Jameson: When your stuff starts to control you


But I might need it. But it was expensive. But it was Mom's. But it still works. But it was a gift. But I might lose weight. But it might be worth something. But it's irreplaceable. But I don't have time to deal with it.

But, but, but.

And so the clutter begins. The piles stack. The closets overflow. Belongings take over. And life deteriorates.

Now, I have my issues, but saving every plastic bag, coat hanger, piece of junk mail and rubber band that comes my way to the point of turning a perfectly good living space into an avalanche hazard isn't one of them. And while I don't understand how people can get into this mess, the fact remains: Having too much stuff is an American plague.

Shows like "Hoarders" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive," which have turned people's personal packrat problems into spectator sport, aren't helping.

That's because when the average packrat watches a show that focuses on the extreme, they feel downright pulled together. Shows that feature entire houses overtaken with material chaos make those who see themselves as "thrifty supersavers" feel better since their own clutter is limited to only two or three rooms they can't use or go in, or just half a blocked hallway, not a completely blocked hallway.

I'm sorry to break the news, but folks, clutter may be relative, but it is still clutter.

I know I sound like the clean police sometimes, and I am sorry to be a buzz kill, especially when we're all gearing up for holiday shopping, but someone has to speak up about this.

As we enter the season of massive consumption, weeks when more shopping is done than during the rest of the year combined, I am asking you to pause a moment and think about your stuff.

"Our relationship with stuff can be put on a spectrum," says hoarding expert Gail Steketee, professor and dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University.

On one end you have the ascetics, the non-materialists who practice austerity like a religion and don't leave so much as a fingerprint behind let alone a carbon footprint. On the other end you have the serious hoarder. Like a Dyson Animal Vacuum, the super hoarder sucks everything -- including but not limited to papers, books, clothes, jars, broken appliances and stray cats -- to it and does not release.

In between the two extremes lie the manic purger, the nefarious neat freak, the non-obsessively organized, the domestically disordered, the sloppy supersaver, and the pre-hoarding packrat.

Reality check: To find out where you fall on the spectrum, ask a loved one. Most of us are clutter blind. And hoarders in particular see themselves as frugal, not nuts.

"Holding onto stuff becomes unhealthy when it negatively affects a person's life," said Steketee, also the co-author of two books on hoarding: "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things," and "Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding."

"When clutter interferes with daily living, when you can sit on the sofa, or park in your garage, or have people over because you're too embarrassed, it's an emotional disorder," said Steketee.

Besides that, a home filled with junk is unsightly, unsafe, unhealthy and unfriendly. Excessive clutter can cause fires, pest infestation, accidents, family arguments, embarrassment, social isolation (you can't entertain), evictions, property depreciation and furious neighbors.

Those with serious hoarding problems need professional intervention to unpack the problem. However, the mere supersavers and packrats can straighten themselves out with a little awareness, a lot of motivation and a few new habits, she said.

As with most problems, step one is recognizing you have a problem. Here, according to the Hoarding Center, a part of the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation, are the telltale signs.

• You can't use parts of your house because they are too cluttered.

• You can't eat at your kitchen table, or sit on your sofa, because it's covered with stuff.

• You can't use certain appliances or repair them because they're buried.

• You can't park your car in the garage.

•our car is filled with stuff.

• You feel overwhelmed by the volume of stuff that has taken over your house or workspace.

• You sleep in a bed that has stuff piled on it, or you can't sleep in your bed because it has stuff piled on it.

• You can't walk around the outside of your house because debris is piled up.

• You have difficulty passing up bargains or not taking free things even if you don't need them.

• You experience intense emotions -- guilt, anxiety, fear -- at the thought of getting rid of things.

• You think items that nobody thinks are valuable have value.

• You have trouble organizing your stuff, which is in random heaps, not stored in categories.

• You can't use your bathtub, shower or sink because it's full of stuff.

• You can't find items you need to find -- like bills -- because they're buried.

• You can't invite people over because it's too embarrassing.

• Your clutter causes friction with family members.

• Your neighbors wish you would move.

If more than one of these signs describe you or someone you love, tune in next week when experts share ways to cut through clutter, reverse the chaos, and break the hoarder habit.

Contact Jameson through www.marnijameson.com.

Marni Jameson

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press)
Last modified: November 28, 2014
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