Got a hoarding problem? There may be a simple reason for it

Researchers are exploring links between life-changing events and hoarding

Giving a room piled high with newspapers a clearout and a makeover might be a neat narrative arc on TV, but there’s often much more to it than that. Photograph: Getty Images

Giving a room piled high with newspapers a clearout and a makeover might be a neat narrative arc on TV, but there’s often much more to it than that. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Buried Alive. The Hoarder Next Door. Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. Thanks to a cluster of new programmes, TV audiences are invited to gasp, shriek and cringe as cameras linger in rooms stuffed to the rafters with detritus, junk and clutter. We ogle in disbelief at those finding it hard to part with old beer mats, leaflets and takeaway menus.

Giving a room piled high with newspapers a clearout and a makeover might be a neat narrative arc on TV, but there’s often much more to it than that. What constitutes teatime entertainment for many is in fact a serious psychological condition.

If you were to go back into those houses in six months, they’d be very much as they were before

Researchers at the School of Psychology at NUI Galway are seeking Irish participants for a study on the link between life events like loss, bereavement and trauma, and instances of hoarding.

“My feeling about those [television] shows is that while it’s great they have therapists working with the people involved, their treatment of hoarding is mainly superficial,” says Dr Elizabeth Kehoe, a psychologist in clinical training who is carrying out the research. “My prediction is that if you were to go back into those houses in six months, they’d be very much as they were before.”

In some ways, the link between grief and material goods seems obvious. It’s hard to let go of something important that we’ve been given, or a gift that someone was kind enough to give us. The acquiring stuff seems to tether us to safety. After a parental loss, surrounding ourselves with ephemera from our childhood or family home is a comfort. I have an attic full of old copybooks, toys and old communion dresses: talismans to a life that was simpler and happier. Every so often, I eye the Ikea bag in the hot press that contains old letters, landline bills from my late mother’s house and Christmas cards from family members. There’s even a retro fax or two in there. They’re of little sentimental value, all told. In some ways, they barely tell me anything about my early life. Still, a small voice keeps telling me, “not yet”.

In times of vulnerability, doesn’t everyone seek emotional support, rooting and belonging wherever they can? Don’t we cling to keepsakes, afraid that we’ll forget the one thing it reminds us of?

Hoarding exists on a spectrum, and the experts agree that a person who has difficulty getting in and out of rooms is something of a red flag. Photograph: Getty Images
Hoarding exists on a spectrum, and the experts agree that a person who has difficulty getting in and out of rooms is something of a red flag. Photograph: Getty Images

Yet according to Kehoe, there’s a point where clutter ends and hoarding begins. Hoarding exists on a spectrum, and the experts agree that a person who has difficulty getting in and out of rooms is something of a red flag. Keeping our old clothes, toys or souvenirs is all well and good, once there is a dedicated space for them to go.

According to Dr Jonathan Egan, director of Clinical Practice at NUI Galway, the trauma of grief and bereavement causes certain people to react in this way: “A bereavement can cause such significant anxiety that they can’t process such overwhelming loss. In a sense, objects become more predictable and controllable than people.”

He adds: “If grief elicits sadness and anger, the Irish are good at the ceremony and sadness around death, and not so good at the anger bit. Hoarders are good at the anger and not so good with sitting with the vulnerability of loss. And if you move to intervene, they won’t want that.”

It would be like me taking pictures of your family and throwing them in the bin

A Marie Kondo-style clearout might sound like the sensible option, but Kehoe predicts that this straightforward approach would end badly for the hoarder: “Even if you’re throwing away newspapers, it would be like me taking pictures of your family and throwing them in the bin,” she says.

“It can be a slow process. If there’s much deeper emotional hurt to address, hoarding is only the symptom.”

Sarah Reynolds, owner of decluttering service Organised Chaos, has encountered several clients who have accumulated “massive” amounts of items.

“Some of them may have experienced a grief from quite a number of years ago and they probably don’t even realise its impact,” she says. “They’ll say something like, ‘I’ve always been a hoarder’. But you realise that they might have lost a very important thing in childhood and they start accumulating stuff from there. My understanding is that they’re trying to control their space. It’s the one thing they can be in charge of.”

And for those who have experienced bereavement, a clearout has a much deeper significance than simply wanting to see the carpet again. And perhaps this is why the Ikea bag in the hot press will likely go unbothered from quite some time. “It really is a letting go,” says Reynolds.

To participate in the NUI Galway survey, click here.

Follow the link for more information on Organised Chaos.