Stories about compulsive hoarders and episodes of TLC and A&E’s namesake shows are a peculiar source of fascination.
Hoarding, the mass accumulation and inability to part with seemingly useless, and often times hazardous objects, seems to be a post-modern phenomenon.
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the rampant material greed and mass advertising that define our consumer-driven culture.
Like gluttony, hoarding is consumption beyond what is needed to sustain one’s well- being to the point where it becomes self-destructive.
As hoarders fill their homes with what they consider objects of value, their lives become increasingly less functional.
Although the goal of material accumulation is to enhance the quality of one’s life, hoarders gradually lose the ability to function in their own homes as clutter interferes with basic living conditions.
Yet I find it remarkably easy to sympathize with hoarders after observing the packrat tendencies of others, including people in my family.
My dad is an avid antiques collector, and I can’t ever remember seeing more than a pathway through the basement or garage of the house where I grew up.
It is the inside of the house where I grew up that looks noticeably different in my baby albums than it does today, and I’m not referring to my dad’s choice of décor.
My mom was a neat freak, like myself, but as my siblings and I grew older, she spent less time in the house, and wasn’t able to keep up with the mass accumulation that unfolded before our eyes.
Out of fairness to my dad, I don’t consider him a serious hoarder and feel he is oftentimes very resourceful in his collecting, usually with the intention of reselling for a profit.
The problem is that he accumulates new things faster than he can get rid of what he already has.
When my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer seven years ago, my father closed his antique store and started flipping houses to make money, which gave him the flexible schedule he needed to raise three children as a single parent.
But he didn’t stop going to estate sales and auctions, and what he accumulated quickly outgrew the capacity of my family’s home, as he no longer had a store to sell things in.
The only three rooms I use in my home are the kitchen, my bedroom and my bathroom, not because the rest of the house is unlivable, but because I’m tired of being confronted with clutter and other people’s messes everywhere I turn.
For this reason, I probably spend 90 percent of my waking hours away from my own home. My bedroom is both a prison and a sanctuary. A prison because when I’m home, I feel trapped due to the condition of the rest of my family’s house, and a sanctuary because it’s the only place that doesn’t have clutter.
Growing up, I was angry with my dad for the same reasons. I rarely invited friends over, and when I did, spent most of the time apologizing for the condition of my home, even though it was out of my control.
I resented my dad, and worked hard to be the cleanest, most organized person possible to avoid becoming like him. (My grandfather was also a collector, so I’ve decided it’s a behavioral trait in my family.)
In doing so, I drove a wedge into our relationship, one I am now working to mend.
For people like my dad, having lots of stuff, even things others may not appreciate, is a form of comfort and security. It’s the realization that he has something he can control at the end of the day regardless of what else happens in life.
Being frustrated with my dad and nagging him to get rid of his stuff didn’t work because he was being told angrily to relinquish control over something he found comfort and satisfaction in doing. In fact, it probably made the problem worse.
Instead, my new approach is to help him replace the sense of comfort he had in material things by loving, supporting and encouraging him to make the life changes he needs.
I can never reasonably expect my family’s house to look like it’s on HGTV, but if I make a few inroads and happen to find our “Mission Accomplished” banner beneath the piles of clutter, I will proudly display it.