Q. How does one declutter and simplify when they live with someone who is panicked by the mere thought of removing something of questionably dubious value that might be needed thirty years from now?
A. This is a really tough question because it sounds like the person you are dealing with is a hoarder. Hoarders are very different from your average person who is messy, or has some clutter. A hoarder has deep-rooted, psychological reasons for hoarding, and they experience the kind of panic that you describe, when faced with getting rid of stuff.
So I suggest this approach when dealing with a hoarder.
First – understand that hoarding is a serious disorder. You will need to find it within yourself to develop both compassion and patience for your hoarding partner. I acknowledge that this won’t be easy, but it’s the only way through your situation.
Second – educate yourself about hoarding. The more you understand, the easier it will be for you to support and encourage your hoarding partner. A great place to start is Hoarders Anonymous at www.hoardersanonymous.org and reading into how others have helped hoarders. I’ve included information from their website below.
Third, take care of yourself. While your hoarding partner cannot change overnight, that doesn’t mean you need to drive yourself nuts by living with the kind of clutter that a hoarder accumulates. Here are some ideas on how you can take care of yourself. After educating yourself about hoarding, you can have a compassionate and understanding talk with your partner, and hopefully get him to agree to make an appointment with a hoarding professional. A hoarding professional is not your average psychotherapist – its someone who specializes in helping hoarders.
Another way you can help yourself is by designating one room in your house for your hoarding partner to use for his stuff. Ideally, this should be a spare bedroom, garage, basement or whatever is available. It needs to have a door that you can close so you don’t need to look at the mess. Understand that your partner cannot throw things away without experiencing great distress and anxiety, so simply give him a room. Hopefully, with time and help, your hoarding partner will be able to let go of some stuff, but in the meantime, let him have a room.
Make two rules:
1. Any shared space in your house needs to be kept clutter free.
2. The room that you give to your hoarder must be kept in a safe condition. This means there cannot be items that pose a safety hazard such as tripping, and most importantly, the room needs to be kept free of items that could cause or inflame a fire.
Here is information from the Hoarders Anonymous website. I strongly encourage you to do further research by doing a Google search for “hoarding help” or “hoarding.”
“The Psychiatry Department at the University of California describes hoarding as a disorder characterized by one’s difficultly discarding items that appear to have little or no value. Hoarding is not simply an issue of aesthetics, but also can result in serious threats to the health and safety of the hoarder and anyone else who spends time in her home.
Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder, deeply ingrained in the hoarder’s mind and habits. While it is vital that a hoarder receive support, you must recognize that you cannot “heal” her. A hoarder’s condition can improve with cognitive therapy and sometimes medications to treat an underlying condition, but as her friend your primary role will be as her supporter.
Hoarders are considered to have a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). While most people with OCD never hoard, those who do can have a difficult time unraveling their hoarding habit with their compulsive need to save things. Here’s how you can help.
The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) offers information and other resources on its website. You can read through to get a better idea of what your friend is dealing with as well as what she faces as she attempts to control the disorder. Maryland Hoarding Cleanup also offers resources for those dealing with the problem.
Provide Practical Support
- Help your friend find a professional in your area that deals specifically with hoarding issues, recommends IOCDF. Taking the first step can be the toughest. Offer to help her find someone she feels she can work with.
- If you are physically able, offer to help with the actual clean-up process when the time comes.
- Help your friend gather others who are willing to help with the clean-up. Give everyone an assignment. One person might be asked to find a way to dispose of the mess, while another goes on drink and food runs. Try to think of all those small details that she may be too overwhelmed to remember.
- Do small things to let your friend know that you’re thinking of her. If you keep in mind how embarrassing a condition like compulsive hoarding is it, you can begin to understand how low her self-esteem is. She needs to know that you don’t judge her. Invite her over for a movie night, bring her a special coffee drink on occasion or find other ways to let her know she has a friend. Remind her that hoarding is just one component of her personality and not her entire identity.
Dig Deep for Patience
Psychology Today warns that patience is an integral part of helping a hoarder find a healthier way to live. While it would be wonderful if you could rent a dumpster and have everything out of the house by the end of the day, that’s not the way it normally works. Rather than expecting her to change her deeply entrenched behaviors overnight, be grateful for each tiny baby step she takes forward.
Understand That It Is a Process
The reason most hoarders say they began to keep unneeded items is because they thought maybe they would be valuable in the future or because they had sentimental value, reports The Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Even after her home is perfectly clean, your friend is still going to be dealing with the issues that led her to hoard in the first place. She has a great deal of work to do to get to the bottom of what’s causing her behavior, and can certainly use a friend during this time.
Please see my newer, updated post on hoarding where I’ve learned that hoarding is a serious psychological disorder. Find out what’s going on with your hoarder, and how you can help here.