The Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo gave us a peek into America’s battle with clutter. If you’re one of the many people trying to tidy up your home, you’ve likely taken a look at the show or read Kondo’s book. But what if you have a problem much deeper than clutter? How do you know if you’re actually a hoarder?
The Cheat Sheet spoke with Maria Spetalnik, a certified professional organizer, founder of Conquer the Clutter, and author of a book on hoarding for first responders titled Hoarding for Law Enforcement and Other Public Officials. Here’s what Spetalnik had to say about telling the difference between clutter and hoarding.
The Cheat Sheet: What’s the difference between being someone who simply has a clutter issue and someone with a hoarding disorder?
Maria Spetalnik: Almost everyone has some level of clutter, but it becomes a real issue when it starts to negatively impact the other areas of your life. It becomes hoarding when you are unable to limit your acquisition of items or cannot discard them. This leads to increasing piles and can become a safety issue. There are some people with hoarding disorder who are incredibly neat and organized and others who are very messy and dirty about their items. The main factor is the attachment to the items and the fear or discomfort of even considering eliminating them.
If you have rooms you cannot use for their intended purpose–such as sleeping in a bed, cooking in the kitchen, or using the shower, you may be looking at a hoarding situation. If you are hanging on to items that other people believe are trash or you have to go to extreme lengths to keep people from seeing the inside of your home,you may be hoarding.
CS: What causes hoarding?
MS: There is a big debate over the cause of hoarding. There are those who believe it is nature (genetics) and those who believe it is nurture (environment). It has been found that there is a genetic predisposition to hoarding behaviors but not everyone who has the marker starts to hoard. There is also the belief that if you are raised in a hoarder home you will hoard. This later statement isn’t necessarily true. While 80% of children raised in hoarder homes hoard, not all do. Of these children, you have the question of both nature and nurture since they usually live in homes with their family members. Even if you are predisposed to hoard, it seems to usually need a trigger to really kick in. Grief is a huge trigger for these behaviors. Loss of a parent or spouse, or even of an opportunity in the workplace can start the process.
CS: Can a hoarding disorder be cured?
MS: There are many who think hoarding cannot be cured. I think that even if the underlying issues continue to need work, the behaviors can be modified, and the person can stop hoarding. There is likely to be backsliding but a person who is aware of that is likely to notice quickly and remedy the issue before it becomes a big problem again.
CS: Can programs like Marie Kondo’s KonMari method help hoarders or is this best for people with clutter?
MS: Marie Kondo’s method works for many people, but no one organizing method can work for everyone. Unfortunately, parts of her process cannot work for the seriously cluttered and hoarding populations. One example would be starting the process by gathering everything of one type together, both for the visual effect of seeing how much of that stuff you have and to let you make the best decisions about each item. In a high-level hoarder home, it isn’t possible to start with gathering everything of one type, even from one room, and there is no place to put it all. This can be done later in the process, with the items that remain, but not at the beginning. Similarly, her method of thanking each item you are disposing of plays directly into the issue of hoarding disorder where the person has tremendous difficulty letting anything go. Adding an extra emotional impact only makes a difficult situation harder.
I think the most important thing is to remember that hoarding is a problem, but it does not define the person. It is easy to forget that the person who is hoarding is also a wonderful parent or child, an inspiring teacher, a kind and supportive friend. This is a person who happens to have a problem controlling the stuff in their lives, and may need help to do so, but is most importantly, a person.
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