Mind & Body

How to know if you’re holding on or hoarding

Author Emily Maguire explains the difference between sentimental stockpiling and proper hoarding, and what you can do if it’s the latter.

Sometime in the past five years or so, it became deeply unfashionable, if not outright shameful, to be a person with a lot of stuff. If you’ve got a spare room filled with boxes you rarely open or a shed stuffed with tools you never use, there’s now a plethora of media aimed at getting you to denounce your pack-rat ways and send everything but the clothes on your back to the local op-shop.

From the wildly aspirational The Home Edit to the extreme tidying of Marie Kondo, right through to the voyeuristic Hoarders, the message is loud and clear: if you’re living with clutter of any kind, you’re somewhere on the slippery slope between slovenly and seriously disordered.

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But having spent several years studying humans’ relationship to our belongings in order to write a novel about a hoarder, I’ve come to believe that an attachment to objects is profoundly – and beautifully – human.

Our stuff tells the story of our lives, and there should be no shame in wanting to live among the shabby paperback books that got you through a fraught adolescence, no moral judgement for hanging on to the CDs you listened to with your ex (even though you no longer have means to play them) or your late grandma’s costume jewellery (which you know you’ll never wear).

In a small number of cases, though, an unwillingness to part with things can indicate a problem far more serious than sentimentality. Hoarding disorder is a mental-health condition that affects between 2 and 6 per cent of the population. The exact number is unknown because sufferers rarely self-report and because their behaviour is often wrongly seen by others as a choice (“Why don’t you clean up around here?”) rather than a condition to be treated.

Minimalist living is a preference for some, but it’s not morally superior or essential to wellbeing. Feel free to surround yourself with things that connect you to your past and make you feel at home, just be sure to reach out for help if your stuff begins to cause more harm than comfort.

So – are you holding on or hoarding?

Is the amount of stuff in your home impacting on your, or anyone else’s, health and safety?

Clutter increases the danger of falls, and can exacerbate respiratory illnesses and other health issues.

It’s also a big fire hazard. According to Fire & Rescue NSW, fires in hoarding households account for about 12 per cent of fire fatalities.

Does clutter prevent your daily life from running smoothly?

People with hoarding disorder often report being unable to complete basic household tasks like cooking or laundry. They may also put off maintenance and repairs because access is too difficult.

Is your attachment to stuff causing conflict with others?

It’s not unusual for someone to accuse their partner or child of being a hoarder when, actually, one person just has a higher tolerance for clutter. If someone accuses you of hoarding, it’s worth considering whether your clutter causes any of the concerns mentioned above.

If not, then this may be a case of mismatched clutter tolerance, which calls for understanding, patience and maybe relationship counselling, rather than disorder-related support.

Emily Maguire is the author of Love Objects (Allen & Unwin, $32.99), out now.