5 ways to cope with hoarding

Guest post by Jaime Darkwood

ZOMG! So much stuff! (Photo by: BuzzFarmers - CC BY 2.0)
ZOMG! So much stuff! (Photo by: BuzzFarmersCC BY 2.0)
I didn’t expect hoarding to impact my life in such a big way. I grew up in a house that made constant donations to whatever organization would come by our front door — at least three garbage bags each month, minimum. Stuff came in, stuff went out. This was my normal.

And then I met the man who would one day become my husband. And then I met his parents. And now hoarding is a very real and stressful part of my life.

My husband, A, is not a hoarder. He admits it would have been very easy to have gone down that path, as collecting and storing and hoarding was the norm in his childhood. He’s in a sort of recovery mode — he has hoarding tendencies, but nothing that would warrant a therapist, home organizer, or public-health intervention. But hoarding affects our lives, day in and day out. Here are some of the challenges, and how we cope with them:

1. Be patient but firm about giving things away.

When I first met A, he had over sixty t-shirts. I would guess maybe five or six of them actually fit, and only three of those looked good. I tried to convince him that he didn’t really need sixty t-shirts, that maybe a two-week supply was a better idea. Getting him to part with the extras was an extremely slow process — it took the better part of a year to whittle his collection down to size. The same went for old text books, housewares, gifts — it didn’t matter if it wasn’t being used, or if we didn’t have the space, or if it was worn-out… “We might need it.” “It has sentimental value.” “But it was a gift.”

The switch from “keep” mode to “donate” mode has been a very long process. We would use cut-off dates (if the shirt isn’t worn in the next six months it gets donated), and small increases (this month I will donate five items, next month I will donate ten) to increase A’s comfort level with giving things away — which also helped my stress levels.

2. Get proactive about food.

Once upon a time I decided to clean out A’s fridge, and found seven jars of mayonnaise along with a packet of deli meat that had turned into a trippy swirl of turquoise and purple. A also likes to keep food odds and ends: the remaining handful of chips or cereal, that last tortilla or slice of bread. Problem is, these things tend to sit in our cupboards or refrigerator, and also lead to other issues such as mold or pests. Yuck.

Learning about food spoilage and food waste has helped us to deal with this aspect of hoarding. I took over shopping and cooking once we moved in together, so I’ve been able to assume a greater deal of control in the kitchen and go by the “when in doubt, throw it out” rule, but this will depend on your personal living arrangements.

3. Have a plan for giving and receiving gifts.

My husband’s parents love to shop and can’t resist a bargain. This means that Christmas, birthdays, and other major holidays tend to get just a wee bit excessive. Meaning, come Christmas morning, it looks like an outlet store exploded in our living room. While I can appreciate the generosity, it comes with a problem: the majority of the gifts are things we do not want or need, nor do we have the storage space.

This has led us to be rather brutal when it comes to gifts: most of what comes in is passed along. We can’t tell A’s parents to stop buying for us, but they can’t tell us what we have to keep in our house. We also tend to ask for gift cards or experiences (tickets to the circus, a family museum pass) rather than stuff, but we still get the pile’o’presents to contend with come Christmas Day. I do not expect my husband’s parents to change, so the onus is on us to have a family policy for unwanted presents.

On the flip side of receiving gifts is giving gifts. What do you give a person when their house is full to bursting? Or when you find past gifts still in their original packaging, shoved in a plastic storage bin? We try to keep the gifts we give small but memorable, and have learned the hard way that handmade or heartfelt gifts are a bad idea, because they tend to get lost in the chaos. Giftcards are our other major solution, although I still worry that the card will also be lost.

4. Establish boundaries with others.

Visits to A’s childhood home are always stressful. The house makes us ill, there isn’t any privacy, the food is questionable, and then there’s the constant fear of being swallowed by stuff.

When we visit, we come prepared with medications for allergies and headaches, try to eat out as much as possible or buy our own groceries, and try to limit the amount of time we actually spend in the house. We’re also now planning on staying in a hotel, or with friends, despite the fact that this may cause a fair amount of friction between the two families. We have also had to make the rule that our daughter cannot stay for overnights due to health and safety concerns. This sucks, big time. I don’t want to keep her from her grandparents, but it’s not safe for her to stay in their house. I’m not looking forward to that particular conversation, but perhaps it will be the cause for change and a mass clean-up. I hope so.

5. The serenity prayer works!

I cannot force my in-laws to change, and neither can A. I don’t know if they will ever seek help for their problem, or if they would be willing to stop shopping, collecting, keeping, hoarding. It is their life, and their house. I do not have control over this situation. But I do have control over my own situation, over the things we prioritize and over how A and I choose to lead our lives.

Our house is our own oasis, and has its own rules. We can choose what comes into our house, and what stays in our house. We can choose to recognize when behaviours are problematic, and find ways to address issues such as storage, donations, presents, and travel. It’s not an easy task, and often leads to difficult conversations and tough decisions. We control our own lives and our own house, and while hoarding certainly affects our lives, it does not control it, and will not overwhelm us.

Comments on 5 ways to cope with hoarding

  1. Oh my goodness, thank you. My husband has grandparents who are serious hoarders and a mother who is sort-of a “hoarder-lite” and my husband, as a result, is a messy dude with some packrat tendencies and the inability to see chores that need to be done. He’ll throw out some things just fine, but other things (things I might define as trash) he’ll hang onto. And he feels bad about it because he thinks his mom/grandma’s lifestyles are not okay, but because he’s ashamed he just hides it more. (Hello truck full of random pieces of wood and empty gatorade bottles.) His mom is also addicted to shopping and so I hear you on the gifts.

    His mom/house messiness is one of my sources of frustration and I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in living with someone who struggles with this. I love these strategies, and I think we need to set up some around my house. 🙂

    One technique that I’ve tried with some success (I’m also not the world’s neatest person) is a “game” that I invented called “10 things!” where you each have to put away 10 things in their correct place in the house in x amount of time. I set the timer and we scurry around. It doesn’t make it fun, but I’m slowly trying to show him that “doing chores” doesn’t have to be a multi-day life-consuming process of despair. in 10 minutes, you can actually get one room looking pretty straightened, and in our small apartment, that makes a big deal.

    One of my projects for this week is a 5-minute chores chart so that every day, we can each pick one five minute chore (taking out the bathroom trash, putting the towels in the washing machine, disinfecting the sink, etc.). Sure, both of these are sort of elementary-esque ideas, but you gotta start somewhere!

    • Learning that cleaning doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing stressfest has been a slow process, and one that we are both working on. I like your idea of making things into a game. We’ve also had some success with small organization/decluttering tasks, like working on a messy drawer or cabinet as opposed to OMG WE HAVE TO SCRUB AND PURGE EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW!!!

      • I’ve found UFYH (UnFuckYourHabitat) on Tumblr to be a fantastic resource for resetting marathon cleaning habits. She works on the idea of 20/10 (work/break) cycles to get things done in small, manageable chunks. There are also lots of people there who post before/after shots of their cleaning processes and encourage each other.

        • I actually have had some success with a similar but even lazier concept. I like to watch seasons of TV shows online and in order, so I can often wind up sitting through 5 or 6 episodes at the end of a hard workday and then boom my evening is gone. I have started a rule for myself that I have to clean for 15 minutes before each new episode, I actually set a timer. So that makes sure my house gets at least 15 minutes and as much as 90 minutes cleaning in a day. =)

          • …that’s a really good idea. I watched 7 episodes of Mad Men yesterday, and at the end, realized the house was just as much as disaster as it was when I
            started. This way you break it up into small chunks and then get rewarded with a glorious episode of quality television!

          • Talk about a BASKETS moment for me!

            Your idea is insanely genius! I can’t wait to try this tonight because man…sometimes I can watch “just one more episode” until I’m ready for bed. I might even clean faster if it’s a good cliffhanger (even though it’s 15 mins either way, but I’ll be really hyper and antsy!). I love it! You are awesome.

          • I even find that getting up for 15 minutes to focus on something else (stacking the dishwasher) leads to less TV time, because I’m not still so intrigued or agitated from a really good ending that I’ll just sit and keep going way past a reasonable hour. And for me, I’m always trying to find less TV time, so I can work on enriching my life in other ways than sitting and staring.

          • YES! The motivation of TV is a real powerhouse. On our my giant beefs is that he says he’ll do a chore and then won’t do it. I’ve started framing it as “let’s go wash the dishes and make lunches for tomorrow before we watch the next episode” and then we go in there and do it together. That way, chores feel more like “togetherness time” and less like “banishment into separate dirty rooms”.

          • Thank you thank you! I really struggle with the binge watching problem, too. I am literally putting this into practice at this moment because the episode of my show just ended!

        • I love UfYH! It’s heartening to see what can be acheived in a 20/10 work cycle, and once you get things in control how easy it can be to maintain it. Seeing constant proof on the site stops me thinking “ah I’ll just marathon clean it at the weekend”. It’s also helped me come to terms with my husbands inability to see mess and stop him getting distracted by unnecessary jobs. “Clean this surface and NOTHING ELSE for 20 minutes” is much more successful than “please clean the kitchen”.

  2. I also love your strategies. I don’t deal with hoarders, but I feel like your suggestions are pretty universal, and they take the delicate “family element” into account. I have similar concerns about cleanliness and allergies and gifts when we visit certain family members…these will help me.

    • My sister-in-law has made this transition to staying only in a hotel when she visits her parents and not sleeping at their house. The family was a bit confused at first, but she handled the situation well and now it’s not so much of a big deal.

  3. For me, the hardest part of parting with something is if it was a gift. For instance, many of my stuffed animals were gifts. I’d feel bad if a friend noticed that one was missing or in a give-away pile, because they might feel bad. Dealing with that is difficult for me. Or the feeling that I wasted a resource when I have to resort to throwing something in the trash because it cannot be recycled/donated. My inner eco-lover sheds tears over it. And craft supplies. Seriously awful. I really need to clean house on that front, because there are some broken things that I cannot see myself using any time soon.

    To keep my junk levels from becoming high, I tell people things that I want/don’t want for presents. Ex, NO MORE STUFFED ANIMALS OR FIGURINES. So then I say something like giftcards or candy (although with my diet change, candy may no longer be an option).

    Have you ever heard of UnF*** Your Habitat? It’s a great website that gives suggestions on how to clean and organize. From what I hear, many people who use it have hoarding problems or tendencies.

    • This is me exactly. The primary reason I don’t get rid of more things is because I don’t want to be wasteful. Why should I throw that away and buy another one when I need it in 10 years? Just about the only thing I can get rid of is shirts, because I can donate them and unlike pants, shoes, socks, or anything with long sleeves, I can find others that will fit me in the future. I have pants that are three sizes too big for me but because they have the impossible to find 38-40″ inseam I need, they have to stick around.

      • If you have tall pants that are too big and can’t wear them take them to a tailor. A good tailor can work miracles for a situation like this. Many online sites cater to tall people, both men and women. There is also a new website that allows women’s to buy white, only white I think , work type blouses by bust size.

        You must be like, what, 6’6″?

    • We have become very firm when people ask us about gifts for our daughter, for the NO MORE STUFFED ANIMALS reason. I tend to use space and allergies as our main excuses, but learning to say no and stick to my guns has been a challenging but important step for me.

      As for getting rid of craft supplies, you can always see if your local school, daycare, or Boys and Girls Club is in need. I work for an after-school program, and love getting unwanted craft supplies like old scrapbooking papers or beads or yarn.

    • If you feel bad about “getting rid” of stuffed animals and craft supplies, I would try to find something you FEEL GOOD about giving to. By justifying with “this person needs it more than I do” you can always give that line back to a friend who might notice the toy missing. (Though I think it’s unlikely a good friend would comment on it at all.)
      For these situations I look on Craigslist for people whose homes have just burned down, or can’t have Christmas without toy donations. Hospitals are always thankful for items for child patients (arts & crafts supplies especially).

      • I was going to make this suggestion as well. Donating a stuffed animal directly to a sad child eleviates any sense of guilt. And if your friend asks, you have a really beautiful story about how their gift helped someone else.

    • If you have a variety of craft supplies you can’t use you could try grouping them by colour or theme and giving them away as activity sets to kids or friends. One of my friends does scrapbooking so I gave her all a box of random pink/purple/valentines craft supplies to use as embellishments. A “learn to knit” or “learn to sew” kit with a simple pattern from the internet might be cute too.

  4. You are describing my life. Perfectly. Down to the handmade-gifts-aren’t-worth-it thing. My husband doesn’t seem to be moving along as readily as A has … I still hear “but we might need it” very very frequently. I actually am fighting a new feeling which is guilt for being wasteful, because of course that’s how my husband sees what I’m doing. Compromise is called for from both of us. I don’t throw something out because it’s been lying about for six months doing nothing, and he lets me clean out the fridge and throw away ripped shirts after careful conversation.
    It’s exhausting.

    • Compromise and discussion is key. At the end of the day, if something belongs to my husband it is not mine to toss or donate…so we talk, and debate, and some stuff stays while other stuff goes. But it does get very tiring, especially when it feels like the conversation is on repeat.

  5. I really identify with this too. I’m certainly no hoarder, but I see how I could have ended up that way, and have worked hard to dissuade myself from some of those tendencies. I grew up as a military brat, so even though we moved frequently and new schools, new houses, and new friends were always a part of my life… my stuff remained the same. My stuff was familiar and it made new places feel like home.
    As I got older and moved off to college and grad school and started having my own apartments (including teeny tiny ones in NYC), I realized that I had more stuff than most of my peers and started to recognize that my tendency to keep everything “just in case” or because I felt attached to it wasn’t the norm. I didn’t want to be beholden or held captive by my things, so I started very slowly and carefully renegotiating my relationship to my stuff. I think that once you start to purge and realize that your life has not ended because you threw out or donated something you weren’t using it makes it that much easier to do again and again, and that’s empowering!
    Clothes and Craft supplies have always been my two weaknesses. But I have certain rules, that make it easier to part with things when it is time. If it doesn’t fit is has to go. If its particularly sentimental, fine… as long as there is room in the closet and the closet isn’t full of “sentimental things”…it can stay. Giving myself a little flexibility that way makes it much easier to purge the bulk of the stuff!

    • Craft supplies are a weakness of mine. I try to keep things reasonable by keeping supplies that are in my main interests (knitting, scrapbooking, needle felted) while donating ones that fall outside my main interests (I’m looking at you, beading and painting). But it’s hard, because there’s always a voice in the back of my head saying I could make something amazing out of that old junk…

      • I also keep my craft supplies hyper-organized and most importantly LABELED!! Everything goes into small, clear, labeled boxes. If I cant fit any more velcro into the velcro box, obviously I have too much velcro.
        Also, I used to be terrible about saving fabric scraps! When I worked in costume shops we saved all the scraps in case of repairs, which made sense in that context, but does not for my small craft room. Now, scraps are trash… scraps are trash…breathe…scraps are trash… =)

        • A bag of offcuts (nice ones of course!) sells on etsy. I’ve bought them several times as I make rag dolls and softies, and ‘scraps’ to someone who makes people clothes is a scrappy softy, a dolls dress or 2 and a baby’s ball. You could be turning that trash into cash – if you can be bothered!

    • Oh man, you’re describing my life. Air Force brat here. I’ve always crammed at least twice as much mess into my dorm rooms as other students, and I pretty much single-handedly furnished the house I share with two roommates (including the spare room so full of assorted sentimental and/or crafting crap that I can barely navigate it). I’m currently trying to wrangle all the sentimental-but-not-useful stuff together and get it under control. I’m sure I have a good enough memory to recall my past without the *entire* contents of my childhood bedrooms there to remind me.

    • If you’re keeping sentimental t-shirts that don’t fit anymore (perhaps never did), there are PLENTY of crafts out there to display the t-shirt without it taking up closet space. I’ve seen quilts, throw pillows, tote bags, artistic framing. And I’m sure there are many other repurposes for t-shirts.
      I particularly like the tote bag idea, because those can be used for storage or moving, without the need to use plastic bags. Or use them as vegetable bags for the grocery store/farmers market.

      • I made a bunch of totes out of old tee-shirts a few years ago when I was whittling down my collection. It was a quick and easy sewing project and they’ve held up surprisingly well.

  6. I’m right there with you….My parents are not quite the extreme hoarder situation that you see on tv, but they definitely have too many things….we are also trying to slowly get rid of things, but the real problems will probably start when I move in with my neat freak boyfriend….

  7. Tip for sentimentalists (I’m including myself here!): Allow each member of your household to hold on to one box of souvenirs. This stuff IS important and I do not regret one second keeping two (my husband and I) boxes of souvenirs throughout my many moves. The hardest part is to keep it to ONE box.

    By allowing you to keep, it makes it so much easier to through away/donate afterwards. You balance the feeling of ”Omg, I’m getting deprived of stuff I might need” with the positive thought ”I’m making important stuff safe”. In order to develop the ability to distinguish between important stuff and not so important, we first need to acknowledge what possessions are dear to us. Seriously, it’s like going to therapy, only cheaper. Everyone should try it! 😛

    • The memories box is SO important. Everyone has their treasures and sentimental items. Oddly enough, the treasure boxes in our house are two very different sizes than one would expect given our respective keep/toss personalities…mine is huge and A’s is small!

      • I agree a hundred times over as well – it especially works for children of super sentimental hoarders like my husband. His mother basically taught him from birth that if it had a memory, you HAD to keep it. Ever since I gave him the box for memorabilia, he’s so great about prioritizing what actually gets kept and what doesn’t. He’s actually really picky about what he keeps, like your situation! So funny. 🙂

    • A memory board can also work, too, or an online scrapbook. I love photos, so taking pictures of stuff sometimes takes away that edge of needing to have it physically. Having it in a photo makes it not ‘cease to exist’ and I can transfer the memory to the picture of the thing, rather than the thing itself.

      • I read an article once about a mother who did that for all her child’s drawings. She would take a photo of her child holding the drawing. So instead of a fridge covered in paper and squiggles, she could always keep the memory of the drawing, plus a picture of her child so she would always remember the age it was drawn at, and what was going on in their lives when it was made.
        So then she didn’t feel bad about throwing away the drawings later on.

        • I always feel guilty throwing away drawings. But what do you do with them all! That is a brilliant idea.

          My parents tended to let me choose one piece of art (I think it averaged about one per grade) that got framed or displayed. So the pottery I made in first grade lived on a shelf in the den, and the African style mask from second grade is still in a shadow box in the guest room, and a flower painting from some age was framed somewhere. Because my house was filled with my art displayed as if it were “real” decor, I have no memories of noticing or caring when smaller stuff was tossed.

          • i had trash bags and totes full of old school projects and drawings. when we moved i took the drawings that mattered and scanned them. then the rest i burned in a bonefire. felt great.

  8. Thank you! I work so hard to keep this gene at bay. My grandfather owns 4 houses and 4 more properties and all of these are filled with junk! OK not all junk. A lot is antiques and such, but he is also the man who buys 3 dollars boxes of odd junk at the auction ” because someone has to!” Its good to know more people deal with this.

  9. A. This post is amazing and I COMPLETELY relate.
    B. Here are the lessons I’ve learned in dealing with the spawn o’ hoarders I live with.
    -Respect their stuff/space. This kind of goes without saying, but if you’re dealing with the child of a hoarder, odds are they had to deal with the hoard creeping into their space and had things of theirs go missing/get damaged because of the hoard, so there may be some emotional minefields about their personal space and belongings getting broken.
    -Give yourself a frame of reference. When I was a kid I was taught by example how to clean a toilet, do dishes, wash laundry. But my spouse was not, and so when I would get upset that he wasn’t pulling his weight with housework, I realized that it was not a given to him that things needed to be cleaned, and it wasn’t a given that he knew how to clean it.
    -Do not participate in the dysfunction. Open to interpretation and also addressed by Jaime, but so important!

    • Respecting space is especially important for the children of hoarders. A. can actually be something of a neat-freak, wanting everything to always have a home. I am more of an organized chaos person, meaning I tend to leave bits and bobs as I work around our house. This has lead to the agreement that the office needs to be tidy and orderly, while the living room can be more casual and lived in. We also have rules for our dressers: don’t touch if it’s not yours!

    • THIS about not knowing how to clean. My boy was raised by his biker dad, and thus has NO IDEA that things need to be cleaned. ever. it just doesn’t occur to him that things need to be cleaned on a regular basis, and repeatedly throughout the course of time. I, too, get frustrated when I feel he’s not doing his part to keep our space clean, and I just have to keep reminding myself that no one ever taught him HOW to clean.

      • My husband was raised in a traditional Mexican family where his mom cleaned everything, did all the laundry, and picked up after him. When she comes to visit, she still insists on doing all the cooking and cleaning, which is nice, but can feel exhausting. Because of this, he just sort of drops things wherever he happens to be (I found underwear on the kitchen table and used Q-tips on the computer desk!), and doesn’t think about having to pick it up and put it away (or throw it away). My problem is that I’m very messy and a major packrat, so we have to try really hard. I create piles and he leaves trails, not a good combination.

  10. When I moved in to my now-husband’s house, it was a few years away from a Hoarders episode. One of the things that has saved me is reorganizing. Instead of getting a table we wouldn’t use, I bought a couple of big metal shelving racks for the dining room. I filled them up with all the stuff he refuses to let go, and it at least looks decent and like we meant for that stuff to be there.

    When going through “stuff” together (sometimes I can’t make the call to keep/toss/donate on my own) I go with the “don’t touch” rule. I hold it up, he makes the decision. You’re far more likely to keep something if you touch it.

    I remind him regularly that he likes the fact that he can now walk through the house without tripping and sit on the couches.

    I’m still working on the 60 shirts though.

    • I would imagine that using shelves would be far less stressful than having a big pile of stuff on the dining room table. This is one of the reasons my daughter has a toy shelve and not a toy box-much easier to organize and actually find what you’re looking for.

  11. If you can afford it or have a willing family member with room, it might be an idea to move some of the hoard into storage.

    Firstly, it gets it out of the house, even if it is just into the garage. Sometimes just the change in environment might inspire a change in attitude. I think this would also take the pressure of binning/donating things away, which can be separate issues to hoarding sometimes.

    It also allows the game of “if you’ve not needed to go get it in 6 months/1 year etc, it can go”. It may be easier for the hoarder to get rid of stuff once it’s no longer under their noses and in their immediate environment, especially if they’ve forgotten what they had.

    Bonus “out of sight, out of mind” serenity for the non hoarders although it would backfire if the newly clean space just becomes equally full of junk again.

    I did once see a TV programme where the owners of houses full of stuff, although not to hoarder level, had an hour to name everything in their house. I mean every piece of furniture, picture, magazine, toothbrush. Everything. Anything they missed got chucked in a skip! Might be a bit cruel to play this game on a partner though

    • I think the storage solution can work to a certain extent, depending on the size/severity of the problem, as it can provide an opportunity to sort and organize and clean what is truly important. For others, more space=more stuff, and this is why I am glad there are no storage facilities where my in-laws live.

      • Oh definitely. Whilst not a hoarder, my other half and his family are extremely good at just moving stuff around, not tidying, just piling it up elsewhere then cramming the new space with stuff.

        Case in point, his grandmother wanted a hand sorting out her garage. Being from a family with a tiny home and almost militant mother regarding clutter, I turned up armed with sacks to take stuff to the recycling centre, the number for council collections for large items, my sweaty work gear, hard hat with a little miners light on the front, kendall mint cake (well not really, but I was prepared!).

        Turns out all we did was move everything out while she decided “it might be useful, put it back”. We put it back neatly like she asked. Now there’s a new identical set of junk in front of the neatly arranged junk

    • As a child of hoarders, I’m not sure the storage garage is a great idea…My parents got one, filled it up whilst also re-filling the cleared out areas of the house, got another one, repeated, and continue to fill up empty-nested bedrooms with hundreds (no joke) of boxes. I have hoarding (art stuff and clothes) tendencies, but live in a small space and can only go so far, and am currently purging closet items that I haven’t worn since I moved to my present space. Not seeing/using some of it did help me with the things that have gone out of style in the meantime, but I also re-discovered a few things that fell into the “oh, I remember that” and “I might wear that again” categories, although I did set a timeline for re-wearing (end of summer, and I am wearing a pair of shoes in that category right now). My hoarding is contained in my bedroom (the rest of the apartment is actually pretty clean/not too stuffed), so I find that going on dates with new people causes me to do a mini purge out of embarrassment. I know hosting guests causes my parents to at least move stuff, so maybe forcing some of the hoarding into the public realm is key? Embarrassment is a powerful tool. I still am debating on an appropriate timeline for getting rid of things that my parents got me that I know they thought about and I somewhat like, but have no space for. I’m thinking I might have a pretend “storage garage” (really free-cycled or placed on a coffeeshop free shelf), because they probably wouldn’t find that strange.

    • As the child of a hoarder, I have seen the storage unit method backfire so many times over the years. My mom would get the storage units absolutely packed full of her junk, and it was just an out of sight out of mind thing. All she did was leave the storage units untouched for years and years, spending thousands of dollars in the long-run on them, and almost instantly had filled up the space she had cleared with new junk.

      This woman successfully junked up 3 houses. She junked up my childhood home, and when she and I moved out of there (leaving my dad to deal with the junk), she junked up the rental home we moved into. Then when she bought a home that was bigger than the rental, she junked that one up too. Meanwhile my dad was still in the junked up childhood home with his hands tied, because if he tried to unjunk it, she would flip out on him.

      Now my father has passed away and my mom is in assisted living, and guess who is left to deal with the 2 junked up homes. I am a newlywed in my early 30’s, coping with chronic illness, pain, and infertility, and instead of spending my energy on caring for myself and pursuing treatment and IVF and making new happy memories with my husband, I have to devote all my time and energy to dealing with these cesspits. Pisses me right the hell off.

    • Thank you thank you! I really struggle with the binge watching problem, too. I am literally putting this into practice at this moment because the episode of my show just ended!

      • Woops, my phone is being wonky and reposted what I posted above. What I wanted to say is that while as with most mental illness, all hoarders are different, as a hoarder I can say that storage is the worst thing for me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s out of sight, out of mind. I’ve lived in my house for 10 years and I’ve had the same pile of boxes sitting in the garage for most of that time. I’m not going through them because I need the garage for my business, and I’m super thankful to have that storage space taken away. The second reason storage is not helpful for me is that I need to feel the stress of having all the stuff in order to have the motivation to change.

        But again, everyone is different.

  12. OH GOD, I could have written some of those parts word for word. I feel you, sista. 🙂

    My husband grew up in a hoarder house, and we still go through many of the same things. He’s not at all a true hoarder himself, like your partner – he just has holes where certain learned behaviors should have been developed as a child. The millions of shirts thing was ABSOLUTELY our first hurdle – I sat him down, we went through them all, most didn’t fit, some were sentimental – same thing. He has a huge box that I designated for him as memorabilia – he can put whatever is too sentimental to discard in it, and it really helped with the shirts. Basically, none of them were sentimental ENOUGH to keep in the box, so they went away. Luckily, he’s great about ditching clothes that don’t fit. Still, I am so freaking against souvenir shirts now that it’s funny. 🙂

    The biggest thing is that he just doesn’t SEE mess. Like, if a box is full of stuff he hasn’t used in years, he just crams it shut and gets another box. It simply doesn’t occur to him to declutter. But, when I suggest it, he loves it! It’s so funny. And even though he takes a long time to go through things (another hoarder symptom), he gets rid of so much stuff that I’m always super proud of him.

    Also, we have a terrible time going to his family’s house – I have to also be completely doped up on allergy medication, etc. So much dust collected on so much STUFF. And mold… sigh. I’m pregnant, and I’m so hoping that the promise of having a grandkid over all the time will get my mother in law to clean up more. She’s actually been getting rid of some things this past year, so I have my fingers crossed.

    Good luck with everything! 🙂

    • I have the problem that I don’t see messes other. All the sudden I’ll look around and wonder how it got so bad. I have huge amounts of stuff in boxes and piles around the house and it takes forever for me to go through it all. I’ve been doing better, and I have donated or thrown away a lot of things, but I still have a lot to go. I too just close boxes and put them away instead of sorting through them. My husband is not a hoarder at all, but he is extremely messy and leaves trash and clothes all over the house. Adding his mess to mine has actually motivated me to clean more often. I didn’t notice when I had little piles of stuff all around, but once trash and food wrappers started getting added, I got disgusted pretty quick.

      • Oh my goodness, yes! I grew up in a hoarding home, and I became very good at “unseeing” the stuff that made the space so hard to live in– which is basically, absolutely knowing it’s a mess, but also feeling that there is no way to deal with it that will not create more mess, so just… never touching xyz thing again, or at least for several months, and learning to ignore it.

        SEEING what needs to be cleaned up, and understanding that it CAN BE CLEANED and I CAN CLEAN IT (without my mom freaking out that I’ve done it wrong and putting it all back to the state it was in) is quite the ongoing psychological process.

    • This was a major point of contention with my husband and I as well. He still does not see a huge issue with his parent’s home, and he has a 6 year old. Before we were married/living together, he would frequently have his parents watch her because he grew up with them, in that house, so clearly there was nothing wrong with it. After we were together for a while, though, it started to dawn on him that it wasn’t a healthy environment. Being near the front door made me so sick, I couldn’t hide the fact that I was dry heaving and sometimes vomitting from the smell(unfortunately, his parents also had multiple cats, and are not that amazing at hygiene). We started to have “grandma’s house” clothes and socks. The turning point was when he incredulously asked his daughter if she had gone out in the dirt with just her white socks on, and her response was, “No, I took my shoes off in Grandma’s house” …they were -black- It’s sad, because he loves his parents, but their presence can be a health concern sometimes.
      I’m pregnant now, with an immuno-compromised baby, who needs surgery after delivery, and he wanted to leave the hospital after delivery, pick them up (they don’t drive) and bring them to the hospital to see the baby before surgery.
      I felt awful telling him no. But not only is their hygiene poor, they are also gift-givers. They aren’t currently shopaholics, so all of our piles of gifts are old, crusty, broken/useless things from their house. I have to secretly throw things away.
      I manage to keep control of the “stuff” and “gift” situation by placing items in a box/bag/bin and putting it out of sight (in a closet/the attic etc) if it’s not asked for in a month, it gets quietly thrown away.
      It’s even become a non-issue for most things. “Hey I think my mom gave me ‘X item’, do we still have that, or did we throw it out” it’s mostly for parent gifts, but 4 moves in, and it’s way easier to throw things out than cart them around.

  13. This was my life growing up! While I still lived with my mom, I struggled to try to get her to change her habits. She would shop for groceries every day and buy enough for a family of 10, then not put most of it away, etc. I cleaned up as much as I could, but it was an uphill battle, the waste made me sad, and the house made me sick.
    Now, #3 and 4 of this list totally resonate with me. I used to feel bad about getting rid of most of the gifts she gets us, but I finally decided a gift that I have no use for is called a burden. I haven’t been to my mom’s house in several years, she comes to visit us usually, but it is a few hour’s drive, so we don’t see eachother much. Now that I have a baby daughter, I know I can’t take her there, it just isn’t healthy. My mom sometimes mentions my munchkin coming to visit. So far I’ve just put it off, but there is a teary, uncomfortable conversation coming where I have to explain that we can’t come there.

    • I have a hard time with gifts, because I feel guilty if we don’t keep it….but if it’s not something we need or want, then it can’t stay in the house. For me, i think about the joy the gift-giver felt when buying/wrapping/giving the gift, and try to focus on that if guilt sets in. Or I try to rationalize it as “well, at least it’s not in my in-laws basement anymore” when the holiday packages start to arrive.

  14. This hits home for me. My other halfs mother is not a hoarder but she’s close. The other day he mentioned not throwing stuff out (he is pretty bad) and she starts going on about how she taught him well and she’s so proud. Gah. It is a real struggle for me.

  15. I so relate to this article. Thank you very much for writing it. My aunt is a hoarder on the scale of a Hoarders episode. I found the following resources in the back of one of the many hoarding books that I’ve read. I hope that they’re helpful for anyone who needs them.

    Hoarding Resources

    Institute for Challenging Disorganization


    International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorganization


    National Association of Professional Organizers


    A&E Hoarders


    Support Groups

    Children of Hoarders

    Clutterers Anonymous

    Squalor Survivors

    Mates of Messies


    Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring, by Michael Tompkins

    Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

    Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding, by David F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

    Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding, by Fugen Nezirolglu, Jerome Bubrick and Jose Yaryura-Tobias

    It’s all Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff, by Peter Walsh


    Clutter Cleaner: http://www.cluttercleaner.com

    SteriClean: http://www.steri-clean.com

    1-800-GOT-JUNK: http://www.1800gotjunk.com


    National Association of Professional Organizers


    Metropolitan Organizing


    Abundance Organizing


    The Delphi Center for Organization


    Things in Place


    Dr. DClutter Life Management




    • Steel-toe boots
    • Long socks and pants
    • Long-sleeve shirts
    • Tyvec protective suits with hood
    • Work gloves with latex coating to keep liquids from seeping in
    • Respirators or masks (make sure they read P100 or N95)

    Cleaning Supplies

    • 3 millimeter thick trash bags
    • Cardboard boxes for sorting only, do not use for storing items
    • Labels and permanent markers
    • Pocketknife or box cutter for open old boxes or cut strings
    • All purpose cleaner
    • Paper towels
    • Brooms, snow shovels, and rakes

    Waste Management: http://www.wm.com

    Document Shredding
    Shred It: http://www.shredit.com

    • Thank you for posting this list of resources. I really wish I had been more aware of the psychology of hoarding when my grandmother was still alive.

      I think some of the tips in the original article and the comments are probably great when you’re married to the child of a hoarder who has tendencies but can understand why not to go that route and appreciate the help.

      When you are dealing with someone who truly depends on hoarding as a way to deal with their anxieties, it’s another story. I think being more educated myself might have helped me avoid some mistakes I feel I made with my grandmother (like cleaning out her pantry and throwing away two trashbags of expired food) that exacerbated her anxiety rather than helping. Ultimately, she buried herself in stuff and I believe she chose to refuse necessary medical care (leading to her death) rather than face the prospect of moving out of her house for the sake of her health and safety. Perhaps if I’d known more I would have stopped pushing her and could have found more resources to help her stay where she was. (That said, I do know she knew I was coming from a place of love, and I feel I did the best I could at the time… it’s just that hindsight is 20/20).

      I am grateful, though, that when I was young her hoarding was not nearly so bad that my mom considered it dangerous, and I am forever grateful for the time I spent with her every summer and at holidays. I hope the parents who have posted about their fears about the health and safety of their children are able to find ways for their kids to develop relationships with their grandparents even if the grandparents are past the point of change.

    • I clicked on the “document shredding” link, because my DH moved 20 pounds of paper “to be shreded” when he moved last time, because he didn’t get to it before the move. It struck me as funny that the shredding service gives you a “certificate of destruction” just when you are trying to get RID of stuff– here they give you something else to hang on far past it’s use!

  16. I can so relate. This is basically the story of me and my husband. He grew up in a hoarder house, I grew up with an OCD dad that couldn’t stand a spoon in the sink. He holds on to tons of stuff, and keeps bringing in more. I tend to purge once a year-ish. I don’t touch his stuff, but encourage him to join. We did a bit of going through things when we last moved, and I’m hoping with baby on the way we can do more and finally organize everything. The piles along the wall are starting to drive me nuts. I’ve started to realize (after 6 years) that he just doesn’t see the mess because it’s nothing to him. His parents’ house is packed full, plus they have 3 storage units. His mom keeps things because “someone might want/need it.” Sadly she ends up being right because they have so much. She has finally started to work on things, but it’s very slow going. I’m frankly a little worried about bringing baby over. Once she’s mobile, there’s way too much for her to get into!

  17. My partner says he’s not a hoarder, and regularly gets rid of stuff that’s perfectly fine and it drives me insane. But when we came to move out of our first house together, lo and behold, he had BOXES of crazy stuff like 16 phone jacks, 3 modems… like, WHAT THE HELL?!? So we cleared out A LOT then. But I totally identify with others about him not seeing mess or needing to clean. We implemented a rule for a while where after dinner, we both cleaned for 15 minutes – didn’t matter what it was, just no stopping for 15 minutes. So really with both of us, 30 minutes of cleaning every night. The house was sparkling after that! We both got lazy though, so I can’t entirely put that one on him… but if you can maintain it, it’s great!

  18. For what it’s worth, we’ve always had trouble getting rid of the last food scraps/ leftovers/ veggie halves/ bread ends/ etc… until we got chickens. Instant guilt-free food disposal and a beautiful way to turn potential waste into tasty fresh eggs. :>

    • Vermicomposting is another “fun” way to get rid of kitchen scraps, and potentially a great kids hobby. I don’t know any little boys that don’t love worms, and most kids want to feel like they’re taking care of the little critters by feeding them.

  19. That sounds really similar to the situation that my husband and I dealt with. His family is big into hoarding: his dad probably owns over 10,000 books- none of him he reads, all of which sit in piles in the basement, completely forgotten about, and his mom has been collecting stuff for his sister’s future wedding for the past two years… even those his sister isn’t even close to getting engaged yet. I grew up with the mentality that you got rid of stuff that wasn’t in use, though. My parents hung onto a few memorable outfits from my infancy and childhood, and a few cherished toys, and that’s really it.

    When we first moved in together, we moved into a very large (1200 sq) apartment that we honestly didn’t need, since we needed room for all of the junk. But I think there were two things that really helped both of us to get rid of a lot of stuff:
    -We’ve moved… a lot. 4 different apartments in 4 years sounds like a lot of work (and it is), but it’s so worth it to know that we were able to really go through stuff and organize every year. Plus, the last move was across the country- which meant that we got rid of pretty much everything we knew we didn’t need.
    -Live in the smallest space you can handle. Going from 1200 square feet to 530 square feet was difficult, but we’re both much more conscious of what we collect. We pretty much have to live with a one in, one out rule… which is actually pretty awesome at the end of the day.

  20. My husband’s mother is a bit of a hoarder with everything…furniture, clothes, art supplies, food. We rarely go to her house and certainly would never take the kids there. She has had issues with infestation and suffers from some mental illness too. Looking her tragic life, I understand much of it is related to her depression. My husband has become the most ruthless individual with stuff. Just last week he bagged up half of the kids toys. His mother’s history has had the opposite effect on him. My parents are neat freaks and my dad is basically OCD with cleaning and germs and things like that. Their house is perfection but we also feel uncomfortable there as we don’t pick up enough or leave a shampoo bottle in the bath tub (wtf?) I lean toward pack rat and again my parents have had the opposite effect on me. It is a balance with my husband and I respecting each other’s space and things but made easier with understanding where we came from.

  21. I’m currently trying to break myself of the habit of keepsake hording… my strategy was to buy one of those decorative boxes from the craft store (ikea has them too) and anything that doesn’t already have a place or doesn’t fit in the box has to go… this way I can still keep all my old photos and poems, and other little keepsakes tucked away in the box, but I’m not keeping every dried rose given to me at every high school play I ever worked on…

  22. thank you! I don’t know if my parents qualify as full-on hoarders, but they are definitely slobs with with way too many pets (at one point there were three cats and six dogs – and usually a litter of puppies). I have to explicitly ask for clean sheets on the bed I’ll be sleeping on, and a clean bathroom to shower and give my kid a nightly bath. The first time I asked for the clean bathroom, I got a clean tub and toilet, but a floor so filthy that when I stepped on it with wet feet, they were caked with MUD before I left the bathroom. I realized that I needed to be explicit with them about what I needed to be cleaned in order to feel comfortable bringing my toddler into their house. (Clean bathroom, with no hair in the sink, a clean floor, clean towels, clean sheets, a clean place with no pet hair or dangerous clutter for my kid to play.) Thankfully my parents aren’t easily offended.

  23. Thank you so much for sharing this! My MIL is a hoarder and it is SO hard to navigate this issue. (It doesn’t help that she has other psychological issues)

    I agree that gifts are a hard issue. Because she sees emotional attachment to gifts, she expects us to be emotionally attached to every gift she gives us. Times when she visits our house will frequently be met with inquiries of “where is the ______ I gave you?” This can be difficult because often we’ve gotten rid of the item already. Giving her gifts is hard too. I think that gift cards to restaurants are a great option. I realize that they *could* become lost, but so could any other gift that we give her

  24. @Moni… Not to be discouraging, but be careful about hoping that having a grandchild will change a hoarder’s behavior. My MIL has gotten worse, not better in the 7 years since our first child was born. We have 4 now, and my children have never set foot in her house. I will not allow it for any reason. The emotional/psychological disorder that causes my MIL’s hoarding has not gone away just because she has grandchildren, if anything, it gives her an excuse to go buy more junk. Things got really bad a year and a half ago when her refrigerator died but her squallor was too bad to move the old fridge out and get a new fridge in, so basically she had no way to keep food in her house. Finally, a year ago, when she needed to have her tonsils out, she had an excuse to move somewhere new (we *think* her house is paid off). She has now moved into a smaller apartment about 20 minutes away from her house. She managed to keep it clean-ish for the first 6 months or so of living there (although there was evidence that she had to do ‘big cleaning’ before we came over… her entire kitchen counters would be covered in freshly washed dishes right before we arrived), but last weekend, we went over and the ‘piles’ have started. Piles of mail, bills, etc. They have consumed her kitchen counters and dining table. So, it seems that this is just the beginning of a newly hoarded living space. She still owns her home and keeps one of her dogs there. I dread the day that she needs to go into assisted living and/or dies and we have to begin the process of cleaning and selling her house.

    • I think about that a lot. Not only are my in-laws terrible hoarders, but their house is in serious disrepair (huge cracks in the walls, the only thing holding the garage up is the hoard, practically), and dealing with that is not going to be fun.

    • That worries me to. I feel bad for thinking it but I know I am the one who is going to be sorting out MIL’s place when she dies or we have to put her into care and the thought of that horrifies me. Combined with what I know will be my partners want to keep everything that was his mums. She is not in the best of health either so I think this will happen within the next 1o years at the most.

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