Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Extreme Hoarders Aren't Completely Crazy

The other day, I was viewing with morbid fascination TLC's Hoarders: Buried Alive. I'm watching these people who are literally being consumed by their possessions and all the while dishing out an unfair dose of judgment and pity on these pour strangers (which I cringe to admit after my previous post about judgement).

One guy was a compulsive shopper in addition to being a chronic hoarder (bad combo as you might imagine). The other lady featured was an extreme hoarder whose house was stuffed to the brim with things that she had dug out of trash bins, saved from roadside pick-up and snatched from thrift store cast-offs in hopes that she could give the items to someone who might be able to use them. As you might imagine, she did not fine people to give the items to and they have been collecting dust in her house for years. She couldn't even have her grandchildren come visit because her home was so unsafe due to the piles and piles of stuff.

I'm staring aghast at the way these people are living and raging in my head against the ridiculousness of being so attached to stuff. The Horders literally required psychiatric help in order to remove stuff from their homes without having a complete nervous breakdown. (Please know that I do understand that extreme hoarding stems in part from a phyicatric condition and is usually a symtom of a deeper issue. I do not intend to make light of that fact.) I was angry to see this addiction to stuff while knowing there are millions of people in the world living without even their basic needs met.

Then I realized my hypocrisy and that in some way, most ALL of us are too attached to our stuff. Stuff we don't really need. Stuff we want just because we want something new. Stuff we don't use, but won't get rid of. Stuff we buy to fit in. Stuff we buy to make ourselves feel better. The likelihood is, that if you live in a first-world culture, you have a stuff addiction on some level. 

Then I started looking at the hoarders a little differently and got really irritated at all the "stuff" and why it exists in the first place and why it's available for hoarding at all.

Let's look at the compulsive shopper gentleman, who shopped to have something to do and to make himself feel better. Yes, the level of his actions are extreme, but the "shop to feel better about yourself" is an advertising gimmick that companies rope us in with over and over again. And this man has fallen prey to the mindset that possessions equals happiness. (If you're interested, you can read my post, The Dark Lie of Happiness, that covers this topic.)

Then there is the grandma who can't have her family visit because her house is overtaken by stuff. But really, should I be completely appalled by her actions? She is having a hard time throwing away things because she knows they are in good condition and useful. Maybe not useful to her, but they ARE useful and wasting them by tossing them in the dumpster is giving her a panic attack. It suddenly hit me that in some ways she is totally right to feel that way. Those mounds of possessions ARE useful but people have just thrown them away. Perhaps this lady's "problem" isn't hoarding at the core, but it is seeing the wastefulness of others and not knowing how to try and stop it. Her "crazy" compulsion to save these items has its roots in the consumer habits of others. Those who buy more than they need. Who toss things they could still use in order to replace it with something "better", "cooler", or just "newer" for the sake of having something new. People like me. People like you. The amount of stuff our culture purchases, tosses and replaces should be giving us all panic attacks. Especially if we compare it to the shocking lack of stuff most people of the world live with (40% of the world's population lives on less than $2.00 a day).

The more days of my life that tick by, the more I find that stuff means increasingly less and less to me. I'm slowly but surely learning to live with less, or take better care of the useful things I already have, and in the process, I'm loving it. This change was kick-started a few years ago -  after coming face-to-face with extreme poverty during my two trips to Uganda, Africa. It's hard after something like that to justify having an excess of things when others around the world (some whom I've met personally) are living without even the basic necessities (clean water, shelter, food, clothing). Though I still have more than I need, and still fall prey to marketing gimmicks, I'm finding I really enjoy the simplicity and lack of clutter. I'm a "recovering consumer" trying to bring my materialist habits under control - for my benefit and the benefit of those in need.

Yes, I will (likely) always have stuff, and stuff in itself isn't always bad. Too little stuff (as in, "I don't have food on the table or cloths on our backs") is bad and too much stuff (as in, wasteful, exploitive consumerism) is bad. Somewhere in between (but I would argue on the  frugal, generous side of the spectrum) would seem to be a good place to land for most of us.

I'm reading an interesting book right now called, Consumer Detox and the author takes a really balanced approach on the whole consumerism issue. One (of many) points he makes that I really liked was this: "Freedom [from consumerism] isn't when our possessions mean nothing to us. We are physical beings - we will always express ourselves using physical things. But the way we use our possessions can become something different."

Some simple ideas for how to "use our possessions for something different": 

  • Fix things instead of throwing them away and take better care of the items you already have (allowing you to produce less waste, slow down the consumer machine, and give the money you save to help someone in need)
  • Buy used or repurposed items (thrift stores can provide an incredible supply of used clothing and items that are just calling out for a little loving creativity to make them awesome again)

Any other ideas you'd care to add? I'd love to hear about them!


  1. I'm with that Grandma--always trying to redeem the cast-offs! I emptied out 3 houses in the past few years after friends/family members' deaths and blessed many, many people with things they could use (Christian books, educational resources, general household supplies, etc.) Knowing what our own family of 7 can realistically use in our lifetime is what's tough....should I really try to store all these ziploc bags (or post-it notes, pens, bolts of fabric, etc) so I never, ever have to buy them again?? There's never a week that goes by that I don't hear of someone having a need and me being able to say, "why yes, I have that for you right here!" Sewing supplies for refugees, a kitchen gadget perfect for a blind friend, a book someone's been looking for. And that just reinforces my stock-piling....

    Case in point you'll love: yesterday we pulled out raggy white shirts I got free from our homeschool group's weekly "blessing table" so our little boys could sew black spots on them (cut from felt scraps carefully stowed away in a bin) so they can dress up as cows to get free meals from Chik-fil-a this Friday (up in Phx on our way to Prescott--any chance there will be little cow twins there as well??? :) Fun, educational activities are always at our finger tips b/c I have scrounged items of all sorts.

    My hoarding habits of used or cast-off goods have enabled us to save so much money that we have absolutely no debt--we own our house, 2 vans, and tons of expensive techie stuff (computers, cameras, etc). even tho we have a family of 7 that's lived on well under $50,000/yr because our one income is in the field of education. Hoarding with a purpose! ...we call it extreme frugality :) My children are safe--house was inspected for the 5 yrs we were licensed foster parents! But I do admit I do get behind with the build-up of clutter and sometimes can't find things...

    I can NOT throw anything usable away. I have a big stack of your dad's autographed poster-card things that were left over after the last event he did at our church...when will I see him again????? Probably won't be able to find them when we do have an opportunity to give them back!

    sorry for the long comment...should be working on my mess!!!

  2. I to, watch in amazement and anger that people are so attached to "stuff" to the point that is seen as a mental and safety issue. Now don't get me wrong, I like buying stuff. New tools, hunting gear, guitars, etc... But I know that at a certain point I stop. My basement is full. Can't really get any more stuff in it. It is has distinct areas though. Music, exercise, woodworking and hunting plus the backroom which has heavy duty wire shelving bought from a out of business restaurant. I have a set of crutches which I received when I had knee surgery- never know when I or someone I know might need them.

    Many items are in new or like new condition. I do get rid of stuff on occasion. Magazines, catalogs, old video tapes- no sense saving them. I do go through my opened but saved paint and stain cans and toss, They don't stay useable for ever after opening.

    My wife and I went through some of our items this past summer and took to SIL's garage sale. Made a few hundred bucks.

    At the time of this entry, I'm looking at a new drum set, a new guitar amp, and a varmint rifle. None of these items are needs, just wants.

    I'm trying to get a new woodshop built so I can move all those dust producing tools out side. It will make my house cleaner and my basement more roomy. Roomy enough for a new sauna....:)


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