How to Get a Handle on Your Hoarding
According to Psychiatry.org, 2-6% of the world suffers from hoarding. That is an estimated 148,840,000 to 446,520,000 people worldwide. Hoarding is defined as an excessive saving of items that may typically be viewed as worthless and the inability or near inability to part with these items to the extent of affecting the functionality of a living space.
It's not known how many people seek treatment for hoarding or how many want help but do not receive it. While the emotional process of dealing with a hoard is best left to professionals, physical treatment can start at home. This article is mainly directed towards hoarders themselves as opposed to friends or family of hoarders, however, there may be tips that can help non-hoarders help their loved ones on their journeys to a hoard-free life.
The Process of Purging a Hoard
Oftentimes when a person begins to get rid of large amounts of stuff, it is referred to as purging. This term is used both amongst hoarders and minimalists, though the definition sometimes changes slightly. In either case, purging is usually seen as getting rid of things that do not benefit a person or bring a person happiness.
In general, purging is a multi-step process that can take weeks, months or even years. A person with a significant amount of hoarding may have an extremely difficult time beginning and keeping momentum. It's often frustrating and emotionally draining to repeatedly go through mountains of objects while fighting the urge to keep it all.
It is recommended to take many small steps instead of doing large clean outs. Sudden, complete purging often results in increased anxiety instead of relief. A hoard that is quickly removed often aggravates the problem and leads to more hoarding.
Instead, a slow but steady process done with understanding is usually the best approach.
What Is Your Organization Goal?
Before starting on purging and organizing a hoard, you must first set a clear goal. It is important to ask yourself why you want to (or need to) get a handle on your hoarding.
Is it because you wish to have a functional home where you can invite friends and family over? Is it to improve the quality of life for yourself and your family? Is it because you are in legal trouble and are court ordered to clean?
Setting a clear goal will help you to remember what all the hard work is for during those bad times when you just want to give up.
After you have a goal in mind, it is important to remind yourself often throughout the process of what you want to accomplish and what you have accomplished.
Picking a Room
You will need to decide which room is the most important for you to begin working on. Is it more important to get a handle on a bedroom or a bathroom first? Or is it the kitchen? A hallway? The choice is yours.
No advice can really be given here as you know which rooms are most important to have functionality first. Remember, this is just the first room and every room will eventually be done.
Once you have picked your first room, you will no longer refer to your house as a whole. Houses are big and hoards are big. Thinking of your home as a whole can overwhelm you. Instead, it is better to compartmentalize your house.
Think of rooms individually. Or, if it is still overwhelming, think of specific spots in a room. Don't think of it as a bedroom. Instead, think of it as a bed. Only focus on that bed until you're able to organize it.
Slowly your spots will become rooms again. Eventually, your rooms will become a whole house again. For now, it is important to only focus on spots.
Picking up Trash
Once you have a spot picked out, the work begins. For the purposes of this article, we are going to use a bathroom for our example. This bathroom has a bathtub with a shower, a toilet, and a sink with a cabinet. The photos below are of my bathroom, set up to look similar to how it would have looked when my hoarding was at its worst.
As you can see, there are open cabinet doors, stuff filling the tub, things blocking the walkway. There are books, trash, clothes, tools, and all sorts of things that don't really belong in a bathroom. It's difficult to get into the bathroom, because there is stuff behind the door. The bathtub has to be emptied to be used. The sink is dangerous to use without knocking things over. Just using the toilet is a chore. Overall, this room is no longer functional. I lived with a bathroom in similar condition for several years.
So how does one start? In our example of this small bathroom, considering the entire room is possible, however, my approach is to look at specific items. The first step is to gather up all of the obvious trash that is easy to see and reach. Trash is almost always the easiest to identify and get rid of.
It is important for you to know what you consider obvious trash. This is stuff that has no use that you don't mind throwing away. Used paper towels, empty bottles, used coffee cups, and tissues are some of what I consider trash.
Just gathering obvious trash often makes a huge difference in the spot or room you're working on. It's also usually one of the easiest.
Which Room Rule
Now that a lot of the trash is gone, the real work begins. Many articles and shows recommend the Touch Once rule, where you pick up each item only once and decide right then and there what to do with it.
I approach things a bit differently. Instead of the Touch Once rule, I have the Which Room rule.
The Which Room rule is simple. Each item you pick up needs to be assigned a room. For the initial cleaning of your spot, you just need to decide one thing: Does this item belong in this room, another room, or is it trash? That's it.
If it's trash, it goes in your bag with other trash. If it belongs in another room, get it out of the room it's in. You can either have a bag or box to put Other Room items in or you can physically walk each item out of the room you're working on.
At this point, it doesn't matter where it ends up, as long as it's out of the room being organized. You may find it easier to put Other Room items into the correct rooms initially. Or you may choose any place at all to deal with later. Both options are okay.
Keep going with each item in the spot or room you're working on. Items that stay in the room can be placed out of the way. We aren't cleaning at this point. We are just deciding if the items belong in the room.
Cleaning and Organizing the First Time
Once you've sorted all of the stuff in the spot you've chosen to work on, you should be left with only things that belong in the room you're in. My bathroom, for example, should no longer have laundry baskets, pet items, tools, or dishes.
At this point, if you've been working on a specific spot instead of an entire room, you will want to pick a new spot and repeat the trash pickup and Which Room rule until you've done the entire room.
Once you've done the whole room, it will most likely still be pretty messy. That's okay! You probably see a huge difference. You may have even decided some items are ones you don't want any longer and have created boxes for donation and selling. Good job!
If you're not there yet and haven't created donation and selling piles, that's okay too. You'll get there! Don't sweat it at all yet. Move on to the next step.
After you've gotten everything out of the room that doesn't belong, you're going to start doing several things at once. First, you're going to want to take everything but furniture out and put them in boxes or bags. This is so that you can organize furniture (if you're doing a room that has it).
You'll be cleaning as well — dusting surfaces, wiping down glass, vacuuming out drawers and cleaning floors. It helps to have all of the non-furniture items boxed up at this point so that it's not in the way.
Once surfaces, cabinets, and drawers are clean, you have two options: start putting boxed items away or keep these items boxed and start on another room. Both have their benefits. Putting stuff away is helpful in rooms that get used multiple times a day. Kitchens and bathrooms usually fall into this category. Putting dishes and food away assists in the functionality of the room.
Items that are moved from other rooms can be put away as you go. On the other hand, keeping items in boxes instead of putting them away until all rooms are organized gives you a better visual of how much stuff needs to find a home in the correct room. It is also easier to find duplicates of items. Choose whichever method is best for you.
Repeating the Process in Each Room
By this point, you should have one room that's been mostly or completely organized. Congratulations! Take a moment to praise yourself and to look around. You can do this. The room you're standing in has proven as much. Be proud of what you've accomplished. Take a day or two to rest before tackling another room.
When you're ready, start in a new room and on a new spot. You just repeat all that you did in the previous room. Celebrate each accomplishment and every room you get to this point. Every room you clear is one less still ahead of you. Remember, it may take you days, weeks, months, or even years, but you are making progress.
Getting Rid of What You Don't Really Need
Now for some bad news. I know it was hard before just organizing stuff into the right rooms. The next step is going to be even harder. It might be the hardest thing you've had to do in your life. It's going to be uncomfortable and cause anxiety. I tell you this so that I can tell you not to give up hope. The harder this part is, the greater the reward when it's all over. Are you ready? Okay, let's go.
By this point, all of your rooms should be at least minimally organized. There shouldn't be a lot of items that belong in other rooms and trash should be gone. Your next step is to decide if everything you've placed in each of these rooms is stuff you want to keep. This includes items you've put away. I can't tell you what to keep. Further into this article is a list of things you absolutely should get rid of, but a lot of stuff is up to you. Focus on one room at a time.
We're going to use my bathroom as an example again. When I first started getting a grip on my hoard, I had three hair dryers. I know I only used one. I think one might have been broken and the other one just didn't used. I had a perfectly good working hair dryer so the broken one was thrown away. I didn't know how to fix hair dryers and, seeing as I already had two working ones, I felt it was okay to throw the broken one away. I had a problem making a choice after that. I never used the second hair dryer but I had a "just in case" attitude. It went back into the cabinet.
And that's okay. I ended up having a lot of "just in case" items. I also ended up getting rid of a lot of other things too. That's the goal. It's important for you to get rid of what you feel comfortable with getting rid of when you are comfortable doing so. That second hair dryer eventually ended up being donated. About two years later.
Below, you can see all of the bathroom stuff I own now. I decided to go through it all for this article. As you can see, I have a small amount of stuff I don't use and need to get rid of. Even now, after I think I organized it all, I'm still finding stuff I don't need. Funny how that works.
The Never Ending Cycle
You will be sorting and organizing your things many times. You will have reached a point by now where actual cleaning and finding places for your stuff is easier. You most likely have a fully functional house again. You may still have a lot of clutter but no longer have a hoard. You may have done what I did and gone from one extreme, hoarding, to another, minimalism.
I would like to tell you that once you have your house functional again, it's over. That's it; you don't have to struggle anymore. If I told you this, I would be lying to you.
2019 marks the ten-year anniversary of when I first decided that no longer wanted to live in a mountain of stuff. Every week I still try to get rid of a 12" x 12" x 12" box of stuff. It's getting harder and harder to do, but I still manage to find something I no longer want.
Every day I am still controlled by my stuff. I still worry that I'll let myself slide and end up buried again. After almost ten years, I still haven't broken the habit of "just in case," though it's easier to remember "they make more."
It will probably always be a struggle. That's okay. You are strong enough to keep fighting.
I do recommend considering therapy in conjunction with physical cleaning as hoarding may be the result of a trauma that should be worked out. In my case, it was a combination of genetics and upbringing. Whether my family agrees or not, there are several hoarders who are related to me. Sometimes it's nurture. Sometimes it's nature.
Things to Remember
There are some things to remember as you are organizing and sorting through your hoard. Some are suggestions while others are very strong recommendations.
- You don't have to get rid of things you don't want to get rid of. If you aren't comfortable parting with something, you shouldn't. Exceptions include things that are biohazards. If it's covered in feces, mold, or anything that is dangerous to your health, it needs to go. It sucks, but it's for your safety.
- Expired foods usually need to be tossed. The exception is sometimes canned goods. If they are within six months of the expiration date, they are usually still good. Keep them if you're going to eat them. Otherwise, they should be tossed. Honestly, if you haven't eaten them by now, you most likely won't. Keep that in mind.
- Expired medications, old prescriptions, and makeup older than 3-24 months should be disposed of. Expired medications can become unstable or ineffective. They can be dangerous. Most pharmacies take expired and old medications for disposal. Makeup also expires. Mascara should be replaced every three months due to bacteria concerns. Lipsticks, eye shadow, and eye pencils should be discarded after two years. Blushes, foundations, and concealers every year to two years.
- It is important to take breaks as often as needed. It's very easy to get overwhelmed. Pushing through often doesn't help.
- In most cases, you should take as much time as you need to accomplish your goals. In situations where there is a deadline (landlord/court order), you need to make sure you are clear on what the stipulations are. Always try to do your best to comply with them. Document and photograph everything so that you can show you are making progress. It never hurts to ask for extensions. In many cases, a marked show of progress will satisfy courts.
- Be aware that it can take years to reach your goal. That's okay. Progress is still progress. Remember, I'm coming up on year ten myself. I now consider myself "chronically messy/cluttered." Once or twice a month a room may become slightly non-functional but a day or two of cleaning usually fixes it. I'm also pretty lazy, so that doesn't help.
- Remember, most items can be replaced. It's often better to get rid of things you can replace with better quality items. Items that aren't used very often may not be needed. Though, I have a pizzelle maker I've used twice in the past two years. I keep it because I love pizzelles, but I don't make them all of the time because they are nothing but butter and sugar. It's a fight between my taste buds and my diet.
- It's okay to have duplicates of items you know you are going to use. Try to keep it within a reasonable range. No one needs twenty tubes of toothpaste. Two or three extra are reasonable.
- It's okay to have collections. That's one thing that always got me watching hoarding-related tv shows. They always seem strongly against collections. There is nothing wrong with them. The goal to keep in mind is that collections should be displayed and viewed. Collections should be things you absolutely love. They shouldn't be full of things you don't particularly care about. If you collect ceramic figures, keep the ones you love. Let go of the ones you are indifferent about. You'll end up loving your collection even more.
Your Own Mountain
Never feel guilty or ashamed of your home. Don't let anyone else make you feel bad either. We all have our mountains to climb and you are working on yours. That is something to be proud of.
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© 2018 Anne Ryefield