6th August 2017.
Since I was a young child I’ve always had a very strong sense of sentimentality. I’ve forever placed a, perhaps, unhealthily-intense focus on memories, no matter how seemingly insignificant or painful they may be. I’ve written before that I suffer from a rarely-discussed phobia known as Athazagoraphobia. This deep-seated fear is defined by two distinct feelings, the first of which I have previously always levelled a heightened focus – the fear of being forgotten or ignored (passive), or the fear of actively forgetting. It is perhaps this very conscious act of needing to have a tangible link to times past which has contributed to the mental health condition that forms the basis of my latest piece.
In recent weeks I have been forced to admit that I have a severe problem with hoarding. I’ve purposely used the word “confessions” in the title of this piece because it is probably, out of the various conditions with which I suffer, the one I feel most conscious – embarrassed – about. Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, although a recognised condition, is still rarely discussed, with the causes largely unknown and difficult to pinpoint. Nevertheless, the links to depression and anxiety are clear. Over the past few days I’ve been looking into potential reasons why certain people hoard, what causes heightened susceptibility and why “hoarding” is markedly different from “collecting.”
To deal with that final point from the outset, people who collect will present their items in an orderly fashion – they tend to be displayed neatly, proudly and have a common theme. If not on show for public consumption, then collections are easily accessible and stored securely and tend to have significant monetary or sentimental value, or signify a passion or interest. With hoarding, however, the categorising of amassed items is either impossible, or not a priority; there is no aesthetic value and they resemble “clutter.” Their monetary value tends to be low and the sheer quantity of items gathered is potentially hazardous as they increasingly overtake and commandeer floor and surface space. For more details of signs and symptoms of Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, please visit the NHS website.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts on mental health you will be aware that, when able, I am always keen on writing from a very personal perspective. I’m very much aware of the importance, and such a firm advocate, of “putting a face to the illness.” Indeed, since I first began publicly discussing mental health it was clear to me that the only way we are ever going to break down this still-present stigma directed at mental illness, and those of us who suffer with such, is if the rather fluid notion of “mental health” takes on a more tangible form. To that end I, for the first time, will admit to some of the things that I have amassed over the years, the majority of which I haven’t yet fully been able to dispose of.
Probably the most obvious thing you will notice if you enter my bedroom (and this is definitely a point of the hypothetical form as no one has been allowed past the threshold in about fifteen years) is the prevalence of old newspapers. This is actually one of the things I now find easiest to dispose of – I probably gather four or five small piles’ worth before I take a deep breath and hurriedly throw them in the recycling bin before defiantly slamming the lid down. What you won’t see, however, is the masses of Radio Times that dominate a good proportion of my wardrobe. I may have stopped buying them a couple of years ago, but still can’t bring myself to throw any I’d previously bought away. Judging by the size of the stacks, I’d guess that there may be two-and-a-half years’ worth of weekly editions, some in bulging boxfiles, most precariously balanced on top of each other. About a year ago I had, what some may call, a “breakdown” rooted in frustration at being unable to easily cross from one side of my room to another. The most obvious factor in preventing easy navigation was the scores of plastic bags that littered the floor. In my fury I was aggressively determined to rid my room of each-and-every bag that I had accumulated. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that around 500 plastic bags were removed. Sadly, since I reached that zero mark, as I look around today I see that the numbers have slowly started to rise once more. You, too, cannot cast your eye around my room without noticing that it is strewn with pens.
My desk playing host to a scattering of around one hundred is the proverbial tip of the iceberg! In preparation for this piece, and to settle my natural curiosity, I wanted to count just how many I actually owned – some still in bulk-boxes unused, some expensive (most not), highlighters, ballpoints, markers – pens of any make, colour, style. I gave up counting after I got to 1,247, having unearthed two shoeboxes-full of pen lids (yes, just the lids) in the process. The final significant element to my obsessive hoarding takes the form of drawers of blank VHS tapes (showing how far back this issue goes!) and spindles upon spindles of recordable DVDs. For a period of about five years, possibly (and in hindsight) when I was at my worst, I would routinely record hours upon hours of rolling news and TV news bulletins, the majority of which never watched again, but stored away. I have, though, conquered some of my past hoardings; I no longer hold on to empty deodorant cans, used batteries or shop catalogues! Nevertheless, with my wardrobe and drawers filled-to-bursting with masses of the aforementioned items it means that my safe space, what should be my sanctuary, is full of chaos – having my clothes (functional items), for instance, displaced from their natural home – draped over chairs, still in their shopping bags, neatly folded into piles in the corner – has to be detrimental, or at the very least, unsettling, to my general wellbeing.
The vast majority of my hoarding takes place in the home, away from where people can see it. Despite knowing that it is a recognised condition, one linked strongly with other mental illnesses, I still feel a lot of shame and embarrassment. I hope very much that “coming out” about it and talking honestly will, in time, enable me to progress and gradually dispose of my accumulations. I also hope that it will help others who may be suffering and help to increase, as far as possible, the understanding of the condition. I earlier said that I have allowed no one in my room for around fifteen years – I’m adamant that nobody can see the extent of my hoarding, even as a young child I remember feeling uncomfortable having friends around; I didn’t like them entering my personal, safe space. In hindsight, this has continued into my twenties. Again, socially, I have missed out – I can’t entertain, I can’t have people round for dinner or drinks. Sometimes, however, my hoarding unavoidably leaks out to where people can notice it. Firstly, my wallet is frequently the subject of ridicule. I don’t blame people for noticing, and commenting on, it – it’s hard to ignore! But it does make me very conscious when out in public and is a constant reminder that I’m perhaps not as well, or stable, as I would like to be. Admittedly, loose change is partly to blame for its cumbersome nature, but I can’t deny that I find it rather difficult to comfortably throw away receipts, train tickets or appointment cards. Secondly, in recent weeks my hoarding has become noticed, and commented on, by people at work. I’ve been able to squirrel things away until now – hiding them where others wouldn’t have need to go. But my desk slowly, but surely, began to reveal signs of my issue; the stacks of paper got higher, the drawers became increasingly harder to close, the various seemingly redundant “bits-and-bobs” appeared to multiply exponentially. I was called on it. My reaction caused therefrom caught me by surprise – when my manager (who happens to be a very good friend) exasperatingly snapped and forced me to “sort it out,” I shut down. Fighting back the tears I furiously threw everything into a box (including a supportive note he’d written me that I’d looked at every day for encouragement), labelled it “Desk” and stored it in another part of the building. I get defensive, almost angry, when people question me about it – maybe I react in such a way to mask, or suppress, the anxiety. I now knew, however, that not talking about it, not admitting my problem was unavoidable.
I’ve dedicated some time in recent days to exploring the reasons that have perhaps led to the point at which I now find myself. I’ve written before about the intense loneliness that I feel, and the realisation that something important was lacking from my childhood. I can only deduce that I’m physically filling up the gaps around me in a subconscious, albeit futile, effort to fill the emptiness, to fill some form of void…to inundate the space that should be filled by something that’s missing. It’s always been somewhat comforting to be surrounded by “things.” Am I trying to replicate what’s lacking in the emotional by over-compensating the material? I can only imagine that I’ve placed certain emotional value on these possessions – the idea of ridding myself of them makes me incredibly anxious. But I know I need to. Maybe now I’ve admitted not only to you as readers, but also to myself, that this is something that desperately needs to be addressed I can begin to move on. I turned twenty-seven last month and I am so painfully far from where I want, and need, to be. It shouldn’t be this difficult. Maybe one day it won’t be.