Wednesday, August 25, 2021

How Hoarding Happens - to Anyone!

Hoarding happens slowly, over time, until a tipping point occurs.

I have seen several friends and family members succumb to hoarding disorder, and it isn't pretty.  Some haven't gone full-on hoarder.  Others are getting close to the brink, but trying to pull back.  What is interesting to observe is that there is a "tipping point" where hoarding sets in, full-time, and the hoarder can't pull back anymore, even if they wanted to, as they get too old and run out of energy.

At the lake house, we converted the basement garage into a wine-tasting room.   I am not a fan of converting garages into living space, but the house already had a three (almost four) car garage attached to it, and the basement garage was just a junk accumulator space.  Anyway, the hardest part of doing the renovation was getting rid of a pile of "stuff" in the basement garage - boxes of things and junk - that we felt we had to "go through" and carefully sort and put away before we could begin.  This process took years, literally.

It should have all just gone in a dumpster, which is where most of it went, anyway. Eventually.

Why did it take so long to do this?  Well, I was working, Mark was working, and it was a lot of  "work" both physically and mentally, to go through this stuff, and it wasn't fun, so we put it off time and time again and when we did attack it, not much was done other than to take things from one pile and put them in another.  We were relatively young, had a lot of energy and time, and yet this became an impossible task.

Now imagine this if you are 60, 70, or 80 years old.  That's how it happens.

When people are younger, they tend to save things.  Something is in the way, so it goes in a box and is put in the attic, to be dealt with later.  Pretty soon the attic is full, the garage attic is full, the basement is full (most of that stuff rots) and the closets are full.  You work so hard for "things" you hate to throw them away!  And if you are 30 or 40, you can still deal with all that - you have the time and energy to do so.

But the tipping point happens when you get older.  All that "stuff" - which has multiplied over the years - overwhelms you.  Maybe you have a storage locker now for some of it - or multiple storage lockers, as some hoarder friends have or had.  Maybe you have added a shed in the back yard.  It just gets out of control, and soon there is more "stuff" that you can deal with.   You decide to downsize and get rid of the junk, but the human effort involved is too much for an older body (and mind) to handle.  So you basically give up and keep accumulating.   You've gone full-on hoarder.  It wasn't a conscious choice you made.

It is tragic to watch this happen to family members and friends, but there is nothing you can do to help them.  In fact, they will freak out if you try to.  "That's worth something!" is the cry of the hoarder, as you throw that broken, mildew-stained lampshade into the dumpster. They will fish it out and tell you there was a guy three counties over who restores old lampshades, and "someday" they will take it to him for restoration.  But of course, someday never comes, does it?

The only thing you can do is learn from this and avoid keeping "stuff" when you are younger, so you don't have to deal with it when you are older.  In a way, it is like debt - time-shifting a problem onto the older you that the younger you doesn't want to deal with.  Screwing "Uncle Tomorrow" so you can have fun today. Uncle Tomorrow is not amused.  He is not amused that you left him a mountain of debt to pay off, and an attic full of junk to clean out.  He is, in fact, rather pissed.

In other words, hoarding isn't something that happens to other people, but is the inevitable consequence of acquiring more and more things, over time, without getting rid of stuff in the interim. Every day, you come home from work, or the store or wherever, and you carry something into your home. Not a big thing, just a little thing. You throw out stuff at the end of the week, but the net effect, over time, is to accumulate. A trinket here, a tchotchke there, it all adds up - not to mention the "big ticket" items like furniture and electronics that you "paid a lot for" and are loathe to get rid of - even through they are worthless today.

It is like dust - you see how archaeologists "dig" for antiquities and lost cities - it is because dust and dirt and sand accumulate over time, and bury the works of man.  Even in our lifetimes, we see this.  You build a house at grade level, and in 50 years, it will look like it has "sunken" into the ground, mostly because dirt accumulates around it.  Build above grade level is what I have learned.

We have cleaned out a lot of "stuff" over the years and are continuing to do so.  Someday, we may have to move, and when that happens, we likely will have less energy that we do today.  Why create a mess for tomorrow you, when you can address it today? I see what happens to friends and family and resolve to get rid of even more junk in our garage and attic.  And I can think of ten things right now that need to go away ("but it's worth something!" Bam!).

Of course, the best way to fight this is to fight the urge to accumulate "stuff".  When we were younger, we thought we needed a lot of "things" that later on, seemed kind of a silly waste of money.  For example, when we are in Maine, 25 years ago, we bought a lobster trap - the old-timey wooden kind, and put it on the roof of the camper to take home. We got home and it made a nice decoration and coffee table (although cats got caught in it regularly).  Over time, we moved on to a different coffee table (something more practical) and the lobster trap went into the attic.  It was eventually sold at a garage sale, which is better than hoarding it.

But while it was cool to look at - in the confines of a seafood restaurant on the coast of Maine - owning it was less satisfying.  I realize now that owning everything isn't the answer to anything.  Cool stuff is cool - but you can just look at it, you don't have to have it.  You can go to a car show and just look at the cars - you don't have to buy one.  In fact, this is desirable. You can't have a car show or an air show - or any kind of show - with no spectators.  You can't have an art museum where everyone is an artist and no one is just an observer or appreciative of fine art.   Being an audience member is OK, too!  In fact, most of us end up as just that - audience.  That's OK!

Resist the urge to "own it all" even as your friends fail to do so.  The latest small appliance (Keurig, air fryer, insti-pot, or whatever they come out with next week) isn't really necessary to your life, even as Ron Popeil promises it will "change your life forever!"   Air-frying potatoes isn't making them healthy - the worst part of french fries isn't the oil they are fried in, but the massive calorie count and carbohydrates (starches) in potatoes themselves.  Just eat them in moderation - fried hot and crisp in a real deep-fryer at a restaurant - and leave the "air fryer" on the shelf.  Trust me, it's a fad.  You'll see one at a garage sale for a buck in no time.  Leave that one alone, as well.

"But it's worth something!" people say. They paid four installments of $39.95 for the chicken rotisserie ("set it and forget it!") and now it languishes in a closet, because, let's face it, no one rotisserie cooks chicken at home.  We bought a toaster oven once that came with a rotisserie attachment and it was never, ever used.  Imagine buying an appliance that does only that.  It is one reason why experts say never to buy single-use appliances - they end up on a shelf somewhere.

Of course, it is easy to say these things, harder to do them.  And full-on hoarders don't just hoard things they bought, but free stuff as well - collecting old bags and boxes and Styrofoam clam-shells from the takeout restaurant.  When hoarding goes full-on, almost anything and everything is hoarded - lack of money to buy junk isn't a problem, as the hoarder starts hoarding actual junk and even garbage.

Sadly, many folks think, "I'm not a hoarder!  I don't have a dead cat in the freezer!  I don't save old food packaging and newspapers!  Those old junked cars in my yard, they're collectibles!"  But the net effect is the same - just because you can afford (or think you can afford) to collect more expensive junk doesn't mean you are not a hoarder, just a slightly wealthier hoarder.  And in terms of wealth, hoarding is one sure way to squander it.  Why do you think long-time hoarders hoard old newspapers?  They started out hoarding more expensive stuff (buried under all those newspapers) and worked their way down the food chain as they ran out of money.

Hoarding can happen to anyone, not just some nutjob down the street.

Like I said, when I see this happen to friends and family, it scares me.  Not just because of my concern for them, but for myself.  And it is hard to deal with.  The hoarder shows you their collection of "valuable antiques" which are little more than rusty junk.  It is tempting to show interest in their collection of crap, because some of it is, in fact, of value or at least interesting.  Bad mistake!  As soon as you say, "Hey, that's a neat old [fill in the blank]" you've validated the hoarder's hoarding of the item.  And it is one reason why they show off their hoards sometimes, to people (until it becomes an embarrassing mess, at which point they become hermits and don't let anyone in the house).

If you try to tell them to sell off or throw away all this junk, they cry, "That's worth something!" and "It doesn't cost me anything to keep it!"  But of course, if it was really worth something, why not sell it in an antique shop?  It's not going to appreciate much in value, over time - not many antiques do, not much more than the rate of inflation, if you bother to do the math.

Of course, the hoarder has a collection of poverty stories to counter this.  Old Jeb had some rusty junk in his barn, and a "collector" gave him a pile of money for it!  So you see, it pays to hang on to this stuff - you never know, you might be sitting on a gold mine!  That's why I say, it never pays to confront a hoarder or try to change them - it just entrenches them further into their corner.  Just use that energy to make sure you are not turning into a hoarder yourself.

And in that regard, I am making a list of crap to throw away once we get back home.  Hoarding scares me to death!