Thursday, January 28, 2016

Combating YOUR Hoarding Disorder

Hoarding disorder is a tragedy.   You can't fix it in other people.   But you should take precautions it doesn't happen to you!

A reader writes that they enjoyed my posting about combating hoarding disorder.  After trying to deal with a hoarding relative for years, they were ready to give up, but all the articles online told them they should spend their energies trying to "fix" their hoarding relative by staging an intervention or cleaning out their house or whatever - which I think is horrific advice from a number of angles.

First of all, it makes you feel guilty for not being able to "fix" your relative or friend, and puts the onus on YOU to fix other people's problems - problems that other people can fix themselves, if they chose to (but they do not, because they are happy with things the way they are).

Second, it is suggesting that amateurs get into the business of intervening in the affairs of mentally ill people, which is doubly cruel for both parties, and will leave the intervenor feeling even worse, when their efforts inevitably fail - which they will, like clockwork.

As I noted in another posting, there is not much you can do to "fix" people with hoarding disorder.  They will fight you all the way, and it will get ugly and you will get frustrated.

This is one situation where you need to think about cleaning your own house, quite literally, rather than worrying about other people.

You can't fix your neighbor, or Grandma, or Mom.  You can, however, take care of yourself and make sure it doesn't happen to you.   Because hoarding is inherited, I believe.   I have seen two examples of hoarders leaving hoarding houses to family members who carry on the tradition rather than clean them out.  It is sad.

As I noted in another posting, Mental Hygiene is like Physical Hygiene - you have to work at it.   And hoarding doesn't just happen overnight - it creeps up on you, over the years, as you accumulate more stuff in life.

Thus, it behooves all of us to make sure we, too, are not succumbing to the hoarding instinct.

How can you do this?   Other than just "throwing everything out", there are some steps you can take and warning signs to watch out for.

1.  Pick a small project that you can finish in an hour.   One mistake that can actually lead to hoarding to to make grandiose plans than are impossible to follow through with.  "I'm going to clean and reorganize this house from top to bottom!" you say, and then about two hours into it, you get overwhelmed and give up.   Not only that, you've taken a lot of crap in your house and moved it around into piles for sorting or whatnot, and then simply given up.   You've made matters worse.

Instead, pick one desk drawer.  Something small.   Open it up and throw out most of it.  Stuff you haven't used in years - toss it.  Even if it is "worth something".   I found a wallet I had from the 1990's - along with three of its successors.   They were old and worn but "still good" and I threw them in a drawer.   Now they are in the trash.   It only took me 20 years to throw that away - and it survived three moves!  Freaking sad.

2.  Don't try to sort or organize - just do.   One problem hoarders have that makes things a lot worse is that they decide to clean things up and instead just start sorting things into piles.   One hoarder saved all the Styrofoam trays that meat comes in and used these as sorting trays.  On one, she was sorting buttons by size and color.  On another paperclips or thumbtacks.   She became paralyzed by these activities, and then left them sitting on a windowsill - for a decade or more.

Use it or lose it.   For example, I was horrified to find, in a drawer, glasses that I had, going back to the 1990's.   Again, they were "too good to throw away" even though the prescriptions were far out of date and the frames were scratched and corroded.

Now, one thing that is a good idea is to put an old pair of glasses in the glove box of your car (particularly sun glasses).  If you are traveling and lose a pair or they break, you have a backup pair (preferably your previous pair) to fall back on.

But..... don't put the glasses aside so you can "later put these in the car".   Either do it now, or throw them away.   Making piles of things to put elsewhere, is just creating more clutter and is, of course, hoarding.

3.  If you are going to save something, put it all in one place.   There are some things you want to save, of course that are useful.  The hallmark of the hoarder is that they scatter everything to the four winds, usually disassembling things first and then scattering all the tiny hard-to-find parts.

For example, I have a box of computer and electrical cables.  USB cables, network cables, audio cables, coax cables, RCA cables, and the like.  Some of these I will end up using to connect a peripheral or a stereo speaker or whatever.  I wound them up, put them in ziplock bags, labeled each bag by cable type, and put them in a box.  This makes it easy to find one, when I need it.

But beware - don't end up hoarding old obsolete things this way.   Old RS-232 serial cables are pretty useless these days, as are Centrex parallel printer cables (although I still have one laserjet plugged into a Centrex port!).   When stuff becomes obsolete, just toss it.   And saving things that you can buy cheaply at the store, later on, if you need them, is kind of dumb.

I used to save wall-pack transformers.   You know, you toss out a piece of electronics, and it has a nice wall-pack transformer.   "Gee, I may need a 4.5 volt, negative ground 500mA transformer down the road," you say, and this is how hoarding starts.   Pretty soon you have dozens of them, and for what purpose?  Whatever new piece of equipment you buy will come with its own power supply, right?

4.  Look at things in a new light.   As I noted in another posting, you set down a cardboard box in the front hall when a package arrives, and you say, "I'll get to that later".   Six months later, you are horrified that the box has been sitting there all this time, with your friends and neighbors now even used to its presence.

It is hard, but sometimes you have to be self-critical and look around your environs and ask yourself why you have certain things, or how they ended up in certain places.   Do you really need all that clutter in your life?  And was it by design or just by accident?

Things accumulate, and it can be very embarrassing.   I bought several sets of nylon weed trimmer cartridges for my weed trimmer.   When they arrived by mail, I opened the box, put them on my desk, and promised myself to put them in the shed with the weed trimmer soon.   That was a year ago.  Today, I got off my ass and did it.  That was embarrassing!

Putting things aside to deal with "later" takes as much energy as it does to just deal with it.

5.  Beware the Junk Accumulator:   Desks, shelves, storage areas, and areas near the front door, where you park your car in the garage, inside the garage door, and the like, end up as junk accumulators.

For example, we have a small bench in the garage as a place to take off your boots and shoes (with a shoe rack nearby).   A great idea, except that "things" end up being placed on this bench until it is overflowing and can't be used to sit on.   So a chair ends up being pulled up nearby.

While it is nice to have desks and tables and shelving and storage units and whatnot, beware they don't just become junk accumulators - acquiring a load of stuff that just gets "set there" and then forgotten for months or years at a time.

A friend of ours gave us several sets of wire shelving - the kind used on closet makeovers.   It was enough to do one wall of the garage.   And in a way, this was a bad move, as these shelves then accumulated boxes, which had unknown "stuff" in them.

Speaking of closet makeovers - when you expand your closet by adding more shelves and closet bars and whatnot, what do you think happens?   Yea, you end up with even more clothes.

As storage space expands - like with Boyle's law - the amount of junk you own expands accordingly.  Why throw things out, when you can keep it?  After all, "it isn't costing me anything" - right?

Or, if you've gone the storage locker route, you're already paying for the space, you might as well put junk in there, right?  Wrong.

The oversized house is the ultimate junk accumulator.  If you have rooms you are not using, then tend to accumulate junk.  We have a guest room that is rarely used.   When company does come, we have to clean it out, as there are usually a dozen items placed on the bed and dresser to be "dealt with later".   And our guests can forget about using the closet - it is jam-packed with clothes we never or rarely wear.

Ditto for the formal dining room and living room.   Stuff gets set down there "temporarily" and ends up moving in full-time.

6.  Mementos:  I talked about this before - saving sentimental things for some unseen later date where you can paw through them and weep silently about your past.   While it is nice to keep a few things, keeping every damn thing can end up being stifling.

Digital pictures help somewhat, in that they don't take up any physical space (but boy, they can eat up a hard drive in no time!).   The desire to save the past is, I think, symptomatic of hoarding.   One way to avoid the hoarding problem is to let go of the past and move on, and realize you will leave this world with nothing, so you might as well start now getting rid of things.

7.  A Place for Everything and Everything In Its Place:  This was my Dad's favorite expressions, and to some extent, it is true.   Find a specific spot for certain things, and then you always know where to put those things.   For example, I have an old liquor box my Grandfather gave me, which is in the living room.  I put anything camera-related into it.   So whenever I need to find something related to a camera, well, I know where to look.   And when I see a camera part laying around, I know where to put it.

The hoarder puts things all over the place, and has no assigned space for certain things (or doesn't have the ability to properly classify objects, perhaps).   So the camera cord is in one place, the battery in another, the tripod in a yet another, and God only knows where the camera itself might be.

Find one place for things of a certain type.  Dividing things up can cause problems, as you can never find things, and things tend to migrate over time.   For example, if you have three drawers in three separate rooms for your table cloths, how easy is it to find a table cloth?   Damned near impossible.    Ditto for when you have multiple closets, dressers, tool boxes, etc.

8.  Tidying Up: Quentin Crisp once opined that after a few years, the dirt in your  house doesn't get any worse.   After living in his own filth for a few years, he finally admitted he was wrong.

And running the vacuum around and dusting is probably the least favorite of activities for me - although I have an affinity for paste wax and old wood, which I find oddly relaxing (probably chemicals in the wax).

Nevertheless, periodic cleaning of this kind is not only essential, it forces you to address clutter at the same time, as the vacuum cleaner inevitably bangs up against that cardboard box you've been forgetting about for six months, now.

* * *

Of course, it is all too easy to get overworked about clutter.   The irony of hoarding disorder is that it is related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which in effect, is the opposite end of the spectrum from hoarding.

And like hoarders, I've known a few OCD people and they are just as crazy - and can't be "fixed" either.   For example, one friend had an immaculate house with everything super-organized and super-clean.   He spent every hour of every day organizing and polishing his show-place house, combing the fringes on the oriental rugs and arranging and re-arranging things over and over again.   And while he liked to entertain, having people over actually touching and using his things caused him a lot of anxiety.  Like with the hoarder, he just couldn't let go of "things."

Another friend had an immaculate apartment with an impressive collection of science fiction paperbacks - all in original condition.   An entire wall was covered with colorful paperbacks, all in custom-built walnut bookcases.  Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Farmer, Simak - you name it, it was all there.  I pulled one volume from the shelf, "Wow, H. Beam Piper!" I said.

He got nervous.  "Please put that back.  I don't like it when people touch my books" he said, nearly ready to faint.   It turns out, he collected the books but had not read any of them nor was he particularly interested in science fiction.  He never even looked at the books.  He just had this weird obsession with collecting them and putting them on a shelf and just having them.   It was a form of mental illness.  And again, like my other OCD friend, his apartment was meticulously clean, but having guests made him very, very anxious.

There is a happy medium, of course, and I think both forms of behavior are outliers of what is otherwise normal behavior.  It is a normal behavior that gets bent and amplified for some reason, and makes the person ultimately unhappy.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is dead cats in the freezer (total hoarder) and 10 is combing the fringes on your rugs with a toothbrush (total OCD) I think we are a good solid 5 - which is where you want to be.   Not living in squalor, but not building a museum to ourselves, either.

Most of the things I have described here apply to nearly everyone.   Everyone has a closet, and attic, a "junk drawer" or a work room full of crap or overflowing with "stuff" that needs to go away.  This is a normal condition of life, so don't panic or run yourself down.   But don't ignore it, either.

The key is, to not let it get out of hand.  Because in the long run, that's all hoarding really is, letting junk accumulate and letting it get out of hand.   (Of course, there are other indicia - when you find yourself cruising the block on trash day looking for broken bicycles and old lawnmowers, you really have a problem!).

And it goes without saying that as you get older, you tend to like having "stuff" less and less.  It costs you money to buy, and it just clutters up your life (and can be stifling, to some extent).

I think this is why a lot of older folks like to go "full time RVing" or downsize to an apartment.   It just gives them a chance to unload a lot of junk and make their lives seem less overwhelming.

I am looking forward to having one car, one bedroom, and one closet.   A few things, but a few well-cared for things, and more time on my hand to do things rather than own things.

Because whether you are a hoarder or have OCD, the net result is the same:  you end up a slave to possessions.   And if you think about that, it is backward.   Possessions should exist to serve you and not vice-versa.   Sadly, today, most people work, live and breathe to have "things" and don't understand that the things in their lives are ruling them.

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