Note that I'm not an expert on this subject—at best, I'm an "instant expert" from reading a few books and doing a little research. But since Sunday so many people have mentioned to me privately and publicly that they share some of the characteristics I wrote about yesterday, that I thought I'd clarify this question a bit more: what's hoarding and what's not?
You're not a hoarder just because you have a lot of stuff. My guy the expert from the A&E show, Brendan McDaniel, says "hoarding" is defined not as the amount of possessions you have, but whether it interferes with your life and, especially, whether it jeopardizes your safety.
People with lots of possessions are fine if they can keep them organized. I once visited the photographer Arnold Crane in his penthouse apartment by the lake in Chicago and he had thousands of items from many collections displayed—it was a like a miniature museum. But the items were displayed beautifully and the whole place was fastidiously orderly and perfectly clean as far as I could tell. We had no problem moving around the apartment or using the furniture. He's not a hoarder, at least not on the basis of what I saw of his place.
The diagnostic criteria for hoarding are things like, are you able to use your rooms for the purposes they're intended for? Where that's concerned, the most extreme case I saw on the show featured a man with a wife and four young children whose large foursquare home had an infestation of bedbugs. He was told he needed to clean the clutter out the house in order to fumigate it, but, rather than do that, he set up a tent in his yard and moved his family into it. And he had a whole rationale worked out about how people pay good money to go camping but that his family "enjoyed" camping right there at home. And freezing temperatures were on the way! The show joined him at that crisis point. I think everyone (well, everyone except that guy) will agree that that's not normal behavior.
One young adult woman had to move out of her own bedroom and sleep in her mother's bed when her mother's things invaded her room and she (the daughter) could no longer use it. Other hoarders haven't seen the top of their dining room tables for years. One mother and her child lived in a 6x10' space in the middle of a 3-bedroom house, doing everything in that space, from eating to sleeping. Several hoarders on the show could no longer use their own bathrooms—one woman borrowed buckets of water from a neighbor's spigot to use to flush her toilet—another woman used adult diapers to defecate in, and then kept the filled diapers, because they were "part of her" and she didn't feel right parting with them. The cleaners removed 3,000 pounds of full diapers from her house.
When you think about it, whether you've got a problem with this or not, the more room you devote to stuff, the less room there is for you. Hoarders effectively reduce the size of their own living spaces. The book Stuff recounts some cases in which hoarders were asked to draw plans of their homes, and they drew maps of narrow pathways or left whole rooms out of the floorplan, simply because the room was so full of stuff it couldn't be entered. It becomes like not having that room at all.
Other people have interference in their lives such as: they or their children cannot invite guests into the home; their spouse separates from them or divorces them because of their living conditions; they get into fights or disputes with neighbors or authorities; they get evicted from housing and become homeless.
Less spectacular criteria include things like: can you find things when you need them? Are your belongings stored such that they are safe, or are you ruining them by keeping them where they are? I personally have had an issue with not having any clear flat surfaces to work on when I want to do a project. An old girlfriend of mine used to sort her laundry on her bed, and sometimes there wasn't room in the bed for her—she would have to push the mass of clothes back and sleep uncomfortably on a narrow strip at one edge.
I realized only a day or two ago that I had become launched on a career of hoarding cameras without really even realizing it. As I determined what had to go yesterday, I first decided to keep only three, then expanded that number to five, and have ended up keeping seven—which, of course, is more cameras than anyone sensibly needs. Besides those listed for sale yesterday, I have two antiques (both Zeisses—and neither of which I'm counting among the "seven" I'm keeping), three lesser models that I'm going to put on Ebay, and two or three junkers or "repairables." They weren't getting in my way, but I had clearly gone more than a few steps down a road I didn't even realize I was on. Now, according to the criteria, if those were kept in nice condition and displayed in a clean and orderly fashion, there would be no problem. But let's just say that the camera cabinet was not in good order. I've been working on that today.
Still, the major criteria for hoarding is this: are you jeopardizing your health or safety, or that of children or pets? It doesn't happen often, but it's not ususual for hoarders to die because they become trapped in their homes—the fate of the prototypical Collyer brothers*. They get buried under an avalanche of stuff, they fall and can't get up, a fire occurs in the home and they can't get out easily, or they have a medical emergency and the emergency crews can't get in to administer aid. Or, they get diseases because of bugs, vermin, or rotting food. Things like that. Ironically, some people who hoard animals (the classic "cat lady" for example) perceive themselves as helping the animals, but they're really hurting them because they can't care for them properly and the conditions become so poor that the animals are at risk.
So, bottom line, some people do just have a lot of stuff—but that doesn't automatically make them hoarders.
Mike the non-expert
P.S. I'm still swamped with work today, so "Book o' the Week" will appear tomorrow. I hope.
*The article mentions that the white Collyer brothers stayed in Harlem as the neighborhood turned African-American. Curiously, my mother once lived next to a man who was the exact opposite. She had a house in Georgetown, D.C., a fashionable and expensive neighborhood in the nation's capital. The neighborhood had formerly been slums, "gentrified" in a process begun by Jacqueline Kennedy in the very early 1960s. But my mother's neighbor, who was black and not well to do, had never left. And he, too, was a hoarder—his house, like the Collyers', was stuffed full of stuff. He was a companionable if grumpy old fellow who I chatted with on many occasions (although he had a memorable eccentricity: on some days he just would not speak to anyone at all, even his son). Apropos my comments yesterday, I can picture his face, his cataracts which were worse in one eye than the other, his house, and where he used to sit on his front steps in the shade of a streetside tree, but of course I can't recall his name. I presume the situation was a bonanza for his son, because once the old guy passed away the house would have been worth a large fraction of a million dollars—or maybe even more than a million.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Robert: "My wife and I have agreed regarding all the clutter in the house: the one who dies first, wins."
Mike replies: Macabre, but funny!
Featured Comment by Nolan: "A small correction Mike: No one gets bed bugs (two words) because they're slobs; you get bed bugs by carrying them into your house after which they'll find where you sleep at night and start eating. People who are unclean and/or cluttery often times don't notice they have an infestation for a variety of reasons; they think bed bugs aren't real, they don't change their sheets, the bed is surrounded by crap, etc, however such conditions don't give you bed bugs, they just flourish because it takes people forever to notice them between their belongings. The problem with saying a person had bed bugs because they're a slob is it creates and perpetuates a stigma that undermines the reality of the situation; they affect everyone everywhere, and going forward it's likely that you and everyone you know will have to deal with bed bug activity first hand, so now is the time to declutter and educate yourself about them. I am a pest management technician with five years of experience under my belt. I have extensive training in bed bugs, directly from Gail Getty and Jerome Goddard, two of the foremost experts in the world."
Mike replies: Thanks Nolan. I modified the wording of the post a bit to reflect this information.
Featured Comment by Christopher Lane: "Mike, Interesting that we should intersect yet again. While you were cleaning up, so was I. As a result, I have a great collection of pristine photo books for sale. All hardcovers have dust jacket protectors. Many are way under going price. Most were recomended on this very website, Sorry, no Outside/Inside (I wish). Here's the list."