How hoarding shows cured my hoarding

The tragic spectacle of mountains of junk made me finally throw out a decade's worth of old stuff

Published April 10, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

"It's just stuff." This is what my father told a reporter as he watched his condo burn down a year before his death. The reporter referred to him as "stoical," but I get it: Thanks to a faulty attic fan, his life was in flames and all he could do was stand there and watch. He had to be wondering which things he might lose, and how much it would bother him to lose them: The sweatshirt he wore in college? The book he was reading, beside the bed? Witnessing an inferno where your home once stood, the orange and red flames dancing against a clear blue sky, you might just feel awe at having escaped a fiery death. What does stuff matter, in that context?

But then this past Christmas at my mom's house in North Carolina, I struggled for weeks to sift through my father's old things, photographs of dozens of girlfriends I've never even met, old driver's licenses documenting the onset of middle age in his face, boxes of history books about the spread of Nazism mixed in with new age tomes about the flowering of self-love, reflecting his attempts to balance an interest in conquest and conflict with a desire for enlightenment. Fine to get rid of your own stuff, but how do you say goodbye to someone else's things without losing a piece of that person forever?

Shortly after trying (and mostly failing) to throw out some of my dad's old stuff, I began hoarding TV shows about hoarders and hoarding. There's something creepily cathartic about watching the extreme attachment some people have to their stuff. Each time I tune in for A&E's "Hoarders" and TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive," it sends me into a cleaning frenzy, rifling through my closets and driving big bags of old stuff to Goodwill. But what else can you do when the camera pans over a house filled with boxes and stacks and piles of useless stuff, clothes and papers and old dishes and stuffed animals and costume jewelry, all of it clogging up the hallways and rooms and kitchens until dust starts to accumulate and bad smells rise up from the junk and communities of flies and parasites and bed bugs move in, keeping adult children from ever visiting their parents and forcing one family with small children into a tent in the backyard?

Despite my own hoarding impulses and my reluctance to get rid of my father's things, my immediate response to this madness -- the mountain of stuff that's ruining these people's lives, separating them from each other, complicating simple day-to-day activities, requiring constant hurdling and reshuffling and restacking -- is to scream at the TV screen, "For God's sake, light a match and say goodbye to all of it! Go away for a weekend and hire someone to drag it away! Just get rid of it!"

But soon it becomes obvious that all of that stuff is a reflection of some great loss -- a husband who fell ill with heart cancer and died while awaiting a heart transplant, a fiancé who committed suicide unexpectedly, a lover who died in a car accident – then the difficulty of simply throwing it all out becomes clear. Instead of mourning the loss fully, the hoarder puts off saying goodbye.

And once the dead person's things don't leave the house, neither does anything else. The hoarder is stuck in a holding pattern. Perversely, though, new purchases are made to get the hoarder focused on new possibilities, each new thing representing a new escape fantasy: "We'll bake cookies together, me and the girls, and life will be the way it was." "We'll set up lounge chairs by the pool, and a table, and friends will come by and relax, just as Tom and I always planned we'd do when we retired." "I'll finish knitting this skirt." "I'll read this magazine article about cake decorating." "I'll learn more about Sudoku." The piles of stuff reflect a past that's lost and gone forever, but also hint at a hazy, imagined future that is constructed more from fantasy than from a practical sense of what's possible.

What's missing, for the hoarder, is the present. The present is a house packed with oozing piles of crap. The present is nothing but failure and shame and self-doubt and learned helplessness.

"Living in my apartment with so many things is really depressing, because lots of things I have have memories to them," admits Anne Thomas on "Hoarding: Buried Alive" of her place in New York City. "It's almost like something that weighs me down so that I can't move. I literally end up sitting there, pretty much paralyzed."

"I just think I died right along with Tom," says Janet on "Hoarders." Her husband of 32 years died two years earlier.

"I would survive much better if the house just burned down," Christina tells the "Hoarders" cameras, but she gets a little belligerent when anyone tries to mess with her stuff. "Things have been taken away from me in my life that I didn't want taken away," she says. Same here, but I still take out my trash, I feel like telling her. Still, Christina has my empathy until she won't let her poor teenage daughter throw out any clothes that don't fit her anymore. Christina insists that she needs to sort through all of it first.

Of course, Christina's resistance only gets worse when the professional organizer and the psychologist and the army of junk-removers driving big trucks converge on her house. Instead of remembering how much better it would be if her "house just burned down," she starts sorting through bags of trash, item by item, while everyone stands around and waits. It's this part of hoarding shows, when the hoarder in question sighs and wrings her hands and insists that she really does need that old magazine or this little girl's sweater or that box of knitting needles or this bag of 20-year-old shoes, that fills me with such palpable dread. Suddenly I think of the storage bin filled with old size-4 pants under my bed (who am I kidding?), among the dust bunnies. Suddenly I consider all of the sweaters I'll probably never wear again and the books I'll probably never read and the boots I haven't worn since I was 27 and the old rings in my jewelry box that I never liked in the first place.

At this point I inevitably turn off the TV and start rifling through my things, filling up bags with junk that I've held onto because I was feeling sentimental or because it seemed wasteful to give it away when I might need it someday, or my daughter might use it, or I might find some other hoarder to take it off my hands.

Thanks to hoarding shows, I've sloughed off stuff that I've been moving from one residence to another for well over a decade: SyQuest cartridges and old mix tapes and skirts that never fit right and old suitcases I don't use anymore. How could it have taken so long to get rid of such worthless junk? I haven't been accumulating that much new stuff, really, I've just been putting off making a final decision on the stuff that I'd mindlessly packed and unpacked and reshuffled for years without just saying: I don't need this, and I will never need this.

For me, guilt is a huge part of the equation. Somehow, throwing something away, even giving it to Goodwill, means that I'm being wasteful. What, you're too good for these old shoes (that you bought when you were 22 and still dressed like Blossom)? What, you can't keep wearing this perfectly good sweater (which is an ugly color, is missing several buttons, and doesn't fit you anymore)? Hoarding also seems to be a generational thing: If you have working-class or middle-class parents or grandparents who survived the Depression, it's tough to feel comfortable just giving stuff away, even if someone else might end up using it. My grandmother saved everything -- yogurt containers, rubber bands, metal juice bottle tops. She had bags and bags of plastic tubs and old magazines stuffing every room of her house, all of it destined for some craft project that was never to be. Eventually, I started to recognize the pangs of regret I got when I put things in bags to be given away. I would picture my mom or grandmother, shaking their heads. Giving away perfectly good stuff meant I was some kind of soulless yuppie.

The green movement and the digital age may have helped to reroute our thinking about possessions. As long as reusing and recycling include passing stuff along to other people who might want it more, as long as there's not much of a need for big boxes of photographs or old VCR tapes or walls filled with CDs, since all of these things can be reduced to a hard drive the size of your wallet, then maybe our environments can finally be uncluttered and unburdened by unnecessary bullshit.

Then again, our inability to get rid of certain things is sometimes tied to our hesitation to give up on some idea of ourselves: "I might still be a size 4 someday," says the 40-year-old size-8 mother. "I might still train for a marathon following this program in this 1998 issue of Runners' World Magazine, I might still learn something from my old philosophy books from college, I might still break out my old acrylic paints and read all of these back issues of the New Yorker." We all want to feel that our lives are filled with endless possibilities, that we have all the time in the world. Hoarding can be a way of denying that there's an end point to your timeline or boundaries around your opportunities.

But when I watch these hoarders, kvetching over this bag of yarn or that muffin tin, I think about the old black-and-white photographs you sometimes find at flea markets and estate sales, photos of a couple smiling on their couch, or of a gathering of women in a backyard, holding a miserable-looking baby, or of a girl sitting on a swing, a dog wandering through the grass nearby. These are someone else's memories that were packed away in boxes, in an attic or a basement, and when that person died, no one wanted them. No kids, no sisters, no spouse, no second cousins showed up and dragged these photographs away -- they were left in a pile somewhere, and now here they are, being sorted through by total strangers. How much stuff will I force my kids to sort through? How much of it will immediately be identified as worthless? How much of my stuff might end up like this, drifting through the hands of strangers? When you think about your stuff that way, 90 percent of it suddenly begs to be boxed up and driven to Goodwill immediately.

My mother, for one, doesn't want any more stuff, ever. She calls to remind us not to get her presents for her birthday or for Christmas, and she's actively trying to kill all of her houseplants. The thought of an empty closet, an empty attic, a house with nothing but a few comfortable chairs, a handful of books and one or two of her very favorite things, fills her heart with joy. A life with less stuff is a peaceful, unencumbered life, as far as she is concerned.

This summer when I'm home, I'll help my mom by finally sorting through the last of my dad's things and getting rid of everything but one small box, which I'll take home with me, to put in one of my (now much emptier) closets. I'll probably keep the drivers' licenses with my dad's weird self-conscious expressions, and some of the old coins, and a few angry letters he wrote, to colleagues and to the local newspaper. It's just stuff, I know, but it still feels important to me.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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