First, there was reality TV show Hoarders about so-called “hoarders” whose homes were so cluttered they required professional intervention. Then, years after that program introduced hoarding to the popular consciousness, there came the TikToks from cleaners who specialised in cleaning those kinds of messes. Both of these forms of media allowed viewers to gawk at and theorise about the people whose living spaces were filled to the brim with garbage, clothing, and knickknacks — and allowed some to wonder if they, too, might be a hoarder.
If you are among those who question whether your messiness (or the messiness of someone you love) qualifies as hoarding, let’s look at what hoarding really is and what you can do about your mess — whether you’re a true hoarder or not.
What is hoarding?
Hoarding disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, a hoarding disorder’s symptoms include a strong need to “save” possessions, inability to get rid of possessions, “extreme stress” about throwing things away, anxiety about the possibility of needing items in the future, uncertainty about where to put things, distrust of others touching things, living in unusable spaces because of all the clutter, and withdrawing from friends and family.
There are a few risk factors you can look for, too, like whether you’re related to someone with hoarding disorder, sustain a brain injury that triggers your need to save items, have a traumatic life event, have a mental disorder, or experience uncontrollable buying habits or an inability to pass up free stuff, even if it’s as simple as a coupon.
If you relate to the above criteria and your living situation is unhealthy or unsafe, you could consider calling your doctor. Treatment usually includes cognitive-behavioural therapy or antidepressants, and a combination of the two can be employed.
There is help: Hoarding disorder has been recognised as a distinct mental illness since 2013 and while only two to 5% of people have the diagnosis, there has been research into possible causes. Some believe it may be its own form of obsessive-compulsive disorder while others have concluded it could be related to ADHD or dementia. Talking to a medical professional about hoarding and any other issues can be helpful.
What’s the difference between hoarding and being messy?
Everyone can be disorganized from time to time. The keys to knowing if you’re just being a little messy or experiencing a genuine disorder are in the details. The National Association of Professional Organisers’ Regina Lark told WebMD in 2014 that hoarding is displayed when someone has a massive amount of items: “They don’t have one can opener, they have 40.”
Again, safety is key here. If your home is cluttered but it’s not dangerous, you might just be messy. If showers are unusable because of clutter, stairs are full of barriers, you’re tripping over things, and fire exits are blocked, that’s an issue and you should consider whether you may be a hoarder. Remember, too, that an accumulation of flammable objects can be a fire hazard.
What can you do?
Even if your clutter issues don’t rise to hoarder status, they are still issues. If you’re embarrassed to have friends over or keep buying duplicate items because you can’t find their counterparts among the stuff you already have, it can be frustrating. There are cleaning services that specialise in both hoarding situations and major clutter, although they can be expensive.
If you’re just hesitant, enlist a friend or family member for help. Someone who cares for you and is nonjudgmental is ideal, even if their only function here is to hang out with you while you clean and keep you on task. Grab a garbage bag and get to tossing, starting with any food waste and piles of unneeded receipts, junk mail, and other papers. Clothing you don’t wear, and items you purchased long ago but haven’t used are things you can probably donate.
Per WebMD, it’s also important for you to make note of your habits. When you come home, where do you put your keys? When you take off your clothes at the end of the day, where do you put them? Taking stock of the things you do subconsciously and actively working to fix them once you have a solid understanding can be helpful. Once you realise you toss your keys on the kitchen table, the counter, the couch, or wherever else, make a point to start putting them in one location every time. Designate a laundry bag or hamper for your bedroom and consciously work to get your dirty clothes into it each night. It takes time to form a new habit, but once you get your place cleaner, you’ll need those habits to maintain the space.
Even if you don’t relate to the symptoms of hoarding disorder above, it might be worth it for you to talk to a therapist. Here is how you can find one, even on a budget. Remember, a lot of people struggle with clutter and disorganization. You’re not alone; you just need to figure out why you’re doing this, what’s stopping you from cleaning up, and whether you need some outside help.