I met my father four years before he died. I discovered he had been homeless, working under the table for most of his life, and had been fortunate to have a good Samaritan house him for 12 years. In those four years as I got to know him, I had the task of moving him into a home where he could be monitored by social workers, as he was unable to work and no longer allowed to live in the home he was accustomed to. This was when I discovered his hoarding issue.
Among the items my father collected were orange seeds, plants, rope, plastic bags, glass jars, jackets, hats, magazines, decades-old newspapers, books, and greeting cards sent to him since 1970. The first task at hand was to clear his items from the home he was staying in. Fortunately, I had help, but there was a deadline. Slowly, I made progress; my father’s health issues tended to soften his emotional attachment to his belongings, and I managed to put aside our 20 years of missed time to focus on the task at hand.
Well before becoming a therapist for people who hoard, I taught myself to implement the same strategies that we use here at NOCD:
- I created Keep, Discard, Donate, and Miscellaneous piles.
- I hired a dump truck service and hauling service.
- I enlisted family members my father trusted to go through his items.
One thing you learn quickly when addressing hoarding is that surprises from insects to wads of cash start to feel commonplace. I had 140 boxes of books and magazines to go through—some books had thousands of dollars between their pages, and jacket linings held bundles of bills. Some items were antique collectibles, but most were worthless. This is why the four-box method—keep, discard, donate, and miscellaneous—was crucial to our success.
Sometimes, my father wanted to be there, and sometimes he didn’t. He would become very emotional seeing certain items. That’s when the enlisting of other family members to take him to places really helped. With their help, I was able to clear out an entire house in three days. I probably missed money somewhere, and my father definitely asked about certain jackets that were no longer around, but we did what we had to do with the deadline that we had. Did he care about it a few months later? Absolutely—and that’s when he started to ask about his storage unit.
Having just worked tirelessly to empty an entire house, I’ll admit I was a bit shocked. I had no idea about the storage unit until one day, my aunt told me that she had to move 190 boxes from his storage unit into his apartment, or else the storage company would throw them out. I had a heart-to-heart with dad:
“What is in those boxes?”
“It could be gold…money.”
“Dad, can you be completely honest with me?”
“You saw the things I had—I’ve lost track of what I stored where.”
I asked my aunt if she could pore over the books using the four-box method instead of bringing the boxes into the apartment. “Think of it this way: we will save more time later by sorting it now. Plus, there may be bugs, and I can’t bring that stuff into his home.” My aunt didn’t have the time or the patience.
So that summer, I was tasked with sorting through 190 boxes that stretched from floor to ceiling, wrapping around his door all the way into the hallway and kitchen. He no longer had room to sleep in his bedroom.
I was worried: “Dad, don’t you want to sleep in the mechanical bed we got you? You’ll be more comfortable.” He always remained insistent. “No, I need my things.”
Within 190 boxes, we found $5000. I had to go through every page of over 9000 books, wearing gloves and a mask to avoid getting dust and mold in my lungs. I threw out three truckloads of books. In the end, 190 boxes became just four. A few months later, my dad died.
Having inherited a hoarding tendency myself, I still have those four boxes: letters from when my dad was in the army in the 1970s. I’m hoping to put together a book, but I haven’t yet. I’ve started, stopped, and then given up, trying to put together pieces from his life as I learn them for the first time. The therapist part of me says, “Get rid of it all.” The hoarding part of me says, “Read every letter until you know your father. Read them again and again.”
All of that work has made me more aware of my own tendency to collect vintage clothes and glasses. I alternate between 20 pairs of glasses, and I have yet to get rid of a few coats, many therapy books, and various things I once used for play therapy, but I’m not what would be considered a true hoarder. I’ve learned to read the signs of maladaptive tendencies—knowing what my dad went through prevents me from going there.
Since then, I’ve learned that my grandmother was also a hoarder. She would collect books, magazines, and random items to the point that her house was filled. Ironically, she always kept a hand-written chalk sign in the kitchen: “Neatness in the house!” Today it hangs in my laundry room as a reminder to tidy up.
The vice they shared was no coincidence: histories of poverty contributed to the need for things to feel safer and more complete through the accumulation of belongings. It’s a common story seen in a lot of families who hoard. The other story is one of intergenerational trauma. My paternal and maternal grandmothers’ sides were both Polish and Jewish. They had both experienced living through the pogroms, organized massacres of Jewish and Polish groups in the 19th and 20th centuries. Families, things, and homes were burned to the ground. There was a real need on both sides of the family to collect and find themselves through objects. I have wondered if witnessing such death made it safer to love things instead of people. Or if never letting go of things was a way to heal that loss.
Do you have challenges with hoarding? What about others in your family? If you can, get your family to help. They care about you. They don’t want you to live in a dangerous home with bugs or mold or dust. You can also get treatment from clinicians who are specialty-trained to treat this condition. At NOCD, our team of therapists at NOCD is passionate about the treatment of this debilitating disorder and is trained by world-renowned experts.
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To learn more about working with a NOCD therapist, schedule a free call with our care team. We even have a hoarding support group available every week for people going through treatment, to provide added support between sessions.