One day I got a call from a distressed woman. I worked in social services, and there was certainly nothing new about this. Distressed people called me every day, sometimes in tears, and I enjoyed being able to help them as much as I could. This particular caller wanted to ask about someone else, though. She believed that her sister-in-law really needed to clean her house. She did not believe her nieces and nephews were in danger; she just thought the house was too messy. She wanted to know if there was a way to anonymously report them and have someone from the County make her clean up. She especially did not want the sister-in-law to know that she was the one who made the call. I heard her out and tried tactfully to explain that this was really none of her business. If she had already offered to help clean up and had been rejected, and the kids were fine, then she was simply going to have to accept the situation.
That’s about the size of it. You can keep as much clutter as you want; you can keep every item you’ve ever owned in your entire lifetime, including old newspapers and napkins. If you wish to live in squalor, that is your choice, and you are free to do so. Most likely, nobody will ever come for you. Nobody will make you throw anything away. Nobody will force you to clean anything that you do not want to clean. You can have as large a laundry pile as you like. You can stack up dirty dishes by the crate load. You never have to clean your floors, or your bathroom. You never have to wash your windows. You don’t even have to take out your trash. You are welcome to live with mold and vermin if you like. It’s a free country.
I take an interest in these matters. So far, I have only known four people to be evicted due to hoarding or squalor. I have only known one family to lose their kids over their housekeeping, and that was only for a few weeks. If you are not a renter and you don’t have any kids, then as far as I can tell, there really are no limits. You’ll only have a problem if you hoard in your front yard where it bothers your neighbors, and they report you to the relevant authorities.
It seems that one of the reasons why my people live in sub-optimal personal environments is that they are working hard to demonstrate autonomy. In the precise way that heavy people are enraged by perceived body shaming, my people are outraged by the perceived demands of society. They believe that the only options are a sterile, obsessive compulsive, bleak, ascetic box, or the way they are living right now. There is a sort of straw-man phantasm of a drill instructor floating around in the collective unconscious, probably modeled after Martha Stewart, who will only be satisfied when all females of Earth spend at least 19 hours a day scrubbing floors on their hands and knees.
As for me, I have robots for that.
The first thing I notice in my clients’ homes is the shame. They apologize. They don’t have people over very often. Curtains are kept closed, sometimes in select rooms, and sometimes throughout the house. Certain doors are almost never opened. I’ve never met anyone who was proud of a mess, and I’ve never known anyone who created one intentionally. It just happens, due to a lack of systems, and the core assumption is that making a change will require a vast amount of work. It can feel very disempowering. Usually, the house is just one of several areas of life that are not going as well as they could be. It adds to the overwhelming sense of wrongness. Career troubles, money troubles, car troubles, family troubles, health troubles – nothing is working right now, and you expect me to wax my floors too?! [Nota bene: Nobody expects you to wax your floors].
The interesting thing about this is that my people will tend to turn away any help that is offered, just when it seems they could use it the most. Someone like the nosy sister-in-law who called me is probably genuinely willing to come over and clean the house from top to bottom. Many people almost have to physically restrain their mothers from coming over and doing it for them, regardless of age. It is almost universal for my people to delay necessary home repairs because they don’t want anyone to see the house in its current state. Human nature is to isolate ourselves when we are in trouble. Guilt and shame calcify into anger and defensiveness. Anxiety and depression also tend to cause us to isolate ourselves. Accepting help feels like humiliation. In some ways, a messy house can be a defense mechanism, creating a nest that simultaneously drives away interfering outsiders. It’s a place we can crawl into when we need to hide from the world.
We can move out of the polarized tug-of-war between disorder and obsessive tidiness. Just as anorexia and obesity are not the only options for a body, hyper-cleaning and squalor are not the only options for a house. As a fit person, I appreciate the strength of my body. As an artist, I appreciate having a comfortable and orderly environment for my work. I never worry about being judged by others; not about these things, anyway. I don’t feel criticized or forced or obligated to manage my household routine, any more than I do about my workouts. I have chosen the way that I want to live, and I know what to do to make it happen. It is easier to be fit, and it is easier to live in an organized home. The key is to ask ourselves what we actually DO want. Is it this? Is this intentional? Is this life something that we have freely chosen? Given a chance, would we do it again the same way? We are free to experiment and make changes, as we are free to return to the previous way if we do decide that we like it better. Let’s try to imagine how we would live if we never concerned ourselves with the opinions of others.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.