The hell of hoarding


Many months ago, my parents set down the law: armed with boxes of my childhood memorabilia, they informed me that their shed would no longer serve as storage for their offspring.

This was amid one of their episodic spring cleans following the realisation that sometimes some people die under piles of their own things only to be found weeks later half eaten by cats, a la the Collyer brothers; that there's evidence to suggest hoarding is a genetic predisposition; and that members of our family indulge that predisposition.

In recent weeks, preparing for a long-term overseas trip, I've had to confront these realities myself. But back then, presented with that pile of boxes that only marginally increased my number of unnecessary possessions, I was none the wiser.

I opened the boxes and fingered through the old letters and postcards from friends from primary school, merit certificates, love letters and birthday cards, then positioned the boxes under my bed where I wouldn't have to acknowledge their existence again. Until I next moved house.

When I did move house, the inconvenience of all my things revealed itself. Among my possessions was 100% Hits '99 (a great compilation for its day), a dressing gown I had owned for over ten years whose fibre had eroded beyond practicality, and a stack of vintage National Geographics with fetishised pictures of nude and noble savages. I reluctantly sifted through the lot, filling bags for trash and charity.

I threw away loads of stuff during that move, none of which I actually missed — and still managed to completely fill my new bedroom and partial hallway with stuff that had no practical application in my day-to-day existence.

I found an old suitcase of art supplies I had lugged with me in and out of three houses and barely opened. (Just because I don't paint doesn't mean I won't one day — hoarder logic.) Inside the case, among the hundreds of pencils, paint tubes and brushes was a plastic bag with something like a limp rat in it.

I was shocked for the few seconds it took me to recollect that it was not actually a dead animal but a full head of my own hair from the time I shaved my head, around two years earlier.

I imagine that when I stuffed a plastic bag with human hair, I had thought there might be some appropriate ritual to observe before parting with it. Unfortunately I'm not ceremonially inclined — the sacred opportunity failed to arise, and the hair bag ended up buried under gouaches.

Yes, I am as embarrassed as I ought to be. It should be noted here that my parents did encourage me to collect drying-machine lint in my youth. Society is to blame.

There is internal logic to hoarding. You tell yourself an object may have a use, some day. You also think that seeing value in an object that other people can't see makes you resourceful. Potentially, this is true. But for the most part, the acquisition, transport, and storage of so many things is not economical; it is burdensome.

The instinct for hoarding might seem as though it is linked to survival — an urge to hold onto things for less fruitful times. But there is no real evidence that compulsive hoarding is a response to material deprivation.

Hoarders exist in all cultures and classes, with records of hoarder-types dating back to the Roman Empire. Food hoarding also exists in animal communities. Around two-thirds of all families have a hoarder, and hoarders themselves have more first-degree relatives who save excessively than do non-hoarders. Our zany hoarding grandparents were not doing so because of the Great Depression.

I'm not a real hoarder by any account — I can throw things away and not think of them again. But whenever I see an empty jar, I imagine the endless possibilities for its future life: pickle jar, sewing jar, terrarium.

Now, on the eve of a long trip overseas, I have finally purged my belongings. For the first time ever, I'm down to a suitcase and four small boxes.

Getting there was more confusing than painful. The tough questions were asked: Has my lint collection served any real function? Am I actually going to make a macramé light-fitting with that rope? Not knowing the protocol in dealing with old photos of people I no longer see, I grabbed handfuls and stuffed them in a garbage bag.

Finally ridding myself of the sheer physical weight of objects unlocked a sense of freedom that I don't wish to bury under piles of things again. 

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer and a past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, hoading



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Existing comments

Thank you Elena Savage for your article here. It seems to be one of three or four on the theme of hoarding that I have read lately, particularly on Buddhist oriented web sites. Maybe hoarding is a sign of our times : fear, uncertainty & so on. I note your self assessment that, " I'm not a real hoarder by any account — I can throw things away and not think of them again. " I'd guess you till felt a sense of lightness & relief after the de-cluttering event nevertheless ! I know a few people living in three bedroom houses who eat sitting on the couch with plates of food sitting on their knees because there is no room anywhere else. Now that is serious hoarding !

David HICKS | 20 January 2012  

All very well until the Tax Office harasses you about something in your 2007 tax return, or Centrelink wants a record of your payments, or you need to quote the receipt number for a bill you paid six months before, or you have to find the docket to return the DVD someone got you... I find that discarding old Christmas and birthday cards - even ones with nothing more written on them than "Happy X, from Y" - is regarded in Australia as a transgression only slightly less severe than discarding newspapers with Kim Jong-Il's photo on them is regarded in North Korea. Until that changes, the sheds will stay full, I fear.

Rod Blaine | 20 January 2012  

Hoarding: the latest findings are that hoarding is connected with "inatentiveness" not OCD.

Valery | 10 February 2012  

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