Many people with mental health conditions, ADHD, and chronic illness deal with hoarding tendencies. Our relationship with stuff can be incredibly complicated and overwhelming.
This is the story of my family and my struggle with hoarding.
Do you know the difference between hoarding and collecting? A collection that is not actually valuable, useful, organized, and accessible is likely hoarding because if you can’t manage your things, you will easily fall into hoarding.
Now, before I get started, let me apologize to my family for any of the details that I may have gotten wrong. My intent in writing this post is to help other people who are struggling with hoarding. My writing is only as accurate as my memory. Since many of the things described in this post happened when I was a child or even before I was born, I am doing my best to accurately convey them to the best of my recollection. Please forgive me if I am less than totally accurate about some of the details. Please know that I am not disparaging anyone’s character in this post, but rather giving commentary on the effects of mental and physical illnesses.
This is the story of four Sarahs. Four girls, all named Sarah, spanning nearly a century.
This is the story of how hoarding has affected our lives and the story of my pursuit to break the generational hold that stuff –possessions– has on our lives.
Sarah Number One
My great grandmother’s name was Sarah. I never had the pleasure of knowing my great-grandmother as she died before I was born. I know that she was a very caring, loving lady who had only one child: my grandmother, also named Sarah. While my grandmother described my great grandmother as loving, she also described her as controlling and obsessive. If she were alive today, I have no doubt that she would be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She required everything to be meticulously clean all the time. She held my grandmother –who was not naturally meticulous– to her standard. My grandmother was not allowed to save treasures or things that were important to her. Everything always had to be perfect in their house –and if it was not, then my grandmother was not even allowed to have friends over. Once, my great grandmother decided that her curtains were not right, therefore my grandmother was not allowed to have company. Listening to my grandmother describe her relationship with her mother, it was quite obvious that –while she loved her mother very much– she did not agree with how her mother chose to interact. Her mother put a huge emphasis on things, on perfection, and on tidiness at the expense of all else. This attitude would greatly influence her daughter.
Sarah Number Two and Three
My grandmother is Sarah number two. She grew up, got married, and had children. From what I have heard, she didn’t really start having problems with hoarding until after her fourth pregnancy. There were complications, she was hospitalized, and the baby –named Sarah Jane– died. Sarah Jane is Sarah number three. Sarah Jane was one of eight babies my grandmother lost. My grandmother’s health –physical and mental (which often go hand-in-hand)– declined from there. From what I understand, it was sometime around then the time of Sarah Jane’s death that my grandmother started hoarding. My father describes a memory of being so happy once when the living room was cleaned out that he has his siblings danced around happily because there was finally enough room to play.
Grandma probably had many of the same conditions that I have. Unfortunately for her, in the 1950s and 1960s, doctors were less likely to diagnose and treat conditions in women, and many of the conditions I have were unknown –undiagnosable– at the time. If I had to guess I would diagnose her with a thyroid problem, estrogen dominance, ADHD (maybe even a form of autism?), OCD hoarding –just from the limited knowledge I have. Since I spent very little time with her as an adult, this is mostly based on my memories of her as a child. Even in the 2000s when my mother was taking care of my grandmother, her doctors dismissed her symptoms and didn’t take it seriously. If they had taken it seriously, we may have discovered her cancer in time to save her life –but that is another story for another time.
Before Great Grandma died in the 1970s (when I was yet to be a gleam in my daddy’s eye), she bought Grandma a beautiful Civil War era house with a wrap around porch on a hill. It was certainly large enough to house my grandmother’s family of (by then) seven children.
In 1976, my mother visited my father, her then boyfriend, at this house. During the visit, their freezer died, and my mother assumed it would be dealt with.
But like many things, it was not.
By the time I knew Grandma, her house was full to the brim with stuff. So full of stuff that I don’t know what her house really looked like. All I could see was goat trails through piles. Even the outside of the house was cluttered and obscured with stuff.
In the 1990s, something got too close to the coal burning furnace in the basement, and that beautiful house burned to the ground nearly killing my grandfather who was sleeping on the fourth floor. That same fridge was still where it had died in December of 1976. It had never been cleaned out –never even opened I was told.
My grandmother moved a trailer onto the property with the intent of sorting through the rubble of the fire for her “treasures” that were in the fire. Due to her mental health issues or the physical health issues which restricted her movements, this sorting didn’t happen. She wouldn’t let people clean out the property. Even years later she complained about the things she hadn’t been able to save. What she did save was often ruined by water or smoke damage but it was still vital to her –absolutely essential to her that she had these things.
Eventually, the county forced them to sell the property and the debris from the house was cleaned up. What she had saved was moved into one of her children’s houses merely transferring her hoarding to a new location.
Unfortunately, the actual issue was not addressed.
What follows is my opinion based on conversations with my Grandmother when I was in high school (some of my family may or may not agree): My grandmother’s mother was an OCD clean-freak, critical of my unknown-then-probably ADHD (among other things) grandmother. My grandmother never learned to view possessions in a healthy way. She was forced to never keep anything –even special things– as a child, and she reacted as an adult by keeping everything.
This has been passed on to her kids, grandkids, and now great grandkids. It’s like our brains are wired to see possibilities and struggle to get rid of them. We make emotional connections to and plans for the things we possess. We can see the possibilities and struggle to look beyond that to the problems those possessions are causing in our lives.
I’ve read about epigenetic and how researchers believe that certain traumas in your family history can trigger a switch in your ancestors genetic make-up inclining you toward certain behavior or certain conditions.
Sarah Number Four
Hi, I am Sarah number four. Actually, I am Sarah number seven in our family according to my grandmother, but I am only including four of the Sarahs for the purpose of our story.
I am very much like my grandmother in many ways. I am gifted, artistic, and not naturally organized –totally ADHD. I look like her, even down to the same weight problems she had. I love dresses and long hair, just like she did. My aunt likes to remind me how much I look like Grandma. We have many of the same health problems, likely a result of shared genetics.
I recognized this struggle with possessions in myself in my early twenties.
I didn’t want to copy the same mistakes that my grandmother had made. I wanted to make wiser, better choices about my possessions.
I don’t want my possessions to rule my life.
So, I started actively working on my own view of possessions until I could get rid of things. More than once, I cleaned everything surplus out of my house –then I would relapse due to my illness. So, I would clean it all out again. At one time, I hauled 3 truckloads of craft and art supplies out of my garage to the local thrift store.
It took a few years of forcing myself to face this issue and my approach to possessions before I saw real progress.
The first few times, I will be honest –it was really hard. I had plans for those things when I bought them. But, my ideas are always greater than my time and my energy. Learning to accept reality was very important to my ability to part with my stuff and not bring more stuff into my home –as was dealing with my health and mental health issues (an option that was not available in my grandmother’s time).
Here is the reality: I will always have more ideas and plans than I have time and energy for. Once I accepted that as a fact, it made getting rid of things so much easier. Knowing that my ideas were greater than my ability to fulfill my ideas meant that I could put a priority on the things that were really important and get rid of the other things.
It was then that I started noticing this same hoarding tendency in my children.
I am fighting a multigenerational battle.
This battle –as far as I know– started with my great-grandmother and how she interacted with my grandmother and has been passed down from generation to generation.
Now, it’s passed to my children.
I am now fighting for my future grandchildren.
I am fighting to break a pattern of behavior that is neither healthy nor ideal. It is not what I want for my children and grandchildren.
I have learned to get rid of things.
At one point, a group of ladies came to help me clean out my house. In one day, we overhauled and cleaned out the whole house. I was getting rid of things hand-over-fist as fast as they could bring them to me.
For me, overcoming this need to have things just in case or because they were special, unique, or important to me came down to a few factors:
1) I’m a Christian. If I believe God will provide what I need then I don’t need to keep every little thing just in case. We need far fewer things than we think we need. Most of what we think of as needs are actually wants. I should be storing (hoarding) treasures in heaven not here on this earth.
2) There are very few things that are truly unique, and nearly everything I own could be bought again on Amazon or eBay if I truly and actually needed it. The toll of the possessions on my life is not worth keeping things just so I feel like I have been frugal.
3) Our things must fit in our space. If they don’t, we are not good stewards of our space. Our space –such as our homes– is also something God has given us. If things don’t fit in our space, it makes everyone miserable.
4) Even if I saved it for later, if I can’t manage my stuff, then even when I need it, I will not be able to find it, in which case I have wasted the storage space and my time.
5) I decided that people were more important than things. If I am choosing to fill up my home with things, to make my home unsafe for my children, to force my children and husband to work around my possessions that I refuse to get rid of, I have prioritized things over people –over my own family. I cannot do this in good conscience.
6) I decided I was not bringing new things into our house unless they were necessary. If I have the mindset that I am not bringing new things into the house, it saves me a lot of hassle. My first answer is “No new things.” If we actually need new things, I can adjust. But, assuming I will not bring new things into the home helps keep me from the mindset of always collecting new things. It was a change in the way that I think about possessions.
With the intent of teaching my children to not cling to possessions too tightly, I have begun to embrace minimalism. Not entirely –because I still have way too much stuff, but I have found the idea of not having more than we need very helpful.
I have worked really hard with my children on this issue. We have discussed at length –with kindness and understanding as well as honesty– about my grandmother’s issues.
I remember how traumatic it was when I came home from school at age five and many of my favorite things were gone. I know my mother meant to help, however, it made me cling to things more tightly. I do not force my children to get rid of things. Instead, we discuss what’s needed, why we keep things, the nature of possessions and how they can possess us if we aren’t careful. I’m trying to teach them how to get rid of things. How to be rational about possessions.
They have a drawer in their dresser that they can keep special things in and a box on their school shelf for special papers. When the box is full, they have to choose what to keep. Sometimes, we photograph special items and save the photo if we have to get rid of the item. I try to treat them –and their feelings– with respect. As an adult, their things may not seem important to me, but it is very important to them. If I want them to value what I value, I need to be willing to value what is important to them.
I’m not going to lie and say that this is an easy topic. It’s not. I’m fighting generations of genetics that incline us to certain behaviors.
I don’t get rid of everything. For instance, I have never gotten rid of one piece of my art. Somethings are important to keep.
With my children, I have decided to pick my battles, to be more concerned about if they’re learning to be discerning than if they get rid of every little thing.
It’s a journey.
One that I’m still on.
But I know there’s hope because I can see how much I’ve improved. I can see how much my children have improved.
I have learned to be thankful for what I have and thankful to have just what I need instead of clinging to everything for the one-day-plans that I had. Being thankful has greatly improved my outlook on things! If I’m thankful for what I have I’m less likely to feel the need to acquire more.
I posted a version of this article on one of my facebook groups and inspired a self-proclaimed hoarder to start cleaning her house. So, I am posting it here, honestly and plainly, in hopes that it will help and inspire others.
I do not claim to have conquered this area — on the contrary, it may be something I struggle with for my whole life.
But, if you struggle with it, you are not alone. There is hope. There is progress. It can get better. The first step, in my experience, is to get a proper diagnosis. A lot of hoarding is a result of unaddressed anxiety. You can’t help what you don’t understand. Thankfully, unlike in my grandmother’s day, there are doctors who will listen to women and treat them.
Be your own advocate.
Fight for yourself, for your family, for your future.
Your choices now don’t just affect you: they affect the generations to come.
P.S. To any of my family who reads this, please give me grace as I tried to deal with this topic as graciously and honestly as I could.
If you found this post helpful, I would be honored if you would share it.