In a nutshell, hoarding is the inability to throw anything away due to the (irrational) fear of what may happen.
It generally stems from childhood trauma. I lived for five years with a sufferer who only hoarded to a "medium" level. This meant we couldn't walk through the two spare rooms in our house, could not get into the garage and had two overflowing garden sheds, not to mention the piles and piles of junk outside the house, but the house wasn't in danger of being condemned. We had fourteen cars at one stage, only two of them drivable. He used to be an electronics technician which meant our friends would give him their phones to repair, and then the phones would get lost in the house. When he got a job in the building and construction industry, he'd come home from work with a trailer piled high with waste materials from the building site which he'd then store around the outisde of our house fully believing that he'd one day find a use for them. And when there was no more room on the ground, he started to store sheets of iron, formwork, guttering, whatever on the roof.
He hoarded in every sense of the word - he'd have 20 or 30 internet tabs and windows open on the computer and fly into a rage of panic if it crashed, he saved every text message in his phone and could never get a new phone even when his was falling apart because then he'd lose all the messages. He had phone books in the house dating back eight or ten years because they had old phone numbers of people he knew in them. His stepfather would give him old car magazines which just piled up, unread.
When I first moved in with him I had no idea about hoarding at all. I saw there was a lot of old junk around so (with my OCD tendencies - how laughable that someone like me would have ended up with a hoarder!) thought I'd do a nice thing and start by clearing out the bathroom cabinet which was overflowing with old bottles of shampoo, loofah mitts, razors, hair products, soaps, candles, perfume samples etc. I remember there was a screw top lid to a toothpaste tube. It was crusted with old toothpaste, browned, dusty and just obviously rubbish. I chucked it in the bin. When he found it in the bin he flew into a rage that would become familiar all too quickly and said "No, absolutely not, that is useful and we're not throwing it away." I gazed at him uncomprehendingly while realising that there was something a lot more complicated and frightening going on here that I would have to deal with.
Living with a hoarder is incredibly hard. Especially because as much as I tried, I could not and still do not understand the attachment to junk. I used to beg people not to offer him their old stuff because they knew he'd take it.
I would frequently cry with frustration and fear of what our life would end up like. When I would get into or out of my car in our driveway I hoped people going past didn't think I lived there. I was so ashamed of our house. Everyone complains about the Mormons and Jehovah door knockers, but they would avoid our house and I remember wishing that I lived in a house that they would feel comfortable to knock on the door of. I would wish desperately for someone else's life. Anyone else's.
Living with hoarding nearly broke me. I thought that I was pretty rigid and exacting but I had nothing in the face of such compulsive behaviour. I had no control over my living space and would make a conscious effort to block it out and not think about it because if I did I would sink into the most suffocating, clawing panic. I realise now that I was probably suffering a form of anxiety but I didn't realise it at the time.
Why didn't I just leave? Looking back now, I don't know who that cowed, frightened girl was who allowed herself to be controlled by someone else's problems. I was terrified of tripping his explosive temper, all the while hating my life but unable to break free. And I suppose the stupid reason, the dumb unexplainable thing that kept me there in a life that was killing me, was love. I loved him so much. I knew and could acknowledge in so many words that life without him would be infinitely easier but when I did picture my life without him, how it would be if I left, it was all grey.
When I did eventually leave, it was amazingly anticlimatic. I went to Queensland for my job and once I was apart from him, as cliched as it sounds, it was as though the spell had lifted. I exhaled for the first time in years. I felt light and free and like myself again. I didn't cry every day. And the rising panic was gone. He never came to Queensland.
Hoarding is an awful condition that destroys your ability to lead a normal life. It's a horrible compulsion for the hoarder who can't stop what they're doing and often ends up pushing away the people who love them - essentially choosing their "junk" over their real relationships. The problem is that they don't see that it's junk. It's like me coming into your house and throwing away your most prized possessions. You'd be bum up in the bin digging them out too.
The only good thing about hoarding is that it is surprisingly easy to treat. If the person wants to stop hoarding, if they want to break the cycle, they will. It will be difficult and will take time, but it can be done. I saw this to be true with my ex. He sought treatment and made leaps and bounds in our last months. I don't know if he's still hoarding. I just hope he's found some peace with himself that he didn't have while we were together.
I'm linking up with Essentially Jess for IBOT.