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Voices of COHP

Susan - 2nd generation disposaphobic


Back in the 80s when I was a teenager, Hoarding Disorder wasn’t an identified condition. I just thought my dad was weird. I tossed out stacks of his old telexes behind his back, thinking I was helping. My brother and I even cracked jokes about how “cheap” Dad was.


I was salutatorian of my high school class, voted Most Likely to Succeed, and had lots of friends. Graduated Magna Cum Laude from UCLA. Thirty years later… have Hoarding Disorder. Living alone with two cats and being unemployed more often than not is far  from how I imagined my life would turn out.


Hoarding Disorder occurs on a spectrum. Even though I don’t fall on the extreme end – it causes me a great deal of distress and has impaired my life significantly. Despite having a lot of self-awareness, it’s still incredibly challenging for me to combat.


There are different opinions on the term “hoarder.” I prefer “disposaphobic,” and I never aspired to become one.  Please believe me when I say it’s not an active “choice.” I completely understand how it feels like your loved one is choosing junk over you.  That’s certainly how it appears.  And I know it hurts. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.


People have asked me, “When did your hoarding begin?” In my opinion, it doesn’t really “begin” so much as it progresses to where it becomes problematic.


Hoarding creeps up on you over time – much like the parable about the boiled frog.  Put a frog in a pot of room temperature water, and as the heat is slowly turned up the frog isn’t aware of what’s happening until the water’s well on its way to boiling… and then the frog can’t climb out.


I didn’t get in this situation overnight.  And I didn’t realize it was getting increasingly worse until one day I looked around and thought, “Holy sh*t.  How did I end up like this???”  In hindsight, I can see the progression.  


Perfectionism is often a huge part of HD.  On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. “If they’re such a perfectionists, why do their homes look like they’re too lazy to take care of anything?”  Think of it as perfectionism gone haywire.


Early in my life, my perfectionism served me well.  I excelled in school.  I was a good kid who followed the rules.  My room was spotless, including the WHITE carpet.  I was organized… I saved all my homework in reverse chronological order!  That was fine when I lived at home, had limited possessions, and was only responsible for maintaining my bedroom.  Saving my homework in high school was the beginning of my collecting behavior.  But it wasn’t yet problematic.


Once I moved out on my own, I had to get furniture, appliances, linens, etc.  That was all fine in the beginning when I started with an empty apartment. Like anyone, as I got older I acquired more things and more responsibilities. Clothes. Photos. Bills. Medical records. Financial documents. Exercise equipment. Warranties. Accessories. Insurance policies. The problem was that I kept so much of it.


I used to be an avid shopper.  My mom enjoys clothes shopping, so that was an activity we did together.  Never a morning person, I always managed to get to Nordstrom early for their semi-annual sales because of all the money I was going to save!  “Love these shoes… I’ll take them in two colors!”


I also have a thing for gadgets. I love learning how things work, and I get great satisfaction from fixing things.  As a kid, one of my favorite things to do was hang out with my dad when he was soldering because he’d let me touch the solder wire to the connection.  He called me his “little engineer.”


You know how it’s possible to have too much of a good thing?  That’s certainly the case with perfectionism.  Wanting to do everything in the best possible way becomes overwhelming.  There’s not enough time to do everything “perfectly” – so more and more things end up pushed aside for “later,” which never comes.


I distinctly remember the first time I shoved a bag into the closet to deal with LATER.  Friends were coming over, and my perfectionist standards at that time kept me from letting people in unless my apartment was absolutely pristine. (Looking back, if I could have my house today in the “messy” condition of my apartment back then – I’d be friggin’ elated.)


I didn’t have time to put away everything that I didn’t want sitting out.  So I dumped the remaining things into a shopping bag and threw it into the hall closet. This, I have come to learn, is the “stash & dash” technique.  Keep repeating that technique over time and you end up with expansive, random clutter of who knows what.  This is how many of my truly important things got mixed in with crap.


MOVING has been the only thing that has gotten me to part with possessions in a relatively short amount of time – mostly at the deadline. I need that proverbial gun to the head. Unfortunately, I haven’t moved many times in my life.


After 17 years in a condo, I moved to a house. With only a day left before having to turn the condo keys over to the new owner – I gave away most of my expensive contemporary furniture that didn’t go with the traditional-style house.  (And yes, on occasion I do think about that furniture -- even 15 years later.) I didn’t have time to list items for sale, so I didn’t have a choice.


There were renovations that needed to be done in my new home.  During that time, someone tried to force their way into my house.  I was pulled off the doorstep and hit the ground. After this trauma – I became essentially paralyzed when it came to dealing with my house.  Renovations halted and were never completed.  A number of boxes that I moved here 15 years ago remain unopened.


I never had a housewarming party. I’ve only let a handful of close friends into my house.  One of them who came in six years ago said, “It looks like someone moved in and never finished.”


For sure, the trauma kicked my Hoarding Disorder into high gear.  When I lived in the condo, I used to get rid of way more things than I do now.  I used to do regular wardrobe purges, taking bags full of clothing to Goodwill.  And I didn’t use to save broken things.  My theory about the broken things is that after the trauma -- I  feel broken.


I detest the clutter that surrounds me.  It saps me of both physical and mental energy, it wastes my time, it robs me of my potential, and it makes me feel hopeless.


For months, a malfunctioning pet feeder had been parked on my dresser. One day I looked at it and thought, “I f*cking HATE you! You’re a waste of space, and I’m sick of seeing you there every day! It’s garbage day tomorrow, and I’m throwing you in the trash!!!”  But when I grabbed it to toss out – it’s as if something came over me. My mind was invaded by thoughts about saving parts for backup… recycling… wasted money….  And I quickly lost my resolve.


Every time I try to throw something out but fail – a little bit more of my self-esteem is chipped away.  Lately, I’ve realized that by prioritizing all this stuff over my own well being, I’m sending myself a very damaging message:  “Susan, you’re not worth much.  You are a waste of space.”


Despite knowing all the clutter is hurting me, I remain captive to it. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome.  Even though I detest living like this and want desperately to have a clear, functional home – my excess clutter is somehow fulfilling a need I can’t explain.


HD is a double-edged sword for me.  I love to sew and often create custom pieces. A small scrap of vinyl that a non-disposaphobic would’ve thrown out… I turned it into a sleek case to put my little scissors in for travel.  It was gratifying for me to transform “nothing” into “something.”  People see the case and say, “Where did you get that? You made it? It’s beautiful… I want one, too!” That’s why it’s difficult for me to just throw away all the other small scraps of fabric I’ve saved.  I see potential in them all.


The shame I feel over the state of my home has kept me from letting repair people in, so my house has deteriorated over time. HD is rife with vicious circles.  I feel like I’m trying to tread water… only I’m in quicksand.


Even with a great deal of self-awareness about my condition, reading a lot about HD and giving well-received presentations at three annual conferences on hoarding -- discarding things is still one helluva challenge for me.


I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on limiting acquisitions, in large part because I know how damn difficult it is for me to get rid of things.  Now before I acquire something I ask myself, “How hard would it be for me to discard this later?” That’s usually enough to send me running for the hills.


Part of my recovery involves making videos about my journey.  In them, I often examine my thoughts and behaviors.  Maybe the videos can help others, as well.  In this one I talk about Conflict with Loved Ones -


Rooting for you and your loved ones ~Susan




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