In my work as a social worker in a crisis service for women in distress I was often confronted by the issue of hoarding. Domestic violence and other forms of abuse had been big stories for many of my clients. Drugs and alcohol were used to sooth the demons they struggled with, and many had to deal with the internal demands of mental illness.
Learning to keep order in their outer world was a big challenge for them to deal with alone but through our support they learned to shop and clean and manage their finances and, we hoped, one day be able to function in the world with minimal support.
When we encountered hoarding, it was quite daunting and difficult. We tended to fall into the trap of thinking we had to fix the visible part of the problem – help get the mess cleaned up.
In more recent days research has shown that hoarding is a mental health issue all on its own, with its own set of descriptors, causes and solutions.
I was fortunate to be able to do some training and in it we were taught that orchestrating a big clean-up was actually traumatising for the people affected. Removing the mess was no solution because it failed to address the reason people hoarded.
It made sense. After helping a client with a clean-up we would often be saddened to see that a few months later the mess had returned.
Like all disorders there is a scale with hoarding. And there is a point where an ordinary hanging on to something becomes a pathology.
Like many, I like to keep mementos from a holiday. A hoarder may keep everything. In fact a hoarder often may not be able to discern the difference between a memory and the souvenir that reminds them of it and consequently when people kindly try to fix ‘the problem’ by throwing everything out, hoarders feel that their memories are actually being ripped from them.
Without the object the memory no longer exists.
There are alternatives to the traumatic throwing out of a person’s sense of self, which we went on to discuss. One that stood out to me was of a family member painstakingly going through the accumulated mess with their mother and helping her put together a series of albums, cataloguing events to represent her memories in a more manageable way, holding on to enough so that things would not be forgotten, and learning to be able to discard some things in the process.
It was much slower and more time consuming than just sending in a clean-up team but the outcome was that this woman was not traumatised in the process and the cleaning out resulted in her learning new ways of doing things. Ways that might last.
Some of us who have experienced a different sort of hoarding. Something more internal. We have had experiences that have left us with memories that are filled with pain and we can’t let them go.
We have tried to tell others but some of them have said it’s not that bad, we should get over it. We’ve taken the pain then and shoved it deep inside. We haven’t known a better way. We have had no other answer and so we hoarded the pain. We kept it all to ourselves. So it wouldn’t be lost. And we added new pain to it – the pain of not being understood. And we thought it was okay. No one could tell what we were lugging around. No one could see it.
Sometimes it works out okay. Sometimes we can function quite well. Sometimes it becomes a pathology and might wear a label like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Sometimes it might lead to other issues like drug or alcohol abuse or self-harm. But if it could be stripped back what would become visible is some memory that we can’t escape.
You can’t help a hoarder who doesn’t see that they have a problem. And you can’t recover until you can see that the hoarding of pain doesn’t fix anything.
Somewhere along the way we have to realise that in hanging on to our pain we are essentially agreeing with the perpetrator that we deserve to live a smaller life.
There came a day in my own life when I realised I needed to commit to recovery. I made a decision that I was going to take the time to once and for all clean out the mess my internal world had become, turned on the lights to see into the nooks and crannies and tried to miss nothing.
I had a need to deal with my memories. I wrote them down so nothing could be lost.
I let people I trusted read what I had written. Because my memories were not lost, I could set them free and I could set myself free from them.
The hoarder of pain had been transformed. My house was swept clean, the mess was gone and instead of all the junk I used to see when I looked inside, there were clean spaces.
It’s a daily choice to keep my heart clean. To keep a tidy internal world. And I learned that this is what we call recovery.