As my other half clears the kitchen table, heaping our children’s books into a pile on the windowsill and placing a bag over the back of a chair, my hackles rise and I immediately move to put the books in their rightful place. Ironically, there’s nowhere for them to go because we have too many books and not enough space. But still, I can’t bear to see them in a pile. Similarly, if someone in my family leaves washing up water in the sink, I have to empty it immediately.
But I’m not a neat freak. Far from it. In fact, I have drawers spilling with uncategorised items and our cellar sometimes doesn’t bear going in. It doesn't make sense, but if you’re also the child of a hoarder, you’ll probably recognise my confusing and somewhat hypocritical behaviour.
For example, I’m simultaneously fine with having seven bags full of random items hanging up in the porch but will not tolerate crumbs on the work surface when I return from a night out. Spilled sugar makes me feel extremely panicky but a drawer rammed with cables and batteries, not so much.
Growing up, a messy house was all I ever knew. It was only when I moved through primary school that I discovered that most people didn’t have to move piles of clothes to sit on a settee or that other people’s baths didn’t have a constant dirty ring around them. It was completely normal in our house to come across a large patch of dried-on cat sick or an unidentifiable smell that might turn out later to be rotten food. To the adult me (and, no doubt, to anyone reading this) that seems pretty shocking but it was just how my parents and I lived.
I had friends around occasionally in the early years but they soon started making excuses (or, more likely, their parents told them they weren’t allowed). I once walked up the stairs to my room to overhear one of my friends say, “Oh god this house is SO weird”.
Going to other people’s houses, on the other hand, was a real thrill. I was pathetically desperate to go visiting – anywhere. I’d fetishise the shiny surfaces and delight when I drank out of a clean cup. If I knew we were going to someone else’s house, I’d cheer up immediately; I'd try and create endless excuses for having to go places. Of course, the cleaner and tidier the house, the better.
When I made a dear friend in secondary school I spent virtually every Friday night at her house. She’d ask whether she could come to mine and I’d make excuse after excuse, lie after lie about whether I was allowed or whether my parents were in. She once asked me in front of my mother who said, “Course you can come! Any time” while I squirmed in embarrassment. I never allowed the subject to come up again.
I tried to make my own space clean and tidy but – and here’s the thing that only the child of a hoarder will understand – if nobody ever shows you how to clean, you never really know how to do it properly. These days I bathe regularly, I wear deodorant and I clean the toilet after I’ve used it. But I honestly didn’t know how to do this until I was well into my late teens. I just didn’t know that was how it worked.
I was in my 20s when I discovered that hoarding was a thing, via TV programmes such as How Clean Is Your House. Of course they made compelling and essential viewing but I watched through my fingers. I would also get unreasonably angry when people talked about piles of papers and referred to hoarders in affectionate terms, as though they were collectors. Our house wasn’t full of dusty old books or eccentric trinkets; it smelled of cat wee and was full of mouldy cups.
Oddly, my father (who died more than a decade ago) wasn’t a hoarder. He was just extremely laid-back/loath to upset the house of cards and so he never bothered to clean unless it was absolutely necessary – if he physically couldn’t get in the bed, for example, or if we needed the table to eat on.
So, because I’d never really seen my parents tidy up, I wasn’t equipped with the skills to do it for them or myself. By god I’d try. I’d get the hoover out and start putting papers in piles, only to be told to leave things alone. One of the most notable features of a hoarding disorder is the aspect of control; being a hoarder and being a bit messy are two very different things. I am a bit messy and think I probably would have been, however I was raised. But hoarding is a control issue and so cleaning up can be incredibly stressful for someone with the condition. Hence, most people who have tried to clean my mother’s house have been met with short shrift or they’ve sensed the anguish their words cause and backed away.
The scars can run deep for the offspring of hoarders. “Children need to feel like they fit in a home to form healthy attachments,” says psychologist Dr. Amanda Gummer, founder of Fundamentally Children, “and problems occur when the lifestyle of the parents conflicts with the personality/temperament of the child. This isn’t always an issue but children need to feel that their home is their own and reflects their values and personality. And when it doesn’t it can be painful and have a lasting impact.”
“Hoarding is such an obvious trait,” says Dr. Gummer, “that is difficult for children to cope with and the usual tactics – avoidance, distraction, confrontation – aren’t effective.” Dr. Gummer talks about the "Goodness of Fit" model, which is simply defined as the compatibility between environment and a child’s temperament. Poorness of fit occurs when this is not respected and accommodated. It’s been suggested that children are more likely to reach their potential when there is goodness of fit.
I’ve now lived (far, far) away from my family home for longer than I lived in it. My own house is a busy, lively home rammed with books and with no space on the walls. We have two children and two dogs so it’s messier than the average. My mother-in-law would probably say it's unbearably cluttered. It’s essential to me that people visit constantly, perhaps as validation that our house is welcoming.
Nonetheless, the effects of growing up with a hoarder have never left me. In addition to the aforementioned double standards, I won’t allow food upstairs, ever – so breakfast in bed is an absolute no-no. If we have visitors I spend hours cleaning (in my own half-trained fashion, of course), I’m obsessed with incense and would rather my guests sneezed endlessly than caught a whiff of a food smell, I force my other half to clean up WHILE he’s cooking, and heaven forfend he leaves a draining can in the sink (our kitchen sink was always full of old tins and carrier bags). While it must be quite tiring being a hoarder, living with the legacy of it is exhausting.
But Dr. Gummer warns of the knock-on effect my reactions might be having on my own children: “In terms of lasting impact, having an extreme reaction to having grown up in a hoarder’s household can create problems for the next generation too,” she says. “It’s all about control and a feeling of belonging. If there are irrational behaviours such as excessive tidiness or storage fetishes that young children are struggling to understand, then they are likely to suffer from that too.”
Hoarding: The facts
In 2018, hoarding was classified as a medical disorder for the first time by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The NHS defines a hoarding disorder as "where someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner".
Hoarders often also experience obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or symptoms of anxiety and depression.