The author, like many family members, struggled to fathom his aunt’s hoarding compulsion. Here, he relates his confusion and how he eventually came to an understanding that enabled him to recognize the problem and then get the clean-up help she needed.
The Hoarder Story
It had been ten years since I’d been in my aunt’s house. When I knocked on her door she called for me to come in. I walked down the front hallway and immediately thought, “Why is it so dark in here?” But I put it out of my head for a moment and continued to the living room where she was sitting.
I’ll never forget walking into that room and seeing my elderly aunt sitting at a folding card table. She was playing a game on her smartphone. There was a red puddle of something—it turned out to be Kool Aid—on the floor beneath her chair. Her bare feet were splashing it in absentmindedly as if she had no idea. She looked up and her pleasure at seeing me was genuine. The state of her home didn’t seem to be on her mind at all.
That’s when I realized why it was so dark. I couldn’t see the windows. There were piles of newspapers and boxes blocking the giant double windows in that room. I went back into the hallway to double check. Sure enough, there were bolts of quilt fabric covering every pane. She just hadn’t had anywhere else to put them, which I would see as I went through the house, so she had draped them over her main source of natural light.
I’d never seen anything like this. Every room was the same. I was sad and confused, but mostly just bewildered that it didn’t seem to bother her. I’d never been the tidiest person, but I’d never seen such a mess. And she was a moderately well-to-do person.
Later I would hear someone say, “People never fight about money. They fight about what money means.” And because we all bring different histories to a relationship of any kind, money means something different to all of us.
There was no fight to be had with my aunt about all of her stuff. Ultimately, when her family got involved, the only relevant question was “What does all this stuff mean to you?”
It wasn’t like she had cluttered her house with luxury goods and blocked the windows with stacks of expensive Tiffany lamps. Most of it wasn’t junk, either. It was just…stuff. Tons and tons of stuff.
It felt like it couldn’t be real, but, if you’re not a hoarder, you can’t make it make sense. The fact that you wouldn’t hoard is irrelevant.
When I saw the distress it would eventually cause her to try to get rid of things, it broke my heart. I realized that I didn’t have to understand it. I just had to understand how real it was to her. That realization gave us all a better foundation for the difficult discussions that eventually led to the hard-won, excruciatingly gradual improvement in her home.
Compassion is crucial when supporting a hoarder. Try to understand what it means to the hoarder. Then you’ll be in a much better position to help.
It’s real, even if it seems unbelievable.
How to Help a Hoarder
Families and friends may recognize the problem, but often don’t know where to turn for support. Recent media exposure to the problem of hoarding, including the A&E show, Hoarders, with Matt Paxton, has helped to make more people aware of the stages of hoarding and the accessibility of help. Hoarding disorders are better understood and less of a “dirty little secret” and there is relief in knowing that help IS available.
If you, or someone you love, need help with a hoarding situation, call ServiceMaster National Capital Restoration at 855-957-6627.