The clutter-filled life

Many of us have had our share of exposure to and experience with clutter, either our own or others’ — a messy working area full to the brim with paperwork, a hallway littered with personal belongings and household appliances, shelves stacked with valuable collectibles, closets filled with clothes that don’t fit anymore, or an entire house covered in piles of unnecessary clutter that had accumulated over the years.

It’s one thing to be an occasional collector of things that you place neatly in their respective storage units. But it’s another to be a chronic hoarder, who collects things in unbelievable excess that it already affects the way you live your life — in a negative way.

The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, through its Older Adults Services Division, defines hoarding as “the excessive collection and retention of things or animals until they interfere with day-to-day functions such as home, health, family, work and social life. Severe hoarding causes safety and health hazards” (see the Hoarding Fact Sheet published here.)

The said fact sheet lists down possible reasons why people hoard:

— Items are perceived as valuable
— Items provide a source of security
— Fear of forgetting or losing items
— Constant need to collect and keep things
— Obtaining love not found from people
— Fear others will obtain their personal information
— Physical limitations and frailty
— Inability to organize
— Self neglect
— Stressful life events

People who keep buying items they don’t really need, live in homes bursting at the seams with forgotten stuff, and who find it hard to let go of things they haven’t used for ages most probably have what is called the “Hoard and Clutter Syndrome,” otherwise known as the “Packrat Syndrome” or “Compulsive Hoarding.” It’s reportedly a clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder, and compulsive hoarders are said to have “the inability to resist the urge to acquire an object, even though acquiring or possessing the object may create problems.”

John (not his real name), a student, used to collect old newspapers in his bedroom. He thought it was a great way to keep himself informed of what was going on. When things were getting a little bit out of control — old newspapers were piling up so fast that there was no more room to walk around John’s room — his parents tried to intervene one day and cleared things out in the room of horrors, without their son’s knowledge. When John got home after the secret cleanup activity, he got so enraged at what his parents had done to his prized collection of old newspapers and used shipment boxes that instead of thanking them for their well-meaning initiative, he cursed them. He felt sabotaged by their act of kindness.

Lisa (not her real name), a widow and mother of four, knew how it was to live during the Second World War. Food was scarce and her children had to make do with meager portions. After the War, where she lost her husband, she moved back to the family home, with her deceased husband’s pension supporting them all. Through the years, she would hoard things — from old pens, magazines, and tin cans to unused toys, plastic containers, and all sorts of bric-a-bracs. She seemed to have found comfort in things.

There’s a BBC show called Life Laundry that helps self-confessed clutterbugs get a fresh start by initiating a two-day decluttering therapy. Its TV presenters, home consultant Dawna Walter and antiques expert Mark Franks visit the homes of these compulsive hoarders and take part in emptying the contents of each home and placing all of them onto the front or back lawn for some rigorous scrutiny and screening.

Things are basically divided into three piles — items that stay, those that will be sold at the car boot sale or given to charity, and those that get destroyed. While Franks scrutinizes and values items that could be sold at the car boot sale, Walter gets the uneasy task of talking to the participants about their hoarding behavior. Most often than not, they (hoarders) end up crying because it’s so hard for them to let go of things they have been clinging onto for so many years. One mother was even holding on to her children’s baby clothes even though they’re all grown-up now! In the end, though, the hoarder realizes the importance of letting go, and walks happily into a clutter-free home that gets redesigned by the BBC team. A liberating experience indeed.

It’s not easy to live with hoarders, as family members of Life Laundry participants confess. A Reader’s Digest article on the Hoarding Syndrome even states that this obsessive-compulsive disorder can even be “dangerous”:

The dust, mildew, mold and rodent droppings commonly found in extreme clutter can irritate allergies or lead to headaches or respiratory problems like asthma for hoarders and their families. In some cases, home maintenance suffers, so individuals may endure freezing winters without heat and sweltering summers with no air conditioning. Clutter also places hoarders and their families, especially the elderly, at high risk of injuring themselves in a fall.

So, if you have been showing signs that you’re a potential compulsive hoarder — or maybe you already are — it’s highly important to address the issue at hand. It’s not only you who suffer, but the people around you as well. Know the cause of the problem and seek help.

When there’s no more space for you to eat, sleep, sit and work properly in your clutter-ridden home, maybe it’s time to turn your landfill of a house into a proper home and take matters under control. People are supposed to own things, and not the other way around.


TIDBITS: Philippine Tourism Secretary Rafael Alunan III once told his staff during a meeting in the ’90s: “The landscape is reflective of the mindscape.” While he was specifically talking about how to handle the country’s tourism programs at that time, what he said could well be applied to how well — or how bad — we manage our homes.


8 thoughts on “The clutter-filled life

  1. Having too much clutter is almost inevitable esp with my wife who is a compulsive buyer of unecessary things 😉 Frankly, I shun the idea of geting into a crafts store coz I don’t want to amass more junk into the garage !


  2. BW, the wife is always the culprit when it comes to clutter (LOL). Pray, what “unnecessary things” does she usually buy? My husband and I are book collectors fast becoming book hoarders. Our apartment is cluttered with books now. Guess I have to put some in packing boxes and store them in the attic. Good you have a garage to place all your ‘junk.’


  3. What a timely and apt article for me. It’s difficult to control the clutter at home these days what with my son’s toys, my husband’s stuff and mine. But I did notice that the messier our place is, then the harder it is for me to concentrate on my work and studies. I usually have to do a bit of tidying up to set me into a working mode.:P Thanks for this post.


  4. Sining, ah yes, the toys and adult stuff. Like you, I also find it hard to study or work when the apartment is in such a messy state. My sister is the opposite — she can write her textbooks amid the clutter all around her! Here in our place, we do have a problem with the lack of storage units. 😦 I really feel tired just looking at the mess in our home.


  5. A certain level of mess is good for us. In fact the opposite tendency, of being over organised is counter productive.

    “moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones.” …quoted from an excellent book “A Perfect Mess” by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman

    If we have a certain amount of clutter in our lives we are nudged into remembrance by chance discoveries, or we have sudden insights when seeing serendipitous conjunction of things. And we do not spend too much time attempting to control mess.

    As an example today I found a newspaper cutting in my pile of unsorted papers that reminded me about an exhibition I wanted to go to.


  6. Nick, I totally agree. I don’t believe in the benefits of ‘the clinical look.’ A certain amount of mess, as you call it, is indeed healthy. That is why I have my own ‘organized clutter’ at home (and in my former office). Thanks for your input.

    Having said this, I’d like to say that this blog post was mainly about clinical hoarders and the unbelievable mess they create at home. I saw on BBC’s Life Laundry, for instance, video footages of people’s bedrooms, living rooms, or dining rooms filled to the brim with unnecessary stuff. One girl had to sleep on the floor just because her bedroom was filled with ‘trash’ accumulated through the years. One housewife could not entertain guests anymore at home because there was no proper place to eat or sit.


  7. Yes your post was about those very few pathological hoarders, as highlighted in that programme “Life Laundry”.

    I think that by concentrating on such extremes we become prone to worrying about how we exhibit less extreme symptoms. But worry we do.

    Think of all of those adverts about “germs” etc. etc. – all contributing to this embarrassed admission that we live in clutter. Its natural. Don’t feel ashamed.

    Sorry, will climb off soap-box, now.


  8. Nick, I think it’s all about balance. And it applies to everything we do in life (and not just to clutter management or the lack of it).

    I wrote this post because I know at least four people who hoard unnaturally. I had seen how it affected their lives — and the lives of the people around them — negatively.

    As for me, I’m not a chronic hoarder; just a mere collector of nice stuff. Having a “certain amount of clutter” is fine by me. As I already said, it’s even healthy. I personally don’t feel ashamed or worried about my ‘organized clutter.’ It’s just that some forms of mess — e.g. my husband’s pile of dirty socks and shirts on the floor or my roommate’s/sister’s quagmire of books, school supplies and clothes in the bedroom — do get into my nerves sometimes. I can’t concentrate so well when there are lots of eye sore around me. And this is also a natural reaction for many people, me included.

    But I know what you mean. The key is, in my opinion, to strike the right balance.


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