Hoarding principles

As I started sharing the burden of having a hoarder parent with my friends, I slowly discovered that my friends have hoarder parents of their own too. In fact, I discovered, surprisingly, that most of my generation’s own parents have hoarding tendencies.

This explains why I noticed an upsurge of articles and discussions about how to deal with hoarder relatives in the last few years: my generation’s parents are becoming elderly, and so my peers and I are slowly taking up the burden to become responsible of elderly parents, and dealing with the “stuff” of hoarder parents is something that we certainly did not learn at school or in our career. We need collective help.

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The struggle is sufficiently real that communities are forming. For example, Reddit has an active “Child of Hoarder” subreddit. A relief: I won’t need to feel alone.

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Last week, I serendipitously came across two online comments that changed my life.

In short, a redditor called “girlwhopanics” shared a list of 17 actionable pieces of advice about how to de-clutter the life of a hoarder parent. I started reading this list out of practicality—I knew I needed to educate myself, and I quickly recognized the advice was good and practical—yet the text blew my mind in an area I was not expecting: it prompted me to identify a workable theory as to why and how hoarders get attached to stuff.

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The sentence that made it click was the following:

“They aren’t scared of losing the stuff, they’re scared of losing parts of themselves.”

The theory, as I developed it from my reading, goes as follows:

  • people associate a part of their identity to their memories of the past, specifically episodic memory. This is basically human, everybody does it.
  • episodic memory works by association: individual memories don’t “float freely” in one’s mind; instead they can only be recollected from something else.
  • the process of recollecting a memory also transforms it. A memory anchored to a common pattern of life (say, the noise of a passing train) is thus especially prone to distortion over time.
  • Certain memories are precious. A person is likely to avoid recollecting a precious memory that defines their sense of self too often (for example, pride of one’s graduation), because the process of recollection will dampen its emotional value over time. Instead, these memories are kept to be used “in case of need”, for example to provide strength and confidence during a difficult situation.
  • the usual way that people anchor their memories is to use patterns: behaviors, sights, smells, relationships, sometimes even other memories. Or, alternatively, situations: a specific place, an itinerary, an interaction, etc. As identified above if a pattern is common, all associated memories distort at a higher rate. Folk thus tend to be careful to associate precious memories to anchors where they can control when recollection occurs.
  • A convenient anchor is thus a physical item in one’s possession, carefully stored away with its associated memories. The availability of the possession provides confidence that the associated memories are available, and accidentally recollection (and thus distortion) is prevented by storing / packing / boxing the item under a dissimulative cover, at an unused location in the home, or within a stack of other items.

The stacks of a hoarder’s stuff may not thus be just “stuff” — they may be a literal memory bank storing, in the safety of their home, a large chunk of who they are.

The items’ own utility or intrinsic value are totally irrelevant; only their role as memory anchors counts.

It also explains why the process of sorting through the stuff is emotionally draining: the act of physically handling each item forces a recollection of associated memories, including their emotional components, and triggers the anxiety that the memories will fade during the recollection. The process is thus clearly a serious matter.

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The “antidote” in this particular theory, as outlined in the reddit thread linked above, and as quickly identified by friends and co-workers, is to take pictures of the items as they are being sorted.

This works because, as identified above, the items themselves are not as important as their associated memories. For the purpose of recollection, a picture is, nearly always, just as good as the physical object itself.

There is another practical advantage here: it is possible to take the pictures “blindly”, without the owner present, and thus avoiding the burden and expense of the emotional process of recalling all associated memories. (Naturally, this is only possible and acceptable when the owner has accepted the theory beforehand and agrees to the process.)

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I shared this theory with my relative: they found merit in the theory, recognized the equivalent recollective power of pictures, and felt relieved to see a potential obstacle removed. Time will test whether it works for them.

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Separately, pondering on this topic made me realize that I was at risk of becoming a hoarder myself. I do tend to accumulate items associated with certain phases of my life, or particular situations.

Sometimes, I keep the item and its associated memories out of nostalgia. Othertimes, I do when I do not understand my emotional state in that context. Keeping the items allows me to recall the situation at a later time, when I have learned more and am able to reflect and develop the emotional understanding.

But then, the items stay.

I have yet to figure out whether it is from a lack of confidence in the future—a misplaced belief that the past will always have more to teach me than the future; or simple distraction and forgetfulness, as I’ve noticed the present and future always tend to keep me so busy that I have little time left to pick past projects back up.

In any case, what I now know from experience is that I don’t actually use the memories associated with all the items that I tend to accumulate. I know they are there, I know “of” them, but they are not actually part of my life. I can now dare say these memories are not part of who I am. I gather strength and confidence from my beliefs, values and relationships, not from memories of strong times past. I like to think about and talk about the future and who I want to be, not the past or who I ever was.

So I can’t find good reasons to keep my stuff other than “that’s what my parents taught me to do, so I probably should too.” And that is not a good reason at all.

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Last week, about two cubic meters (50 to 100kg) of “stuff” left my home. I did take a few pictures. It was not difficult. I let go of several pieces of furniture too, as it has become unneeded. And I have plenty of space remaining. It feels good.