I'm pretty sure my partner and I are hoarders, or least well on our way. We have one entire room in our house that's too full of clutter to walk through — a library of junk. It's not like we can spare the space. We live with our 3-year-old and two dogs in a 1,200-square-foot house, but it feels much smaller. The junk room door is always closed. My daughter doesn't even know we have a third bedroom.
What's in there? Comic books. Textbooks. A shoe collection. Costumes. Sewing notions. Slightly used wrapping paper. Old photos. Plastic bugs. Real dead bugs lovingly shellacked with nail polish. Pulp fiction. Action figures. Notebooks. Items carelessly chewed by long-dead pets. Wine goblets. Elvin goblets. Approximately 15 gas masks.
The junk room door is always closed. My daughter doesn't even know we have a third bedroom.
The rest of the house isn't much better. Our piano, last tuned during the Reagan administration, sits in the living room and doubles as a dresser, piled high with shirts and shorts, bathing suits and belts. Our entire living room is draped with haberdashery, and more clothes pile up in the bedrooms like snowdrifts, waist-deep. The floor is paved with plastic children's toys. The kitchen table trembles with the burden of books, papers, and an archive of preschooler art projects.
Throughout the house we are haunted by outdated technology. Cords, keyboards, cellphones, monitors, disks, and drives lurk on shelves and in closets. Their physical remnants are revenants we cannot part with, unwanted corpses carrying ghosts of our former selves.
And then there are my anxiety annexes, a pair of derelict trailers located on our property. Neither one is inhabitable, so now they double as storage space for all our endless stuff. We have a lot of stuff.
In the past year I have stopped collecting the oddities that catch my eye. When I spy an irresistible treasure, I feel the tug of attraction, but also the burden of my belongings. There's little joy in acquisition these days; I am already overwhelmed by an avalanche of ownership.
What is hoarding?
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in May 2013, is the first to list hoarding as a discrete disorder, something apart from other compulsions.
The hallmark of hoarding is an irrational emotional attachment to inanimate objects. Imagine all your furnishings are puppies, vulnerable creatures whose well-being you are responsible for. To take something to the thrift store is akin to dropping off a puppy at the pound. It might find a good home and thrive, or it might sit, sad and unwanted, until an ignoble demise is deemed the most humane option.
One aspect of the disorder can be crippling shame. Some hoarders will go out of their way to keep friends, family, and even maintenance workers away from their homes. They would rather store food in coolers than call in a refrigerator repairman.
My partner can't give anything away because he believes no one would love it as much as he does
We say we hate the mess, but my partner and I both contribute to it. The mouse bones, matchboxes, and insect carcasses — all mine. A treasure trove of tiny wonders. Twenty-year-old college textbooks, piles of newspapers from the 1980s, and every single sneaker from fifth grade and up — those are his.
My partner can't give anything away because he believes no one would love it as much as he does. And he's right. Even though his beloved items sit dry-rotting on a shelf, they are imbued with a significance no one else would bother to bestow.
If he has the sentiment, I have the shame. I rarely invite anyone to our house and I never host play dates for our daughter. The thought of doing so triggers a squirming disquiet, a gnawing unease. I keep people I love at arm's length. I tell myself I am waiting for an unspecified moment in the future when my house is tidy enough to entertain. Yet the process of cleaning means finding a new home for every single item that's displaced. The task seems Sisyphean.
What it's like to clean up after a hoarder
Brendan is the property manager for a 240-unit apartment complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Brendan is not his real name, and the apartment complex is purposely unnamed, because he worries his stories could cost him his job.) In his decade on the job he has encountered three secret hoarders and suspects many more go undetected.
He found a woman dead last summer amid her collection of more than 80 backpacks, each carefully stuffed according to a very specific formula: receipts on one side, rubber bands on the other, rolls and rolls of plastic bags in the middle. All full to bursting. The woman's sister later came in from out of town to clean up the apartment, but she was quickly overwhelmed.
"It is so hard, so overwhelming, because you take out those first ten 60-gallon trash bags and you can't tell you did anything," Brendan said.
The sister ended up hiring a professional — and getting an industrial dumpster. Cleaning out the apartment took two months.
Still, that wasn't the worst case of hoarding Brendan has witnessed. The worst — and the first — he came upon by accident, when he noticed that a missing doorplate on an upstairs apartment had been replaced with cardboard. He rang the bell and got no answer, but the door was unlocked, so he tried to poke his head in. The door barely budged. When he craned in to get a look, he saw the entire room filled with trash, so much that he imagined a horde of bums had taken over the apartment.
I rarely invite anyone to our house, and I never host play dates for our daughter
Brendan called his brother Lucas for backup. Lucas went in first, carrying a camera and a walkie-talkie and brandishing a baseball bat. The trash covered the floor in every direction. Looking carefully, Lucas could make out faint indentations where footsteps had formed pathways through the chaos.
The old woman came out screeching, crawling over a pile of garbage on her hands and knees with her long white hair streaming down her face like an apparition in a horror film.
"What are you doing in here?" she demanded. Lucas dropped the baseball bat and fled.
But Brendan didn't run. He knew her, not as a creeping terror but as the friendly German woman who bicycled everywhere and always paid her rent on time.
"Eva, what's going on, what is this?"
"It's none of your business," she said. "It's my apartment." Looking around, he had to disagree.
"Eva, this is my business."
The apartment was so full they couldn't stand upright. They crouched atop the piles, just an arm's length from the ceiling. In the corners the trash towered even higher.
"You know like in a pizza box, how the grease is?" Brendan asked me. "That's what the ceiling looked like, expanding grease stains because she had piled it so high at the edges of the wall."
Eva collected old newspapers, granola bars, and cereal boxes, stuffing them into every crevice in the apartment. After more than a decade of collecting, she'd found extra space by filling the oven, the dishwasher, and the bathroom.
Brendan asked her where she showered.
"I go to the YMCA," she replied.
She could, however, use the toilet in her own home. "She'd cleared a little area," Brendan told me. "If you stuck your legs straight out you could sit on the trash and on the toilet and be able to flush it."
He told her she had to clean up. The entire apartment was a fire hazard. When it became apparent she couldn't part with any of it, he started clearing it out himself. He hired guys to help him, and every day they'd fill up bags and bags of trash, slowly unearthing the ruins of her living space.
"When we turned over one of the couches, the bottom ripped and mice poured out," said Brendan. "And this was deep down. We didn't know there was any furniture at first because there was so much garbage in there you couldn't see couches."
Brendan spent more than a year trying to help her, sorting through the trash, hauling bag after bag after bag to the heavy-duty commercial dumpster he rented just for her. She couldn't fathom why he was throwing so much away.
"They'll never make this one again," she said about a newspaper he wanted to toss. "Why are you telling me to throw it away?'"
Neighbors told him she would wait until dark before climbing into the dumpster to retrieve what he'd discarded and haul it back to her apartment, each night undoing as much of his work as she could. He finally gave up and asked her to move. It took weeks to clean out her apartment after she left. Neighbors said she still kept coming back to the dumpster by night, piling the bags on her bike and pedaling off to reassemble her nest in her new home.
Brendan says he's begun to scrutinize his own habits. Until recently, he was an avid collector of classic toys from the '70s and '80s. Now he's more ruthless about culling his collection, selling off items and making it a point to not replace them.
"Sometimes I'd buy a toy and bring it home and realize I already had it. I don't even know I have what I have. You start to realize how futile it is to collect things."
In the spirit of scrutinizing our own habits, my partner and I schedule a consultation with a professional home organizer. I plan to be at work when she arrives, so I'll show up halfway through her two-hour visit. I'm hoping she'll have seen the worst without me, but I also want to pick her brain, to use her experience to triangulate our dysfunction, to find out where we fall on the spectrum from lazy to crazy.
I imagine myself asking, "On a scale of friendless germaphobe to recluse-crushed-by-newspapers, how would you rank us?" But when I come home she isn't there. My partner says she never showed. Our enclave remains unexplored by experts, and my questions linger unanswered.
Are we hoarders, or just really, really messy?
My partner doesn't believe that we are hoarders. He thinks we're just untidy. And that may be the case. Like everyone with an internet connection, some free time, and an unhealthy level of curiosity, I've done online research to self-diagnose. The best of what I found was a questionnaire from the Hoarding Center, part of the website of the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation. The questionnaire is for social workers and mental health professionals conducting home visits to assess how compulsive hoarding impacts quality of life.
It measures access to utilities and appliances in the home. Do the stove, sink, fridge, furnace and tub work? Is there electricity and a working toilet? It asks about unsafe conditions — is there rotten food, insect infestation, animal or human feces? Are there obvious fire hazards? How easily can emergency personnel move through the rooms?
By almost every measure we are in the clear. Our house is odd but functional. Our collections are contained. But if we aren't hoarders, if we don't fit a medical model or reality TV profile, then we can claim no social exemptions for our behavior or the unorthodox appearance of our home. The locus of control reverts back to the individual, raising the perfectly reasonable question: Why can't you just get your shit together?
As a woman, a mother, and — so help me — a homemaker, I feel pressure to own this problem in a way my partner never will. Yet perversely, I am more loath to address it. (It wasn't me who called up our so-called organizer, or rescheduled with her again and again — it was my partner.) I feel a helplessness I cannot express, an organizational aphasia.
Though we may not currently rank on a clinical scale, hoarding is a long game. Twenty years from now we may be up to our necks in clutter instead of merely knee-deep. I've read that the trauma of loss can trigger more compulsive collecting or halt any effort at maintaining the appearance of normalcy. When something goes wrong, lifelong tendencies can cascade into full-blown chaos. I envision our quirky collections and untamed clutter as precarious buildings atop a fault line.
Yet not every hoarder ends up dead in a pile of backpacks. Surely some find a way to live in stasis with their stuff, collections protected but not running wild. How will my partner and I ensure our clutter never reaches the ceiling? Perhaps we draw a line on the wall, a high-water mark. "If detritus exceeds this limit, seek help immediately." (Though I can say with certainty we won't be calling the organizer back. After all, she canceled three times.)
Hoarding is a long game. In 20 years we may be up to our necks in clutter instead of knee-deep.
We don't have an action plan — no 10-point agenda to avoid death by backpack. In my more desperate moments I dream of casting off this house and its contents like a shell I've outgrown, then sidling, crablike, into a larger location with plenty of room for new collections.
But we're stuck here for now. We've recently begun to take steps in the right direction, hauling away scrap metal from the yard and digging snowdrifts of clothing out of the corners. But there's no clean and tidy ending, no domestic bliss. It's a constant battle.
The twin tenets of hoarding — sentiment and shame — feed upon each other. There's the drive to collect that puts you outside the norm. Then a shrinking from social contact as your living conditions deteriorate. Finally, the pervasive isolation that leaves you stranded with your items, which, in turn, become even dearer, because that's all you have.
One thing all Brendan's hoarders had in common was isolation. Perhaps the best medicine is to nurse those social ties and rehabilitate relationships to prevent the kind of loneliness that makes possessions seem more valuable than people.
It seems, then, that my partner and I must learn to open our doors a little wider, to usher in friends and acquaintances, at least while my daughter is growing up in this household. We need to make an odd but welcoming space with room for tea parties, play dates and sleepovers. But once she's grown, all bets are off. There's a good chance our collections will run rampant.
Elizabeth Friend is a radio producer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is a co-creator of Audio Under The Stars, a summer-long audio festival. You can follow her on Soundcloud and Twitter @efriend or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.