I Was A Hoarder

Photo: Evgeny Pylayev / Shutterstock
hoarding room

It’s time I finally came clean about something horrifyingly embarrassing. I once lived in a messy apartment, full of trash.

You can’t imagine how painful and difficult it is for me to admit this to the world. I’m still full of shame.

This is part of my healing journey — admitting I’m not the perfectly curated “perfect” person that other people in my life may think I am — and knowing that there are a few people out there who saw the truth for what it was.

This is also a story of hope because I conquered this particular demon. And now I know that I can help other people do it, too.

This is my story.

A genetic link?

There’s a tale in my family’s lore that there once were two brothers, both peppery bachelor types. Since they never married, they lived together in an apartment somewhere on the East Coast, early in the 1900s. Nobody seems to know if these relatives were on my mother’s side or father’s side of the family, but that’s really not important to the story.

These two brothers died within a short time of each other, possibly days, and when the authorities broke down the door to the apartment, they were confronted by stacks and stacks of newspapers and other trash, blocking their way to the unfortunate pair. Apparently, it took days to get to the bodies.

This story was whispered in hushes throughout my childhood. I can’t remember who told it to me, but the image of those newspapers stacked to the ceiling in rows stayed in my head.

I was a messy child, as so many are. More interested in playing with toys, reading books, and daydreaming, I rarely found the inclination to tidy up after myself. That said, I wasn’t allowed to be a total slob.

My poor mother yelled and pleaded with me to clean up my bedroom on a daily basis. In high school, she banned me from attending my junior prom until I cleaned up my mess. That motivated me, but the lesson didn’t stick and I soon returned to my sloppy ways.

I remember going to the house of a family friend, probably when I was around 10 years old. They had three little girls named Faith, Hope, and Charity. These three girls shared a bedroom, and between their three little single beds was a literal sea of toys and trash. You had to wade through the pile, at least a foot deep, to get from bed to bed.

I was simply LAZY. I didn’t take my dishes back to the kitchen after I ate. I left clothes everywhere, clean or dirty, in piles on the floor and furniture. Upon discarding something useless, my trash bin overflowed onto the floor until I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and emptied it. Basically, I was a typical kid.

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However, the problem didn’t magically resolve itself when I left home.

On my own

I moved in with roommates in college. Luckily for me, they were all messy too. The sea of toys from the three little girls in my childhood was replaced by a sea of cosmetics, clothing, shoes, and other accouterments of young adulthood as my two female roommates and I shared a single bedroom.

None of us ever bothered about tidying up, unless one of us had a boy coming over — and then it was all hands on deck to make the place presentable.

When I was finally able to move out and live on my own, I began to truly struggle with my own messiness. Fortunately, I moved regularly during my twenties. Having to change houses regularly is an excellent trick for those of us with hoarding tendencies because it forces us to sort through our belongings and make at least some small effort to get rid of unnecessary things.

Each time I moved, I carefully set up my apartment, taking pride in decorating it to my taste at the time. I’d live in a clean environment for a few weeks, and then my natural laziness would settle in, and suddenly piles of trash and other detritus would begin to appear.

Now, I’m calling this laziness because, in many ways, I was simply too lazy to be bothered to pick up after myself. That’s not truly hoarding. I wasn’t holding on to my belongings out of any psychological need to keep them. I’m not emotionally attached to used cardboard boxes and old credit card receipts. I just wouldn’t pick up after myself and although it bothered me to come home to a messy house, I got used to it.

The long-term resident

The real trouble began when I moved into an apartment and stayed there for 18 years. Suddenly, the “cover” I’d had moving from place to place and being able to get rid of things disappeared. Now, I was stuck in one place and things began to deteriorate.

I lived for periods of time in a clean apartment. Usually, when I was dating someone, I made an extra effort to tidy up on a regular basis, so they wouldn’t find out what a pig I really was.

RELATED: How To Help A Loved One Who's Hoarding In Their Home

But when I wasn’t dating someone, I let things go. And things got desperate quickly. Where I lived, it was a bit of a walk from my apartment to the trash bins. I used that distance as an excuse to let the trash pile up until I had several bags full to take out.

I lived in filth. I admit it.

This is when I truly became a hoarder by the definitions in all of the medical textbooks. I had trash in my bed. My kitchen sink needed repair, but my house was too messy for even a repairman to come over. Out of desperation, I cleaned up for a new boyfriend but could do nothing about the dirty dishes due to the broken sink, so I hid them in a kitchen cabinet. He found them, and I’m still mortified that that happened.

Although I have never held on to possessions out of the fear of discarding them “because I might need them someday,” I still had difficulty parting with my possessions. The distress for me came in knowing what an effort it was going to take to clean up the mess.

And the cumulative effect of not cleaning up regularly meant that the problem just got worse, and thus the clean-up job got bigger and bigger. I lived in terrible fear that someone would need to come into my apartment for an emergency, and I’d be “found out.”

The change

I was still a practicing hoarder when I met my husband (who I’m now in the process of divorcing, for those who haven’t been following along). He, like most of the men I’d dated, was a neat freak.

I wonder still about the constant attraction between people who are so different in this regard, but it’s probably for the best because two hoarders living together is a nightmare — just ask those two bachelor uncles in my family what that gets you.

I quickly realized that if I was going to “win” the love of the man I wanted, I was going to have to make a major change in the way I was living. Suddenly, I wanted to impress him with my cleanliness. Also, his 14-year-old son was living with us, and I didn’t want to encourage him to be messy, so I needed to do something about my own problem.

The moving-in part was easy. I packed up the things I wanted to keep, and called a junk removal service to take the rest. I turned away from that life and leaned into my new one as a neat wife.

For the next five years, I battled my inner demons daily. I washed my dishes after eating and put them back in the cabinets.

I helped my husband vacuum and mop floors every weekend (until I finally broke down and bought him a $700 mopping robot vacuum because both our backs were killing us). I did load after load of laundry, fluffed and folded his clothes and mine. I changed bed linens weekly, and most importantly, I took out the trash.

My husband still found plenty of time to complain that I did not do enough housework. He did the heavier lifting when it came to housecleaning, but I certainly contributed plenty to the effort. I was never a housewife, and always held a job that was equally as busy as his, sometimes more so.

Yet because I was too ashamed to admit to him that I struggled with hoarding, he never realized how much I pushed myself to do the basic cleaning tasks that he did naturally and took for granted. I was grateful that he kept me honest with myself for those five years — I knew that if I went back to my old, messy ways, it would destroy our marriage, and I didn’t want to be the cause of our struggles.

Turns out it didn’t matter much, because no amount of effort on my part was good enough for him, and he was busy finding other ways to destroy our marriage anyway.

On my own again

I left my husband almost five months ago. I now live in a tiny, 100-year-old bungalow home with hardwood floors, 17 original glass-pane windows, and crown moldings. It’s bright and cheerful. I spent the time and money to decorate the house beautifully, and it’s my sanctuary. The one thing I brought with me to this house that didn’t require a moving van was a commitment to cleanliness.

My housekeeper comes through here once a month to do the work I don’t want to — mopping floors, deep cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, and scrubbing baseboards and window glass. I take care of the rest myself, and I’m dedicated to the task.

I discovered that it’s just not that hard if I commit one day a week to doing the things that need to be done. I have a list, and I go through and check off everything on that list every Sunday. I even bake bread as a treat.

So this story has a happy ending, you see. I slew the dragon and lived to tell the tale. I will never live in a messy house again — that’s the promise I made to myself. It takes work, and I have to recommit to it every day, but even when I was recovering from my appendectomy earlier this year, I made sure my house was presentable for my guests.

I recently helped someone I care for very much clean out her house, too. She had moved recently and was still dealing with boxes and piles of “stuff” that she felt she needed to keep. We spent a week sorting through all of the “stuff” and made new piles: Keep, Donate, and Toss.

Then we took out the trash, dropped off the donatable items at Goodwill, and went back through the Keep pile and found a place for everything. The end result was that this woman was able to enter her house with a sigh of relief rather than a feeling of despair.

Her bedroom floor was completely clean, not one pile or extra item where it shouldn’t be, her belongings organized in a logical and easily accessible way. I was so happy to be able to help someone else find that sense of peace that I feel in my own home,

I worked with her without any judgment, because how could I condemn her for the same thing I’d spent my life doing? I only felt acceptance, and a real sense of pride when we’d accomplished the task.

RELATED: Why It's Time To Stop Labeling People As Hoarders

I think I may have found something I can do in my retirement to help others who are struggling with this disease. And disease it is, make no mistake about it. According to Clinical Psychology Review, between 2–5% of the population suffers from a compulsive hoarding disorder. 

I know that while my case was not as severe as others, it was still unmanageable for most of my adult life, and I will continue to battle it for the rest of my life. Apathy, indecision, and procrastination are the enemy of hoarders who want to change.

I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m proud that I can finally admit the truth about my life. I know that there are many people out there struggling with the same problem. I’m not a therapist, but I have some perspective of my own about this struggle.

I hope I can be of help.

For more information on compulsive hoarding disorder, click here. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of hoarding disorder, contact your doctor or mental health professional. In some communities, public health agencies can assist in addressing problems of hoarding and getting help for individuals affected.

Jennifer K is a YourTango contributor who writes about relationships, self-help, and mindfulness. She is currently based in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter at @jennifree29.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.