited help from my mother) were able to throw out most of her things. By that time my grandmother had advanced Alzheimer’s, so she had no idea that the bulk of her beloved objects were going primarily to the county dump.
The irony was not lost on me: my grandmother had sought safety in objects, but they ultimately could not “save” her. Without her memory, those objects ceased having any sort of value.
As a result of my childhood, I made it a point not to hold onto things, lest I end up a hoarder like my grandmother. In fact, it was something that I feared so much that for years, I never even considered starting any sort of collection or hobby that entailed me accumulating objects.
“You are not your stuff” became my mantra, and one that I believed 100 percent.
However, like most things in life, I discovered that being an extremist on either side of the issue was not the answer. This was especially true once I became a parent and my days of minimalism were—at least for the time being—put on hiatus.
This was not a change I welcomed.
It dawned on me that all this time I had been telling myself that the reason I didn’t hang on to things was because I didn’t need them when in fact I was actually afraid that if I did, I would end up a hoarder like my late grandmother.
Ironically, the only way to overcome that fear was to actually live with stuff for an extended period of time and see if I could let go.
Doing so not only taught me that I could, but it also gave me more empathy for hoarders in general. While it is true that we are not our stuff, the truth is we can and do place a lot of value on stuff.
I saw through my daughter’s eyes just how much value we can place on inanimate objects when a beloved stuffed toy ended up in a Salvation Army bag by mistake, and I felt her very real anguish over losing her “best friend”.
While my grandmother’s “junk” was valueless in my eyes, it meant a lot to her. Not only were there memories and emotions attached to many of the items she hoarded, but the numerous cans of food, the mountains of clothing, etc. was a reminder that she was a long way away from those times when she had neither.
It didn’t matter if most of it was never used and eventually went bad or had to be discarded. It was there.
Despite the fact that part of me will probably always worry about becoming a hoarder, I am more relaxed about it these days.
My hope for those that are hoarders or who have friends and loved ones who are is not only that they get the help they need, but the love and empathy they need from others—even though I am the first to admit that it can be challenging.
I don’t have the answers, but one thing I can suggest is that they try to at least understand where hoarders are coming from, even if they haven’t been there themselves. It is by no means a way a solution to this very real problem, but it is a step and at the very least, it can’t hurt.
However, keep in mind that hoarding is a very real illness and love alone cannot solve it. Those seeking professional help for themselves or a loved one may want to check out the International OCD Foundation. The site offers great tips and resources.
Sometimes too much stuff can harm but with the proper help, this disorder can be helped. Best of luck to anyone who is in that boat or loves someone who is.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman