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.