Hoarding Made Me Feel Safe From The World. Then The World Changed

Photo by Anna Jay.
For as long as I can remember, I have had problems with clutter.  I’m now in my early 30s, but when I was a little girl, I lived in a swamp room, my bed fenced in by clothes, make-up and shoes, cassettes and CDs. On the walls I had posters and newspaper clippings, stickers covered every inch of the wardrobe. Teachers and other adults were very kind and considerate, I was a mousy, slightly smelly girl, wearing thirteen plastic necklaces and carrying a bin bag full of teddies. At the hairdressers, thin-lipped salon staff packaged up my snipped curls and put them in a sandwich bag for me to take home. In the swamp room, there were small drawers full of hair, my jewellery box had a little ballerina that twirled around to a tinkling music, but there were no jewels, only my collection of milk teeth and my mother’s old contact lenses, dry and yellow.
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I had quite an unsettled childhood with people popping in and out, and the swamp room was where I felt the safest, packed in with old Argos catalogues, broken dolls and disturbed-looking teddies, spent bottles of perfume and laddered tights. I was hoarding, clinging to pieces of irrelevance while my life was shaken up and down like a mucky snow globe. Hoarding is characterised as the 'collection' and 'chaotic storing' of an excessive number of items, often items that have little or no monetary value. And for long-term hoarders, habits are normalised over time.
Throughout my early 20s, my flats were full of junk; empty wine bottles, magazines and newspapers from years previous, clothes that hadn’t fit me since I was a child. But because it was such a deeply embedded trait and everyone I lived with was a mess in the general in-my-early-20s way, I thought of the clutter as just a small part of my personality. I didn’t find it debilitating, but what did become very difficult, was my increasing social anxiety. I began struggling to go out without drinking, to answer the phone without massive apprehension, and the more I hid, the worse the feelings got. Later on, as I became more ambitious and realised how much I wanted to become a writer, I realised that I had to deal with my social anxiety so that I could do the frightening things that writers have to do: writing groups! Talks! Readings! And so I got on the waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I never thought that social anxiety and my clutter could be linked and complicit (or even enabling) to each other but when the therapy started, I began to see things differently.
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For me, anxiety is the sensation of exposure - a ringing telephone can feel like a screeching alarm, the bedroom walls coming down and the room filling with canned laughter. It’s a chance for failure and rejection, for the truth to out: you’re Boring, Silly, or Not Funny, but at the same time, you also feel lonely and very much want to talk to people.

Now, we’re in a completely distinct period of time, one where we have all been forced to tuck ourselves away, estranged from loved ones and friends. But even before all this, while I was writing my first collection of stories, Paradise Block, named after the tower block where most of the stories are set, I was thinking about human cocoons. My therapist and I talked about the urge to tuck yourself away and hide, contrasting against the need for human intimacy. It can be a very alienating and confusing thing, these two opposing instincts acting at the same moment. For me, anxiety is the sensation of exposure: a ringing telephone can feel like a screeching alarm, the bedroom walls coming down and the room filling with canned laughter. It’s a chance for failure and rejection, for the truth to out: you’re Boring, Silly, or Not Funny, but at the same time, you also feel lonely and very much want to talk to people. I often get hooked on the idea of dark and light to explain this feeling. The idea that darkness is frightening is wound deeply into our culture, but also light – bright, brilliant whiteness – this can be very frightening, too. Light is blank spaces, large sterile rooms and clinical eyes, rejection and judgement – in the darkness of a cluttered bedroom there are jumbles of shadows, nooks and crannies – there is mystery and places to hide.
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It’s addictive, this feeling of invisibility and safety, the human cocoons or the swamp, but it’s also very unpleasant. I now know that hoarding is driven by anxiety, not based on a whim to collect and store things that you enjoy. It’s more of a ‘what-if’ complex — what if I need it though? What if the person I’ve emotionally attached to this object disappears? In Paradise Block, I created an elderly woman character, Min Dimorier, partly to explore these feelings in fiction, who clings to items that belonged to lost family members, particularly her long-dead husband, Louie. Min puts her feelings and emotions into the objects and finds it impossibly painful to let them go, but when she meets a metal detectorist who will listen her stories, this helps her release the clutter from her grip. I wanted to let Min feel a bit of redemption, but it’s not easy to create a space where an unburdening like this can happen, I think especially now, after a long period tucked away.
I don’t live in a swamp room anymore, and when we’re out of the pandemic, I will have friends round to visit and they won’t go home with anything stuck to them or feeling the urge to step into the cleansing stream of a very hot shower. I haven’t thrown out much during this quiet, hidden year, but I haven’t brought much into the flat either - perhaps having to spend less time outside the nest has meant that I haven’t felt the compulsion to block myself in. I think that whatever our backgrounds though, most of us will feel a little flurry of anxiety when we are able to socialise for the first time after the pandemic – Would a part of us rather stay at home? Snuggle back into our nooks, surrounded by well-worn objects and smells? Or maybe that’s just me - maybe you’re more likely to bound straight into the pub, inhibition free and sparkling in your natural ease. Whatever the case, when we do go back outside, I’ll be watching out for the creep of the swamp, the piles of papers, books, trinkets and clothes that rise to block out the windows and create shadows to hide in – after this year of isolation, I need to spend at least a few afternoons in the light.
Alice Ash's first collection of short stories, Paradise Block, is published by Serpent's Tail at £12.99 hardback and ebook on 4th February.

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