Watching the 2003 documentary Packrat, one scene in particular captivated me. The child of a hoarder is contemplating getting rid of her own excess possessions. She worries that people she knows will be mad at her if she gets rid of anything that they later find out they could have used. Nobody specific seems to come to mind; there's just this generic sense of Someone. This Someone has more right to make decisions about her belongings than she does, apparently. It's a brief scene, but it has a great deal to say about the strange boundaries involved in hoarding.
In a world that makes sense, everyone has a certain amount of privacy in a certain amount of personal space. Other people don't intrude on that privacy and they don't touch or interfere with the space or the belongings that are kept there. Each member of a household also shares common areas, such as a bathroom, and is equally entitled to use the space and fixtures of these common areas. This has to be explained, because many of us did not grow up in such an atmosphere and never lived such a simple, mainstream reality.
I have my room, where I sleep in my bed and store my clothes. You have your room, where you sleep and keep your things. We share a bathroom, where we each have our own toothbrushes, combs, etc. We share a kitchen, where we share the stove, counters, sink, table, fridge, etc. I don't go in your room or use your stuff, and you don't go in my room or use my stuff. I don't store my things in your room, and you don't store your things in my room. Neither of us keeps our personal possessions in common areas, unless we're actively using them. We can walk down the hallways, use the stairs, use the sink, use the laundry area, and find things when we need them. If you want to get rid of a bag of used books or clothes, or throw out your trash, I don't care or say anything, and vice versa.
In the world of hoarding, none of those straightforward household boundaries make any sense at all. They are not allowed. The hoarder controls all the space, including both common areas and personal areas, others' possessions, and others' trash. There is always a "reason" why the hoarder "needs" to store things on all the tables and all the counters, in someone else's bedroom, on the floor, or on the stairs. If you ask for a reason, that is. Generally, the stuff will just appear in the area where it doesn't belong, with no explanation given. The only rules are FILL ALL THE SPACE, GET ALL THE THINGS, GET MORE THINGS, and HOW DARE YOU TOUCH MY THINGS.
In my professional experience, I've found that most people aren't formally taught how to keep house. In some cases of hoarding and squalor, the hidden goal is to repel visitors and stake an undisputed claim on the territory. I knew a hoarder who kept his car filled with trash up to the windows, and claimed that this would deter car thieves. (Fair point). In other cases, the physical labor involved in ten minutes of scrubbing a tub or mopping a floor is too much for that person's fitness level. In others, it's more of a cognitive burden, and thinking through a plan or organizing information or objects is too much. Anyone who grows up in such an atmosphere of belligerence, exhaustion, or confusion will be hard-pressed to make sense of the material world in adulthood.
The question of "mine" vs. "not-mine" can appear complex beyond belief.
It's like this.
If you're paying the rent, you make the rules.
If you're an adult, you get to decide where you live and how to maintain your personal environment.
You're allowed to come and go as you please. If you don't want to live with someone, you can move away. If you don't want someone living in your home, you can kick them out.
If you bought something, you can do whatever you want with it. You can move it from place to place. You can get rid of it. You can chop it up with a chainsaw or fling it over the roof with a catapult. You can set it on fire. You can sell it. You can spill food on it. You can polish it and put a plastic slipcover on it. You can tie-dye it or store it upside down. You can get two of it and stack one on top of the other. Your possession, your responsibility, your choices.
If someone gave you something, it now belongs to you. You don't have to keep it. The giver no longer gets any say in what you do with the gift. If you love it, you can cherish it and treasure it. If you feel that the "gift" was secretly intended to manipulate you, you can have a conversation about that, or not. You can sell it. You can give it to someone else. You can do the same things to a gift that you can do to something you bought for yourself. It's yours now. It's up to you whether to keep it or get rid of if. Nobody else gets to decide.
If something is yours, it's your job to keep track of it. Don't try to put your stuff in someone else's space. If you have furniture stored at other people's homes, call them and make it a formal gift, or figure out a way to take charge of it sometime in the next week. If you have random boxes stored at someone else's place, including your parents', take care of it. You are only entitled to the space that is your space, not the space that is someone else's space. If you can't afford your own home, selling off your stuff is probably the most practical solution. If you can, but your home is too full, something has to go. How is a bunch of stuff supposed to help you improve your situation, anyway?
Many of us are taught to believe that STUFF IS VALUABLE. Stuff stores our memories. Stuff represents our personalities. Getting rid of stuff is murdering the soul of a person who has died. Whenever we would try to make a mark on what we believed was our own personal space, we would be corrected, lectured, or guilt-tripped. We never learned a way to determine our personal tastes, how to create a personal environment that exactly reflects our preferences. It wasn't allowed or thought of. Thus, most of our stuff showed up by happenstance. It was given to us, we've had it since childhood, we inherited it, it was on sale, someone was giving it away, or someone left it here. We don't know how to make sense of it. We don't realize that we can take charge and subtract or add whatever we want. We don't realize that we can put our priority on the room itself, rather than the million and five trinkets and gewgaws inside it.
The idea that "someone will get mad" if I get rid of something is quite common. It's mostly seen after someone has died. Anyone who is grieving a complicated relationship with unresolved quarrels is exponentially more likely to feel like this. Grief clutter can stack up for decades. Sometimes clearing an estate involves two or more generations of clutter that accumulated in this way. This melding of boundaries, this idea that other people's emotions will be activated by interacting with objects, is very close to the idea that the stuff itself has feelings. Really, it's just stuff. It's designed to be used. Storing it in a box, stack, or pile prevents it from being used.
What's the worst that can happen if someone gets mad, anyway? They yell at you? They gossip to other people about you? They quit talking to you for an undetermined period of time? These are all common forms of manipulation. If you let them work on you, they'll keep working. You're allowed to shut down drama and ignore it. You're allowed to move on. You're allowed to get rid of things. You're allowed to care less about material objects than other people do. You're allowed to make your life about more than stuff, buying stuff, storing stuff, looking for stuff, talking about stuff, and fighting over stuff. You're allowed to do what you want. You don't even need permission.
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.
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