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Is it Just Clutter or Is it a Hoarding Disorder?

dimly lit room exhibiting a hoarding disorder with clothing and other accessories stacked on top of each other in abundance

Editor’s Note: After reading the first chapter of Krista Larson’s book, Less is More, I was hooked. Her book provides readers a real view of the life of someone dealing with hoarding disorder. Her novel is honest, detailed, and based on a true story.

The beautiful thing is that as I peeked into this world, I didn’t find myself gawking at the character. Intrigued, yes. But because Krista’s life was personally affected by this disorder (and because she has done the hard work of finding peace and compassion), the book provides the reader with genuine perspective. It helps us understand the context of why hoarding disorder might begin and why it’s so difficult to overcome. But, what I love most about this novel is that Krista provides hope for a way out of the maze.

Q: Krista, why did you write this book?

In Less is More, I take the reader up to and through the life of a person with hoarding disorder. That was the life of my mother. I wanted to show how someone can wind up literally buried in their house, car, and/or other spaces where they live. In my mom’s case, it was numerous houses, garages, cars, a camper, and a motor home.

Q: Is there a difference between clutter and hoarding disorder?

Are there people who just accumulate a few too many things? Yes, of course. There are people who for whatever reason save more items than they should. We have all heard someone affectionately called a “pack rat.” There are others who just do not enjoy organizing and cleaning. Typically those folks also are not bothered by clutter. A “clutter bug” or “pack rat” may or may not be someone who suffers from hoarding disorder.

Q: What did hoarding disorder look like in your mom’s life?

Try to picture a person who shops every day of their life. After years of shopping almost daily and never parting with any possession, where does it all go? It fills up your house to a degree that you are walking through paths which resemble a maze. 

Conquering clutter will reveal the things that matter boardNow, imagine that person literally filling up an entire house and then just buying another house. The new house, for the first few months, remained nearly normal. Within several months, the new house is full. A few years later, another property was purchased. Meanwhile, with the houses filling up, that person acquires more cars, and a couple of campers.

Oh, and I do not want to forget the motor home my mom bought, which was situated near a nice lake just outside of town. My daughter and her cousin spent one or two nights with their grandma there. By the next summer, the motorhome was full, and inviting anyone inside would be embarrassing. All the while used cars are being bought, and those are also full.

Later in my mom’s life, she had the financial means to shop often. For the first 60 years of her life, she did not have the luxury of being able to afford and support such a habit. I believe her sense of financial stability only fueled the flames of her addictive personality. As time went on, she had depleted some of her retirement savings from shopping. When her financial means became slimmer, she began shopping at resale and Goodwill-type stores.

Q: How does a person get to this place?

According to my research, hoarding disorder is described as a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder often experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of items.

I read the following from Mayo Clinic which summed up my mom:

People with hoarding disorder may not see it as a problem, so getting them to take part in treatment can be challenging. But intensive treatment can help you understand how your beliefs and behaviors can be changed so that you can live a safer, more enjoyable life. […]

With hoarding disorder, items are usually saved because:

    • You believe these items are unique or that you’ll need them at some point in the future.
    • You feel emotionally connected to items that remind you of happier times or represent beloved people or pets.
    • You feel safe and comforted when surrounded by things.”

Another reason a person may hold onto more items than necessary is due to previous times in their life where they may have had very little, or even not enough to live a healthy and productive life. If you ever have the opportunity to visit with someone who remembers living through the great depression, they will happily share with you what “lean times” truly mean. One of my favorite stories of my grandmother’s was her hatching chicken eggs and selling the baby chicks to earn enough money to buy a new dress for her high school graduation. There are some very understandable reasons for preserving items that may someday prove useful.

Q: Are there varying degrees of hoarding disorder?

On my recent journey with my debut novel being published, I had the opportunity to speak with various people, many of whom have someone in their lives they consider a hoarder. I even spoke with those who were self-proclaimed hoarders. Typically, if someone did not know the depth of my mom’s disorder, I did not bother going into detail. I wanted to hear their stories. It became clear on the journey of sharing parts of my mom’s story just how common it is, with a huge degree of varying severity. There were some conversations where it became clear the person and I were not thinking about the situation from the same perspective or extent of the situation. 

An interesting difference between my mother’s situation and some people with hoarding disorder was that she did not save garbage. I have heard of and seen folks on TV shows who did not part with their garbage. My mom had a unique set of personality traits which included being a bit of a germaphobe. She always ate a hamburger with the paper still on, never touching the food with her hands. She left small piles of what we called her “fry tails,” which were the tiny tip of each French fry where she held onto it while eating.

Part of my mother’s routine was parking about a block away from any event, so that no one could see the inside of her car. I would occasionally see her car parked at a store in town, and I would take a quick peek and then just keep walking. For years, her car was cluttered, but not full to the ceiling. In those days, she often remarked that she kept her belongings below window level to prevent strangers from knowing she was traveling, also to prevent theft.

Later on, she abandoned that stance and just filled the car full clear to the top. My brother scolded her once, reminding her that with all the items piled in the front seat and sloping towards her, if she ever had to slam on the brakes, she would be injured. I can still picture the large foam cup in the door of her car which was stuffed full of paper wrapped straws. I only got those close-up looks once my mother was in an advanced stage of her terminal illness. She needed help getting out of her car, and so her piles were open for viewing.

Q: Did you try to help your mom find treatment?How to Declutter the Chaos In Your Home and Get Organized

In the early 2000s, The Oprah Winfrey Show was bringing on professional help for hoarders. In their episodes they showed both mental and emotional support, as well as physical help to deal with the “stuff.” I ended up in conversations with the show’s producers about my mom. When we got to the point where they asked for video of the inside of her home and of her talking about how the hoarding made her feel, my brother and I backed out. We were not looking to exploit her; we were looking for help.

We learned that lecturing a person with hoarding disorder is like telling a drug addict to just not do drugs, or telling someone who is clinically depressed to cheer up. It does not work that way. Throwing out their belongings only increases their stress level. With access to technology and resources in this day and age, the avenues for hoarding help are unlimited. Had our mom not run out of time, her story could have ended positively; and I believe others’ stories can too.

Q: What do you think is the root cause for hoarding disorder?

Through my own therapy, I learned that when a young person suffers trauma, typically between the ages of five and 15, they learn to cope by not talking and not feeling. That can serve them well until they get into their 30s or 40s, or beyond. By the time they get older, something must give. Typically they find themselves in a full-blown crisis after living and coping for decades. 

I also learned about intergenerational trauma. For example, grandparents may have experienced some or many things such as abuse, war, violence, PTSD, discrimination, oppression, sexism, immigration, physically strenuous jobs, alcohol misuse, substance dependencies, unemployment, or natural disasters. Parents may have experienced any or many repressed emotions, difficulty regulating emotions, immigration, discrimination, isolation, a work-oriented mindset, codependency, or untreated mental illness.

The mindset of a person suffering from this could include worrying about making mistakes and having difficulty making decisions or planning. One of the most common causes of hoarding is Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a mental condition triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Signs and symptoms of hoarding disorder include excessive accumulation of items with limited or no space to store them, difficulty parting with possessions of trivial value, and feeling upset if someone suggests throwing them out.

Q: What do you think triggered the disorder for you mother?

While there are people who suffer from hoarding disorder and may not have experienced intergenerational trauma or PTSD, my mother’s life was textbook soil for the growth of hoarding disorder. She was from a family of immigrants from Sweden. Being of Scandinavian descent, she was raised by stoic people, who typically did not show emotion or affection.

At the age of 14, she lost her father who died of a heart attack. At the age of 16, her boyfriend perished in a car crash. At the age of 17, her mother remarried and moved her to a new town. She was left to try and find friends as a new girl in a strange town and high school. Her first husband, and the biological father of my older brother, was emotionally abusive. My dad left her for another woman when I was 11 years old. After a year-long separation they were officially divorced when I was 12.

My older brother was 17 and my younger brother was seven. When my brother was 18, he was killed in a car crash. After finding happiness in her fiancé six years later, he died of a massive heart attack in her home just two days before Christmas.

Q: With so much sadness in your mother’s story, where have you found hope?

When Hope Is Your Bravest Choice

I am aware that going through the laundry list of my mother’s traumatic life events can be a bit of a downer. I firmly believe there is hope! The book tells a hopeful story of help through talk therapy and help through lucrative online sales of items. Although the turnaround of hoarding disorder was just a story for our family, I am extremely hopeful that it is very possible.

If I had it to do over, we would have kept searching until we found a great fit as a therapist for our mother, and for us. I did present the eBay selling idea to my mom that I wrote about in the book, but she dragged her feet and I did not push her. I believe if we had gotten to the point where she could see profits from her sales, she would have–for lack of a better term–become addicted to the selling.

There is help out there. If you or someone you love suffers from hoarding disorder, make it your mission to seek out help. It will be overwhelming. It will be a marathon not a sprint, but the rewards will be unmeasurable!

Q: What ultimately pushed you to write this novel?

I mentioned my mother’s terminal illness earlier. Unfortunately that illness took my mom three years ago. In my book, I tried to write her a better ending. I wrote about how she found a great therapist to help her. I wrote about how she turned her addiction to hoarding items into the thrill of making money by selling the items online. I dedicated the book to my brother, who shares the life experiences that only our mom, he, and I lived.

My goal with my debut novel was to dedicate it to my little brother and get it into print for him. After being so far down the self-publishing path, I did receive an author from a publisher. I elected to continue on my path and am happy I stuck to it. We both agree she is smiling down thinking of how her ending could have been happier. 

Resources for help with hoarding disorder:

Children of Hoarders
Children of Hoarders is a grassroots, all-volunteer, not-for profit organization run by adult children of hoarders for children of hoarders.

Hoarding Cleanup (800) 462-7337
Hoarding Cleanup supplies a nationwide directory of (fee-for-service) hoarding cleanup services and mental health providers specializing in hoarding behavior. Visit their website for information about webinars and other resources.

Address Our Mess, USA Hoarding Resources
Here you will find clutter cleanup, junk removal and hoarding cleanup services.

Steri-Clean, Inc. Hoarders.com
Here you will find free cleanup estimates.

Hoarding Disorder: Help for Hoarders
A trusted non-profit guide to mental health and wellness.

The International OCD Foundation
The International OCD Foundation holds an online hoarding disorder conference. Scholarships are available.

The Chicagoland Hoarding Task Force
Provides support, training, and consultation to agencies, departments, clinics and individuals who are committed to helping those impacted by hoarding and clutter in the Chicago area.

Books for individuals with hoarding disorder and/or their families:

Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding

The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, and Uncluttered Life

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

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

(Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, Grit and Grace Life will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain our own.)

Photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar/Unsplash.

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