According to an article on NBC News, between 2.5 and 6 percent of Americans are hoarders. Hoarding goes beyond just stocking up on an extra 4-pack of toilet paper or “accidentally” sweeping a handful of Sweet‘N Low packets into your bag at the local café. Psychologist Dr. Annette Perot explains that while we can all have the tendency to accumulate more stuff than we need, it’s when we take it to the extreme that we have a problem.
So what’s the difference between an “avid collector” and a hoarder? A collector displays his vintage baseball cards, including the classic 1984 Fleer Roger Clemens RC #27, in pristine and organized albums. A hoarder has floor-to-ceiling stacks of old newspapers so dense he can’t walk through his living room. Hoarding is a psychological disorder and not just about being messy, so hiring a professional organizer is like using a Band-Aid on open-heart surgery.
Take a close look at these ten signs, and if you find yourself printing out this article and stashing it in your purse alongside the four novels, two notebooks, dozen pens, hairbrush, floss, sweater, shoes, three phones, couple of toy cars, and a Rubik’s Cube, you may just be a hoarder.
1. It is sentimental?
Sure, you want to keep a few drawings that your children made in Kindergarten—everyone saves some things for sentimental reasons. But if you still have the Chiclet that Bobby Gomez gave you in high school (“It’s red! You know, for love!”), then you are a hoarder. With a sugar addiction.
If you are afraid of losing precious memories, then take a digital photo of the item and store the photo with a free online photo service. Of course, if you have exceeded your storage limit, you have a whole new leg of this battle to face.
2. It is important or valuable?
To a hoarder everything is important, including the broken off soda can tab that you got for free at a supermarket sampling, every junk mail advertisement, and the single sock with the hole in the toe. Just the simple fact that it belongs to you makes it important and therefore impossible to let go of. Dr. Christina Villarreal, a cognitive-behavioral therapist, says many hoarders can’t pay for basic expenses like rent or groceries because they are compelled to buy something “important” to make them feel good.
3. Will you need it someday?
If the thought of getting rid of something sends you into a panic attack, you are a hoarder. Hoarders “know” that they will need the fifteen scraps of old felt or the thirty cans of kidney beans despite a legume allergy one vague day in the future. It’s hard to tell a hoarder that they don’t, in fact, need the three broken paper clips or the discarded spark plugs from their first car, but an intervention may be necessary. Unless, of course, you enjoy beans.
4. Will you actually get around to fixing it?
If it only needs cleaning, like a bicycle (singular) sitting in the shed, you’re probably okay. If it has missing pieces and you’re not even sure what it is, you may have a hoarding problem. Has your ’69 Mustang been perched on wood blocks on the front lawn since the year it came out? It may be time to seek help. (A psychologist, that is, not a mechanic.)
5. Are you ever going to read it?
Do you have every issue of Horse Illustrated that was printed in the last 20 years? Never mind that haven’t read them yet and are not even an equestrian—you’re certain that there is a vital piece of information in one of them that will change your life. And all those articles on how to get your child ready for first grade you’ve been saving? Your kid graduated college two years ago.
And your extensive “collection” of funny or informative emails you’re saving? Just because it doesn’t take up actual space in your home doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count as hoarding. How can you possibly find that list of jokes about President Reagan in the 9,256 emails you’ve saved in your inbox anyway?
6. Do you have 10 years of food stored?
Ok, we get that if you grew up in the Depression, or otherwise in poverty, you still tend to stock up on extra tins of food. Having extra food on hand for an emergency is one thing. But having 100 cans of tomato soup that expired five years ago is a problem.
7. Are you prepared for every possible emergency?
Being prepared for an emergency that may realistically occur in your area is great—like earthquake preparedness kits in Los Angeles. But being prepared for every single potential emergency, no matter how unlikely, is hoarding. If you live in Florida, you can probably get rid of the snow shovel and 20 bags of salt.
If you have two storage units stacked to the ceiling with bandages, batteries, tents, a dozen 5-gallon jugs of water, a Noah-inspired Ark for the great flood (which may happen sooner than you think if those jugs of water leak), boxes of garlic wreaths to ward off vampires, and fifty bows and arrows to shoot zombies in the inevitable apocalypse, you may have gone a tad too far. Which leads us to…
8. Are you on your third self storage unit?
With the amount of things that people collect over the years, having one storage unit is common. In fact, having extra storage available can help some recovering hoarders realize their problem and begin to sort through what they no longer need.
If you have filled three units equal to the size of a small department store, you have too much stuff. If your storage rentals cost more than your mortgage, utilities and food for a month, it’s time to check out some hoarding support groups and hold a yard sale (just don’t invite other support group members).
9. One junk drawer or 10?
Everyone has a junk drawer for those items that you don’t know what to do with. A drawer. Maybe two because you have a large family and an even larger house. But any more than that and you cross the line into hoarding.
If you have 20 rubber bands that no longer have elasticity, you have a problem. If you’re saving that half a can opener, you have a problem. If you’ve collected five bundles of twist ties and you don’t even use plastic garbage bags, you have a problem. If you’ve saved every old flip phone, cell phone or smart phone after each upgrade, you have a problem. Or the perfect setup for a call center.
10. When’s the last time you had visitors?
Last, but certainly not least, when was the last time you had guests in your home? If you never invite anyone over, not even the plumber, because you are embarrassed about the clutter, you have a hoarding problem. If you won’t let anyone in because you are afraid they will steal your valuables and these valuables turn out to be your five giant baskets of seashells you pick up every time you’re at the beach, you are definitely a hoarder.
While most of us have been spoon-fed the idea that more is better and media ads hypnotize us with promises of a better life if we would just accumulate more material goods, “stuffitis” can quickly grow out of hand. Moving your stuff around doesn’t count as organizing, and burrowing a tunnel through your piles of junk doesn’t mean you are creative. If you recognize yourself in more than a few of the clues listed here, put back the pile of Sweet’N Low packets (and the thermos of half and half, while you’re at it), and seek help.