Dear Margo: When Things Are Way Beyond Messy

My husband’s a hoarder; is there anything I can do or do I need to just accept it? Margo Howard’s advice

When Things Are Way Beyond Messy

Dear Margo: I’ve been with “Joe” for 18 mostly happy years. He has wonderful, loving qualities, but he also has some learning disabilities, little self-confidence and difficulty connecting with people. He was physically and emotionally abused throughout childhood. He’s also had several losses. I have compassion for his emptiness and loneliness, but I’m frustrated because rather than feeling the emotions, he holds on to objects.

Joe is a hoarder and a clutterer. Our basement is filled to the ceiling; he pays for a huge storage unit; and he’s filled two of our three small bedrooms with “stuff.” I insist on keeping the kitchen, living room, bedroom and my office relatively livable. When we entertain, he scrambles to put his things “away” (into the hoarding rooms — sometimes in boxes and sometimes just thrown in). I’ve made several attempts to help him get rid of old unread newspapers, VHS tapes of shows he’s recorded and broken electronic equipment. On a couple of occasions, he became enraged and got all the stuff back from inside a dumpster — in the rain.

We went to a psychiatrist for a while (at my insistence) and made a little progress, but Joe refused medication. He tried Clutterers Anonymous but didn’t like it. Now he willingly goes to a hoarders support group and has collected every book ever written about cluttering and hoarding! I know going through junk is a lonely process unless someone helps, so I hired two different professional organizers, but they or he lost motivation. Is there anyone who can help? Joe has health insurance for psychotherapy. Or am I the one who needs help accepting this? — Bogged Down

Dear Bog: Being a neatnik myself, I feel for you living with a hoarder and all that useless junk. I think psychiatric help is really the only answer. “Collecting” beyond reason is a sickness, and a professional would deal with the underlying causes that make Joe think “stuff” is the solution to his problems. Old newspapers are no remedy for abuse; talking is. If meds are indicated, you should ask him why he is resistant to something that would make his life easier — and healthier.

As for your accepting the situation, only you know your tolerance. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried this, but you might say “it’s me or the junk.” And you also might suggest that he start reading all those books he’s collected on hoarding. — Margo, correctively

Questions of What Is “Owed”

Dear Margo: I guess my question is, in broad terms: Am I my brother’s keeper? How much does the sensible, hardworking child owe ne’er-do-well sibs or parents? I was the “good” one in our family: well-behaved, helpful, studious. My two sibs, for different reasons, did not grow up to be happy or productive people. One of them got into drugs and never got out; the other has had a great many health problems and just seemed to suck up all my parents’ time and energy. — Ambivalent

Dear Am: Your situation is more common than you think. I’m betting you found your parents behaving neutrally — i.e., not rewarding you for your good behavior and insufficiently dealing with the “bad” sibs. In the case of a serious illness, it is instinctive (and unfortunate), but parents tend to concentrate on the sick child to the detriment of the siblings. Resentment is the result — which is what you’re feeling.

My suggestion is that you develop (or nurture) your sense of self based on reality rather than on your parents’ behavior toward you. You may find a therapist helpful for this. As for your obligations to anyone else in the family, I believe they are what you want them to be. By my lights, DNA is only meaningful in crime investigations. And not everyone agrees with me. — Margo, attitudinally

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at www.creators.com/dear-margo.html. Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.

COPYRIGHT 2011 MARGO HOWARD
DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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34 comments so far.

  1. avatar mayma says:

    LW1 has my sympathies.  I lost a friendship over hoarding.  At the time, I didn’t realize how much shame and pathology was attached to all the crap in her house.  After I got her help to clean it all up, she stopped speaking to me.  I should’ve left her and it alone, but I was approaching it logically instead of emotionally.  I thought any normal person would obviously want to be able to use the bathtub, for example.  Especially anyone with a young child.  This was before all those shows came on television.  I had no idea hoarding was SO psychologically charged.  I haven’t seen anyone recover from it frankly, so I wouldn’t know what to tell LW1, except to maybe try to contain it to a somewhat reasonable area. 

    • avatar Mandy says:

      Consider yourself seeing someone who came back from hoarding. I was a hoarder for a few years, and we’re not just talking cluttering up with collectables or anything like that. I was *bad*. My husband was passive and kind of enabled me. Once I got *out* of the environment (we had a pipe burst in the shower and it required us to stay somewhere else for awhile until it was fixed), I started to see how a normal household is supposed to function again. The difference between being in a normal, clean, non-cluttered home for a few months was enough for me to see that I was living in filth and there was no reason for it. We overhauled our house and now when I see my HUSBAND’S stuff getting cluttery (because my stuff is already in its place) I scold HIM! I also got into therapy at the time for my bipolar disorder and learned that some of my problem was related to that and my doctor and I came up with some strategies to keep me from backsliding.

      It wasn’t an easy road, but it can be done. The problem is that many times people don’t want to get help. Luckily I could take a step back from the emotional side of it. You were a good friend. I would have loved to have a friend tell me earlier that I needed help. I might not have thanked you right away, but you can bet I’d have come back looking sheepish to say, “You were right. Thank you. I’m sorry I pushed you away.” You did a good thing for your friend, I’m sorry she couldn’t reach out and help herself.

  2. avatar Kate Olsen says:

    LW1 – If they resist counseling, put your foot down.  All stuff must go into a storage container and not in the home – this is a big fire hazard and you have to consider that.  If he is not okay with that – you have a choice – accpt it or leave and/or give up the relationship.

    LW2 – I was the only one in the family to graduate high school.  I put in some time in college but had no help or backing and yet, I was the black sheep of the family.  Even the youngest who the last we heard of was wanted on drug trafficking charges was above me.  I went to several rehabs and at least tried to get my life together but because I did that, I was in essence, non wanted.  The rest of them all had their problems but because I reached out and asked for help, I was ostracized.  Now, none of us talk.  They all think they are better than anyone else. Since my Mom died, none of my sisters or my brother speakto each other and many do not speak to their own kids or their nieces or nephews for variou sreasons.  In the meantime, I have a wonderful relationship with my youngest son and his daughter and I live for them.  LIVE YOUR LIFE FOR YOU AND NO ONE ELSE.  Screw the rest of them.  You are responsible for your own happiness.  Go For It.

  3. avatar jpnlawyer says:

    My husband is also a hoarder, though not to the degree where he’s hoarding broken/expired items. Every empty space in the house is taken up by his things and he just can’t seem to stop buying. With time, I’ve managed to slow his collecting pace down, as well as get him to let go of a few items, but it was and is still very emotionally trying. I’ve tried “It’s the stuff or me”, and he always picks me, but it takes him forever to make any real meaningful progress. And the guilt I feel for pressuring him to give up his precious “collection” is sometimes terrible. An outsider could easily say that it’s time to give up on the relationship at this point, but when they’re a great spouse except for one very large problem that seems fixable, it seems terrible to just give up. I don’t know if this has happened to LW1, but I myself started to find any excuse to throw my own things out or denying myself things just to regain a bit of space. The biggest problem is whether they accept that it a problem. My husband has accepted that it is a problem- only because it upsets me. He has not evolved to the point where he understands why the hoarding itself is a problem. Even the March quake (we live in Japan) destroying his stuff wasn’t enough of a sign from the heavens saying that he had too much stuff, and he proceeded to replace the damaged items behind my back (while telling me to spend less money “due to hard finances”). That was nearly the last straw and now I have a hard time accepting even the little progress he has made since getting caught by me. It’s hard and I definitely feel for those who live with a hoarder. We seriously need our own support group. I don’t think we should just lie down and accept it. We just have to find our own ways of treating the problem.

    • avatar wendykh says:

      I am genuinely curious, and I’ve never understood this so I am wondering if maybe you can shed some light. I have never understood why the non-hoarder doesn’t just matter of factly say “this is my home and this level of clutter is inappropriate/unhealthy/unacceptable. I will not live this way. I am notleaving. If it is not cleaned up by X day, I will be full out purging. If you bring anything back in I will change the locks. I am not leaving, because I am not the problem.” I especially don’t understand why they don’t do this when young kids are involved which social services can remove for this!

      That said, I fully recognize I am a very selfish asshole in relationships, so maybe this falls under that? Because I just simply would not tolerate any room in my home being messy or cluttered. Even my kids if they don’t clean their rooms, I will, and they know I am brutal and not prone to saving a damned thing. I will throw everything out and make the bed, and won’t even feel a shred of guilt since I give them ample opportunity to do so.

      • avatar Javamonster says:

        Because just going in and throwing things out can do MORE damage and cause MORE panic to an OCD hoarder, making the problem *worse*. Not to mention, you’d lose that person’s trust completely. It rarely helps.

        I do agree with you though-the people with children-WTF? But I’d guess that the partner in a hoarder sitation is either an enabler, or has been trained that way, since many hoarders are master manipulators (watch Hoarders, you’ll understand what I mean) and in an effort to control their environment, extend that control to their families, if they have one.

        Are you a compulsive cleaner, btw?

      • avatar jpnlawyer says:

        It is exactly as Javamonster says. This isn’t just “stuff” to them. You’re throwing away the relationship the minute you cross that line and throw away their things. Think of it as an abusive relationship. You can’t make someone leave an abusive relationship until they are ready to leave an abusive relationship. You can drag them away by force, they will often find a way back to their abuser. In the same way, you can’t make a hoarder part with their things, you have to convince them that they want to. Any forceful actions either by human hand or even an act of God (e.g. earthquakes) only make the situation worse.

  4. avatar Allaroundtheworld says:

    Regarding The Hoarder, I grew up as a military brat and moved either once a year or two years. We knew we had to move so we didn’t become attached to material things. But I do collect books, I reread them over and over and have some series were I’ve probably read 3-4 dozen times. I want to get a Kindle but most of my books are Science Fiction, Fantasy books from the 1875 through modern writers. And I know I wont be able to find them on the down loadl list. Plus, for some reason the touch, smell and feel of a book in my hands makes me happy. But with everything else I have a six month rule, if I don’t use it a get rid of it. Objects are just that, memories are in the heart.
     Regarding letter number two, I’m the son that takes care of the parent, The last week has been hell, mom was in the hospital of a week. I’ve gone thru 3 differnt types of Cancer, COPD, Heart Attacks, and a host of other illnesses. I’m burnt out but still trudge through it. I know I need a vacation cause when she was in the hospital I didn’t cry or act out due to the close case. I’ve kind of morned already since I’ve been takeing care of her for the last 10 years, I’ve tried to get help but due to government cuts everything has been cut or cancelled. I tried to get my brother and his family to take her and he did but only lasted 6 months before she came back. She needs 24 hour care and his family couldn’t take the time to do a decent job. Because I’m on disablity and home it falls back to me. thanks to all the is good I have a great husband who fully supports what we do. Sorry if I’m rambling but I just needed to vent and I probably got off the point, but this group seems more supportive than any other group I read. Thanks for listening.

    • avatar Deeliteful says:

      All: Venting on a site like this is often the only way/place some of us can. Rest assured that most of us are more than happy to listen. Some of us might even have useful suggestions. Keep on enjoying your books. I, too, like holding a real book, but I don’t keep them anymore. I let my ex-husband do that and “borrow” back authors when I want to re-read a series.

    • avatar chuck alien says:

      ” get a Kindle but most of my books are Science Fiction, Fantasy books from the 1875 through modern writers. And I know I wont be able to find them on the down loadl list.”

      See, this is where actually researching things makes your life better, instead of just saying incorrect things without any actual knowledge.

      And really, if you think there is a Scifi book from any era not available as an ebook… Then you are just not paying attention. Seriously. Who do you think owns these things?

      Stop being stupid. Use the Internet.

  5. avatar Janice Haines says:

    LW1-If you read about hoarding (Matt Paxton’s book on the subject explains things very well-he’s one of the hoarding extreme cleaners on A&E’s Hoarders show) you understand that it’s not a treatable condition in most cases.     You are endangering yourself (from health and fire danger, and house collapse) with the hoard.     You have to put your foot down, and get this stuff out of your house before a fire happens, or vermin move in.    If something happens where you can’t put your foot down any longer (illness, or just loss of control over him as the disease worsens) then your house will progress to level five, and the public authorities will have to stop in.    You could lose your house, and that’s serious.    There are very few who actually clean up from hoarding and stay clean, and it’s a constant battle with professional help.      Virtually all of the Hoarders you see on TV have had repeated cleanups and go right back to hoarding again.     The dumpster diving is the worst indication that nothing will change, and he’ll start up again.    Watching ‘My Mother’s Garden’ shows what happens when a forced clean  up occurs and it’s not pretty.   He can’t accept reality and you need to.    He won’t change, but you have to before you end up buried in a pile of junk trying to escape the fire, or can’t have work done to maintain the house because the workers can’t get to mechanical systems to repair them.    The basement could have all kinds of things living in it under the piles of junk.      You need to clean up your house, and he will have to cope with that.    I suspect that as with many other hoarders he will choose the hoard over you and anything else.  

    LW2-Your parents will never treat you well, because they are only worried about the other two.     You need to find your ‘family’ elsewhere, since your birth family will never care for you the way you want, and will drag you down if you let them.   Truthfully, (I’ve been there myself) you are only seen as a source of money or a place to dump the other two and enable them if you allow it.     Protect yourself and your assets.  

  6. avatar snowwhite4577 says:

    LW#2: You stop when that sense of obligation you feel has had enough.  And it sounds like it has.  There will be backlash, attempts to guilt you into things, attempts to manipulate your behavior, there may be name calling, back stabbing, he said/she said drama going on; but I think it is important that you learn to disengage yourself emotionally and without remorse.  You had enough sense to “get it together” — now your siblings and your parents need to let you live your life….and you need to just live for you.

    HAPPY HOLIDAYS ALL!

  7. avatar wendyblueeyes says:

    Here in New Jersey a hoarder’s home went up in flames 2 days ago. The fire started in the basement, but so far the officials cannot say what started the fire because the junk was piled to the ceiling. Sound familiar? The woman was taken to the hospital, along with ELEVEN firefighters, who were injured because they had to throw flaming/smoking debris out the windows to try to get to the source of the fire. Her pets perished. You must get serious with your husband, or you must move out to protect your own life.

  8. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: “On a couple of occasions, he became enraged and got all the stuff back from inside a dumpster — in the rain.” That is THE indication, in my (unprofessional) opinion, that your husband’s problem requires psychiatric care. He is holding onto these objects because he had nothing to hold onto in childhood. And he’s probably fearful he will lose you; so he clings to inanimate objects. Get a *psychiatrist’s* help.

    L #2: You’re not obligated to become an enabler. And you shouldn’t become an enabler. It sounds like your kin are fully capable of taking care of themselves.

    Best of wishes to both letter writers.

  9. avatar David Bolton says:

    I’m going to go off topic for a sec and wish everyone a safe and happy Christmas, the Jewish one that I can’t spell, and Kwanzaa (or whichever holiday you prefer). I’ve gained some true insight from this board and its posters, and of course—Margo.

    Cheers!

  10. avatar JC Dill says:

    For LW1′s hoarder: People hoard to fill a hole, to fill a need. One way to overcome this is to fill the need by GIVING instead of hoarding. Instead of throwing things in the dumpster (which makes the hole worse), donate! By giving things to people who need them more than you do, you fill the hole in yourself, by seeing the items go to good use. Start small, start with 1 bag of things that you take to a homeless shelter or pet shelter, and see them go to a good use. Then talk about how good it feels to give something away for those who need it. Then next week take another bag. You will deal with the actual trash (old newspapers, broken VCRs etc.) later, after the habit of feeling good for donating is starting to make one feel BETTER about all the “stuff”.

    When your life is full of crap there’s no room for “good stuff” to come in. It’s amazing what can happen in your life when you take the step to get rid of a bunch of “stuff” – sell on craigslist, give away on freecycle, donate to goodwill, throw out, etc. as necessary.

    I suggest 2 resources to help with this. First, the FlyLady site (flylady.net) and mailing list is a great resource for learning how to deal with the stuff in small “you can do it” steps. She emphasizes that you can do anything for “just 15 minutes” and by breaking it down into 15 minute tasks you can then congratulate yourself on accomplishing the task, and so you will feel better about doing it again (for just 15 minutes), and over time even the most monumental problem (like 3 bedrooms of hoarded stuff plus a storage locker of hoarded stuff, etc.) can be addressed. REALLY.

    The second resource is the book/video/DVD “The Secret”. This is about how you have to make room in your life for the changes you want to see come into your life, and then manifest those changes. It makes it a lot easier to deal with your hoarded “stuff” when you can reframe the task as making room for something new to fill the hole, something better.

    So, for example, instead of complaining about all the “stuff” she can talk with her husband about something he really wants. Then point out that if he got it, he’d have no room to enjoy it. So the project isn’t about getting rid of crap, it’s about making room for the thing he really wants. Once the room is ready, the item WILL appear. You have to be 100% focused on achieving it by making room, not just physical room (space in the bedroom) but room in your outlook, room in the budget (selling the hoarded stuff works well here, as well as emptying the storage locker so you don’t pay month after month, year after year, and can put those funds towards buying NEW, GOOD things you really want) etc. And don’t worry that you might not come up with the money because most of the hoarded stuff has no value. Sell what you can, donate what you can’t sell, don’t obsess over trying to sell junk – remember the main goal is to MAKE ROOM for new good stuff to come into your life. The money WILL come if you don’t obsess over the junk but instead stay focused on the bigger project of thinking positive about making room and manifesting the new thing into your life. The Secret will teach you how.

    • avatar mayma says:

      Appreciate the effort that went into your post, but this person has a mental illness that doesn’t respond to logic, spirituality or altruism.  I’ve sat with a hoarder who wanted to donate something extremely useful to a cancer clinic and couldn’t do it.  (Also, very little hoard has value.)  Efforts along those lines may bring more frustration to the LW (trying to get the other person to change), but I guess it’s worth a shot.

      • avatar Deeliteful says:

        Mayma:

        I agree with you. Mental illness does not respond to logic, spirituality or altruism. If it did, there would be no mental illness.

      • avatar chuck alien says:

        But everything responds to “The Secret”!

        Doesn’t it?

      • avatar David Bolton says:

        “Also, very little hoard has value.”

        That’s not necessarily true—and can actually be a stumbling block for some people getting rid of things because they have the “I’m in it THIS much” mentality. There have been at least several examples of very well-organized hoarders who have new-ish stuff on “Hoarders,” they just can’t see beyond the personal damage it’s causing them.

      • avatar jpnlawyer says:

        I agree with David here. My husband’s hoard is actually so organized and immaculately kept that most of it has high resale value, which is part of the reason why he can’t let go. The real problem is that it’s EVERYWHERE and there’s TONS of it.

      • avatar chuck alien says:

        Well actually, if it is organized and well kept, and the rooms of your house can be used for their intended purposes… Then it’s not “hoarding.”

        Having a lot of stuff is NOT hoarding.

        Hoarding (compulsive hoarding) only exists where there is a problem. Usually, you can’t use the house the way it is supposed to be used.

      • avatar jpnlawyer says:

        In my case, I was trying to make my point with “everywhere” that we can’t use the rooms as intended. There is no place to sit, there is stuff everywhere. The closets are filled to dangerous levels (though very well stacked like Tetris to make sure that the boxes of his precious goods don’t get damaged) and I’ve been injured many times trying to just walk through a room because there is no clear pathway on the floors. However, my husband knows where everything is and has an excel sheet to track every single thing he owns. He’s nowhere as bad as most of the people on “Hoarders”, but he’s definitely hoarding.

      • avatar chuck alien says:

        ah, well then i totally agree. this alone should prove that he needs to take this seriously:

        “I’ve been injured many times trying to just walk through a room because there is no clear pathway on the floors.”

        that is clear-cut compulsive hoarding, I’d say… neat or not. walking through a room uninjured seems like a small request.

    • avatar Barbara says:

      JC – You have given the most clear and hopeful suggestion of anyone on this string. The “only 15 minutes” and giving to someone who can appreciate it approach makes so much sense.

    • avatar Javamonster says:

      Hoarding has many reasons for starting-there are hoarders who aren’t all that attached to their stuff, only that they can’t stay organized and are bewildered by what to do with it. That type of hoarder might be helped by your suggestions.

      However, would you give this same advice to someone suffering clinical depression? Or Obsessive Complusive Disorder? Because at heart, that’s what’s at the bottom of many a hoarders’ problem with their attachment to their stuff. It’s an illness coupled with the reliance on objects to help them feel better.

      Giving and making space through magical thinking (the Secret) is not going to help someone with this difficult problem, which goes beyond behavior and “wrong thinking” and into brain chemistry and ILLNESS. It’s not rational.

  11. avatar deejay says:

    Hoarding is sometimes just a terrible fear of not having enough for a rainy day. Remember, people who have come from shocking childhoods usually also walked out with little or nothing at a young age, and dragged themselves out of extreme poverty. You can over-complicate the problem by assuming some deep psychological explanation for behaviour that might actually have an interior logic. (Yes, I know, the dumpster, the rain – but even that could make sense if he actually has the skills to repair the VCR. To him it may not matter that the VCR is broken, because IF he one day needs one, THEN he will make the time to fix it). To me, the storage locker points to this kind of logic, as opposed to the truly compulsive/mentally ill explanation – he doesn’t need all his things *with* him, he just needs to know they’re available, and is willing to pay a little insurance each month to keep them available if/when that rainy day comes. Just a thought.

  12. avatar crystalclear says:

    I have to admit that I do not understand “hoarding.”   I’m a personality of having what you need, organized, etc.   We love sparking water and will buy three cases at a time at Costco.  However, I don’t buy MORE until I’m down to a half a case.   But, I do agree that this is a psycholigical issue and my heart does go out to people who have certain issues.   Even though I don’t have those issues I am sensitive to what other people may be going through.  

  13. avatar Lynne Bucher says:

    I dated a hoarder for a little under a year.  Over that time I observed his behavior and did some online research.  I figured out that his condition would never change because he doesn’t want it to, and/or is not strong enough to overcome the entire bag of OCDs that are involved in hoarding.  He will NOT seek therapy and has stated that HE has improved by leaps and bounds.  However I believe he is deluding himself.  He actively acquires more stuff nearly every day while making all kinds of plans and promises to get rid of what he already has.  He’s made some progress since we broke up but I really see this as a fruitless exercise, because IMHO he is treating some of symptoms of hoarding (the excess stuff and disorganization) without fixing the root cause.
    It’s sad because he has many really good qualities and has a good heart.  Unfortunately one of the branches of his condition is a desire to control the people around him as well as “the stuff”.  That and the hoarding itself was enough for me to let the relationship go.  Sadly, he is distressed by his hoarding and knows he has issues, and it bugs me still that he will likely not ever escape from this condition.
    Also he does not hoard trash.  His things have useful purposes and many items have quite a bit of value.  Yet they are doing no one any good at all in the piles in his house and storage units.

    A close friend of mine has a husband with this condition.  He came into their marriage with nothing but has turned out to be a trash hoarder… broken items, unused clothing and shoes in need of repair, etc.  She filled a dumpster full of junk when he was out of town.  Unfortunately the dumpster company failed to pick up the unit in time.  He came home and took everything back into the house except for a broken stove.  He has trashed every room in the house to the point where some areas are a fire hazard and unusable for living.  I don’t know how she has stayed married to him because her house is no longer hers at all… it is a trash dump and unpleasant for her to be in.  And she is such a polar opposite – organized and neat.