Ever since I started publicly claiming the label “hoarder,” I’ve had many people — including my current boyfriend (who I affectionately call a neat freak) — respond with some version of “why?” when I explain some of my hoarding tendencies, which led, at their worst, to me hiring a trash removal service when I moved from my home of 13 years. Even though hoarding was named its own disorder in the DSM-V last year, rather than a subset of OCD, it’s still often seen as something over-the-top and sensational, an utterly irrational way of existing. Now, I can’t explain what motivates every hoarder, such as the man who hoarded over 44,000 pieces of mail in Kentucky. But I do think we as a culture need to show hoarders more compassion than hatred. So here are 5 key ways I believe hoarders think fundamentally differently than non-hoarders.
1. Rather than asking, why keep it, we ask, why not keep it?
When my boyfriend and I moved recently, to me it was a no brainer to hold on to my very first computer, a Mac Color Classic, purchased in 1993 when I went to college. Firstly, I’d kept it this long, why give it away now? I’d been holding on to it for sentimental reasons — as I said, it was my first computer, and over 20 years later, I’m curious about unearthing my no doubt very juvenile thoughts that I took so seriously back then.
My boyfriend’s response, though, was, “You haven’t looked at it in all this time, and you probably never will. You don’t even have a way to turn it on.” Technically, he was right on the latter, and very likely, on the former. But still, it’s not like we didn’t have space — my new home has a basement, the first of my life. Why would I toss it? Those just weren’t good enough reasons to my mind. The same with my old cell phone, that I know buried in its depths has some text messages and old numbers that will remind me of who I was in my 20s. Even if I never turn those pieces of equipment on again, knowing I own them matters to me, because they remind me of who I was at previous stages of my life.
2. We like to be prepared.
Hoarders aren’t just keeping stuff for the sake of keeping it, though it may seem that way to outsiders. We keep stuff because we think it’s useful, either now or, it will be in the future. Maybe we know, deep deep down, that a given dress no longer fits, but someday we might be able to squeeze into it. It’s why I like buying in bulk — I never do it simply for the sake of “owning extra,” but because I’d rather know that I have enough padded envelopes or toilet paper or whatever it is to last for months. Unless an item is irreparably broken, I’m loath to get rid of it.
3. We see the potential in our stuff.
Similar to being prepared, we look beyond the surface and see what our stuff might be useful for someday in the future. For example, I own what’s probably thousands of books, and many people have told me, Well, you can always get the from the library or buy them as ebooks. Sure, but why would I do that when I own them right now? I clearly don’t pick up each of them every week or even every month, but if it’s a book I may go back and pick up, even if I haven’t touched it in a decade, I want to hold on to that possibility. I feel the same about heels that seemed perfect in the store and only wound up being worn once — if I liked them way back when, I may rediscover them at any point.
4. We like our stuff to be useful.
I do actually give things away, which is my preferred way of purging possessions. I hate throwing them directly in the garbage; it makes me feel guilty and wasteful, whereas if I donate clothes to Goodwill or books to a charity bookstore like Housing Works, I feel okay about it. So sometimes I hold on to things because I’m waiting to determine (or maybe meet) the perfect person to give a given object to, one who would truly appreciate it. This is often the most baffling thing for others to understand, because they see our stuff as impeding our lives, when what we want is for it to make our lives, or other people’s lives, better.
5. We don’t mind going to great lengths in the name of our stuff.
No, I haven’t gone so far as New Yorker Kevin McCrary, who GQ reports has resorted to sleeping on the street and church benches because there’s no room in his apartment for, well, him. I haven’t even rented a storage space. But I did sacrifice a lot in the depths of my hoarding mania — I slept on a mattress on the floor, rather than a proper bed, largely because bringing one in would have involved displacing the objects already littering the floor. I didn’t have any guests over for many years, lest they stop being my friend because I was a hoarder. I didn’t use my stove because I had stuff piled on and around it, and didn’t ask my landlord for help turning on my brand new refrigerator when it didn’t work, because I was afraid he’d evict me. I’m not saying I’m proud of those things, but they do show the lengths we’re willing to go to hold on to our hoards.