George is an articulate, thoughtful, well-educated man who struggles with hoarding behaviours. He recently retired from a 40 plus year career as a hospital service worker, a job that he liked but perhaps, without crippling anxiety, would have left to explore other avenues. He studied Roman History at university and has maintained his interest in ancient history, recently visiting and exploring Rome. He has many hobbies he would like to pursue such as woodworking and building scale models and complicated Lego projects. Here is his story of lived experience.
When I look back, I think I have always had hoarding tendencies. As a child I remember that my school desk, which had a roll out drawer, was always a mess. I would rummage through the stuff to find what I needed. My house has always been a bit messy. My grandmother had a hoarded home. Before that term “hoarding” became popular, she was just called “crazy”. Her husband was the local doctor, so that’s how she got away with it. Mental illness runs in my family. One brother, now deceased, had bi-polar disorder and substance abuse issues.
I have a drinking problem but have been sober since 2001. I think that my drinking was a way to deal with my anxiety. It wasn’t until my sobriety took hold that I came to realize I had a clutter problem. It had gotten to the point that my house was not functional; I had to wash my dishes in a basin in the bathtub, flush the toilet with a bucket of water (I couldn’t let a plumber in to fix it), and garbage was piled everywhere. I had surgery for colon cancer and after the surgery, I stayed in a hotel for a week to recover. I couldn’t go home.
I knew I had a problem and was trying to gain some insight. For years I tried, but nothing was changing. It wasn’t the way I wanted to live. A friend told me about a group support meeting and convinced me to go. I went, but as I suffer from social anxiety, a group setting is not for me. Fortunately, I found that I could get individual counselling which I’ve been doing for several years. I now have a cluttered, but functional home.
Anxiety makes it hard for me to make decisions regarding stuff. I feel a swirling in my brain and my gut, so I tell myself I’ll deal with it later and distract myself with something else – Nintendo is good for that. After a while you think, well this is just another thing to put on the pile and you stop noticing it grow. It’s hard to let things go. Part of this is tied up with my self-image. I’m frugal, therefore I don’t waste. With the help of my therapist, I’m learning that I don’t have to let anxious feelings dictate my behaviour.
I am also a perfectionist. If I can’t do something perfectly, I don’t do it. This means that I don’t always complete projects - if they’re not perfect, then I can’t go on. I’m very critical of myself. Even after my session with my therapist I think, “what did I do wrong”? I’m a loner. I don’t like being around other people. I find social interactions exhausting. I’ve never had a significant relationship in my life and don’t have friends. My one friend died.
I don’t’ know what I would like the public to know about hoarding behaviour. I call hoarding shows mental illness porn. They are “entertainment” that takes advantage of people in crisis. They remind me of a time when people would go to the circus to see the freak show. Hoarding behaviours are so tied up with our society of consumption; stuff is so cheaply and inexpensively produced. We are surrounded by it. It is so intensely personal.
I want to be an optimist. My mantra when driving is patience, tolerance, compassion. There are a lot of differences among people, but I feel we should focus on our common humanity rather than our differences. My hope for the future is that I am able to enjoy what stuff I have. I can have stuff. I can have a cluttered house as long as I enjoy it and it’s functional and safe.