Help for Compulsive Hoarding
January 9, 2008 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Compulsive Hoarding – Seeking advice on treatment options & how I can help myself. **Please do not pass this question by if you have helpful information. My problem is not simply a matter of “go see a doctor”. I am on a waiting list to see a specialist (medical doctor) and have seen another doctor this week**

I am a Male in my 30’s. I have always been a “hoarder” but I thought I had it under control.

Rooms in my house can not be used because they are packed with boxes, cabinets, et cetera, but in the past I was always able to work (leaving my house) and function (relationships, paying bills, saving money, traveling).

I have graduate degrees and had a successful work history until the last year.

During the past year I burned through tens of thousands of dollars of savings in a crazy attempt to purchase every item I thought I “needed” to have to complete various collections.

I lost my job and my health insurance and I have gone into debt with credit card bills unpaid.

Didn’t care about any of it. I was happy to have more time to work on my collections.

Now I am losing my house and must move out over the next 30 days.

I have siblings and their spouses who are helping me and financially supporting me through this process; other family members are not supportive and these persons feel free to call the siblings and advise them to let me hit “rock bottom” without any help.

I met with a Psychiatrist this week. She explained to me that there is a lot about Compulsive Hoarding that is not known and she said it is not an area where she has a lot of experience. She ordered blood work and will see me next week to discuss possible medications.

I am on a waiting list to see another Psychiatrist that specializes in this area. That appointment is not until April.

I have no health insurance – have applied to Medicaid and expect to receive benefits before February.

The doctor I saw this week said residential treatment may be indicated, but she will have to ask colleagues for recommendations.

My questions:

1) What can I do on my own to work on this? I have hundreds of boxes filled with things that are important to me that I need to go through. How do I decide what to throw out? Are there social workers who will come to your house and help you through this process?

2) Is some type of 12 step program appropriate? I don’t know where else to go to find people who have similar issues.

3) What kind of residential treatment programs are there for Compulsive Hoarding? How long would I have to stay at one?

4) Any information about treatments, suggested reading, experts to contact are appreciated.

I have created an email account if anyone would like to send information there. I will monitor the responses and ask a moderator to post additional information if it is needed. Thank you in advance for your assistance.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
There is some evidence that Paroextine might help compulsive hording. I'd talk to a shrink.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:30 PM on January 9, 2008

Please see these threads: MeFi and AskMeFi. I'm sure there are judgmental comments in each, but focus on the links provided - there are many.
posted by desjardins at 3:32 PM on January 9, 2008

Sorry, I meant to include this as well: There is a 12-step program, called Clutterers Anonymous.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:33 PM on January 9, 2008

You might tell us your location (roughly) so people can tailor advice about what social services might be available.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:33 PM on January 9, 2008

If you're in the US, this might be the first link you want to look at: Resources for Compulsive Hoarders.
posted by desjardins at 3:33 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've heard that hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. You may get better results attacking it from that angle.
posted by mullingitover at 3:36 PM on January 9, 2008

This New York Times article goes into compulsive hoarding mostly as a basis for talking about more typical organization issues, but it does mention some books (again, for seemingly for less severe cases) and experts. Maybe you could try to get in contact with one of them or your doctor could.
posted by Airhen at 3:40 PM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: (It is entirely possible that the following advice is just not going to work unless you have someone with you to motivate you and hold your hand. It is very possible I am completely misunderstanding the whole compulsive hoarding mentality and oversimplifying the situation.)

You are seeing a psychiatrist. That is good. But you need to deal with the immediate. You say you have rooms packed with boxes? Get rid of all of it. Sort through nothing. If you haven't used it in the past two months, really used the item, dump it. Unless it's tax returns or bank statements or your birth certificate or those types of important financial papers.

You are at the breaking point, and you've recognized that. Dumping all your stuff is not going to help in the long term. But it will take care of the short term problem. It will be very, very, very hard, but you have a big problem to deal with and you've got to deal with it quickly.
posted by Anonymous at 3:43 PM on January 9, 2008

My friend Andy actually bought a little factory/warehouse to hold his extensive collection of obsolete Digital Equipment Corporation computers and related paraphernalia. It's currently stacked to the gills with all kinds of elegantly engineered, utterly useless technology, he's happy, and his house is happy. You might want to look into self-storage facilities in your area while you get yourself organized, and see if you can find one that meets your currently strained budget.

Actually having to pay, on a regular basis, to keep stuff stored *outside* your living space is a pretty good way to draw your attention regularly to the question of whether hanging onto it is worth it.

I guess the other option is the equivalent of cold turkey - sell everything and chuck out what won't sell. I'm a fair way down the road toward compulsive hoarding myself (I'm sure that will come in handy some day!) but it's not going out of control any more. I think this is largely because I went through an experimental Buddhist phase where I decided to try and find out whether minimizing my attachment to material objects would actually make me feel good. I gave away pretty much everything I owned except my shelving and my little car - the CD collection went, the book collection went, the expensive stereo went, and I pared my living expenses down to the point where AU$100/week was all I needed to earn to sustain myself. And you know what? I *did* feel better.

Oddly enough, the CD collection eventually came back, with extras, when the friend I'd given it to went through a similar phase. Regaining access to all that good music after such a long break felt good, too.

Best of luck. Hope things work out for you.
posted by flabdablet at 3:49 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to say huge kudos to you for recognizing and confronting the problem. I wish you all the best.

Being in the UK I have no clue re: social workers who would help you sorting through your stuff, but do you not have any friends who would be willing to do this?
I watched a show on German TV ages ago where there was professional help for this, but all they did was basically giving people an "objective" approach to each object, nudging them towards recognizing that yes they could throw it out.
This is something any caring/sensitive/smart friend can help you do, and this was suggested in the show as well.

On preview: reading Schroedinger's comment of course
Get rid of all of it. Sort through nothing.
is sane advice, and if you are able to do this by all means do.
(but from my experience with the problem this is far easier said than done)
posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:04 PM on January 9, 2008

Self-link of sorts: Emotions, Psychology, and Clutter, a thread going on at a board I work on. It's hit four pages already, and there's a lot of insightful discussion and tips. You're not alone.
posted by astruc at 4:12 PM on January 9, 2008

Since you obviously have internet access, would listing some of your good condition media (books, cds, dvds, if you have those hoarded...) on or eBay or Amazon be a concrete step for you? It might help you in a number of ways.

1. It'll give you a concrete place to start if you feel like you might be ready to get rid of some of your collections. For example, start with CDs. Don't worry about the other boxes of who-knows-what, just worry about a box of CDs.

2. It'll help rid yourself of some unnecessary hoards.

3. It could be financially beneficial. You might only make a few dollars, but that's a few more dollars that could go back into your empty savings.

I'm no psychiatrist, but I think you might have a few things you could think about in the next few days. Making a few small changes, if you can do it, might give you a little self dignity or empowerment or accomplishment. It might be a first step.
posted by santojulieta at 4:13 PM on January 9, 2008

You say you have rooms packed with boxes? Get rid of all of it. Sort through nothing.

If the boxes are full of really cool collections, that anonymous spent years putting together, I don't think this is good advice. That's like saying, "Too miserly? Empty your bank account, now." There needs to be moderation in whatever solution is pursued. Going to the complete opposite extreme from hoarding/collecting is not the solution.
posted by jayder at 4:13 PM on January 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

I would cautiously add that quickly going cold turkey may not be the best option, psychologically, depending on the severity of your disorder. It could be very traumatic and lead to some sort of non-trivial crisis.
posted by onshi at 4:17 PM on January 9, 2008

I worry that selling things on Amazon or eBay won't help. You have to take time to list the item, and then keep the item until someone wants to buy it. It might be more productive to take all the books to a used book store, the CDs to a used CD store, etc. so they can be got rid of at once. (This assumes you can bring yourself to get rid of stuff, of course.)

My aunt was a hoarder. We had to bring in outside help. She would leave her apartment for the day, and people would come in and get rid of stuff. I'm sorry, but I don't know if this was a normal cleaning service or some people who specialized in hoarders.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:23 PM on January 9, 2008

For a while on public TV in the US they showed a British show called Life Laundry, the star of which has a book out. Each episode they would visit someone with a lot of stuff, generally it seemed to me the people had hoarding compulsions, and help them out with the problem. It seemed to work, so the show and the book might be worth looking into. In any case, good luck, one step at a time.
posted by beagle at 4:25 PM on January 9, 2008

Self-storage is a great idea in the interim. In the US, a service like PODS or SAM will drop a unit in your driveway. Fill it up at your leisure, they take it away, and your living space is cleaner, yet you still ultimately have access to your stuff when you choose to go through it.
posted by desjardins at 4:34 PM on January 9, 2008

IANAP* but

I have graduate degrees and had a successful work history until the last year.

During the past year I burned through tens of thousands of dollars of savings in a crazy attempt to purchase every item I thought I “needed” to have to complete various collections.

sounds a bit like mania to me. Something else to consider. It's a lot better studied, at least. If you have any history of depression, mention this possibility to your doctor. In the meantime staying somewhere away from your stuff is probably best.

* nor am I bipolar, but my dad and three boyfriends were/are.
posted by herbaliser at 4:48 PM on January 9, 2008

(I don't know if these things will help, but thought I would suggest them. I'm a bit of a packrat, but not at the level you're experiencing now, so these suggestions might be way off base.)

One possibility, depending on the nature of your collections, might be to donate them somewhere. Local museums or libraries etc might be interested or able to give suggestions, if you want to get this stuff out of your living space but be sure it stays together and has a good home where you can visit it.

If there are things you ultimately will need to sell or dispose of, you could consider taking a photograph of each thing and keeping all the photos. That way, you have a reminder of the object but you don't have to pay to store the actual object itself. I've done this with beloved sentimental old t-shirts and the like, to great effect.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:55 PM on January 9, 2008

There's a great book on this called "It's All Just Too Much." Saw the author on Oprah. Good luck!
posted by beachplum at 4:55 PM on January 9, 2008

Can you work with your lender to see if you can stay in your house a bit longer, explaining that there's a medical reason?

Can you call the specialist and ask for an urgent, quick consultation to find someone to help you sort through the stuff in the next 30 days?
posted by footnote at 4:59 PM on January 9, 2008

I have hundreds of boxes filled with things that are important to me that I need to go through. How do I decide what to throw out?

Pastabagel wrote one of the best comments ever on this subject, which I will quote here:

Coveting possessions is unhealthy. Here's how I look at it: All of the computers on Ebay are mine. In fact, everything on Ebay is already mine. All of those things are just in long term storage that I pay nothing for. Storage is free. When I want to take something out of storage, I just pay the for the storage costs for that particular thing up to that point, plus a nominal shipping fee, and my things are delivered to me so I can use them. When I am done with them, I return them to storage via Craigslist or Ebay, and I am given a fee as compensation for freeing up the storage facilities resources. This is also the case with all of my stuff that Amazon and Walmart are holding for me. I have antiques, priceless art, cars, estates, and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice. The world is my museum, displaying my collections on loan. The James Savages of the world are merely curators. As I am the curator of their things, and thus together we all share the world.

Here's how to do it. Before you start, realize that you are no longer a comic (or action figure or ceramic cat or whatever) collector. You are a former comic collector. You can still be a comic reader, but comics ownership is behind a door that you are closing to yourself. If you're on any anti-anxiety medication, use it. Whatever ordinarily calms you, do it. Go for a walk in the woods. Take a shower and shave and get dressed up. You want to feel at your best for this task. Quite seriously - combed hair and presentable clothes (although they'll get dirty) can help. What you're doing here is renovating your entire identity.

Now the cleanup. You will end up with five piles: junk, charity, sales, gifts, keep. Set aside an area in your yard for the junk. Make sure a truck can easily get to that area. Set aside an area under cover for charity. Set aside another area under cover for sales. A room of the house is good, if there's space. If not, establish those spaces after the junking phase, by moving stuff around. You'll be using them as working space anyway.

Get some heavy gloves, maybe some spray deodorizer, a huge number of plastic bags, some labellable boxes (generally free from local supermarkets and other stores), some sharpies for labelling, some tape for closing boxes. Get a whole bunch of small colored post-its in different colors, or some similar thing like stickers, to label stuff for the various piles. This is so that people will be able to help you.

1. Toss the junk. Is it damaged beyond repair, broken, rotted, or otherwise unusable, and worth less than $10 in its current form? If so, into the pile! Broken crockery, shabby clothing, old computer equipment, all that kind of thing. Worry about recycling laws later. (That's something else other people can help you with.)

2. Keep essentials. All things that are essential to your life and not easily replaceable go into this pile. Your good clothes, your ordinary daily outfits, your personal computer, your tax and identity documentation. This is stuff that, if Joe Average lost his, he would be seriously inconvenienced and would have to go as soon as he could to replace. No-one can do this but you.

3. Keepsakes. Items that you have been given by others (not bought for yourself) that have great sentimental value both to you and to the person who gave it to you. This is actually the phase at which you are most at risk of over-keeping, so steel yourself to it. If the item might be something that someone else, a friend or family, might value just as much, put it in the gifts pile. Remember, you don't have to own a thing to have access to it. No-one can do this but you.

4. Collection consolidation. This is what the boxes and the sharpies and the tape will be most used for. You know what your stuff is, you know what makes it a "set". If it were comics, you'd sort by title, by company. Other people can help you with this, but unless they're equally interested in the items of the collection, just have them do basic sorting (issues in order, etc) and do most of the actual consolidation yourself. Label each box with exactly what's in it. If a box can hold multiple collections, bag them and label the bags. If a collection spans multiple boxes, label them "Green Lantern 1 of 3" "Green Lantern 2 of 3" etc. Whatever labels you write, make them comprehensible to other people - don't just abbreviate to "GL". A few moments extra work here can save hours of searching later.

Your greatest risk here is distraction, ie reading the comics. This is another reason why it's best to have other people do the sorting and you do the consolidating, it cuts down on that distraction. Also for that reason, write any condition-related notes on the box, so that you are not tempted to open boxes to check on the condition of things inside.

Also, things that you have that aren't in your core hoarding pattern still count as collections. Your books, your DVDs, etc. The idea of consolidation is to increase the value of the items; if there are items in your house you will get rid of, that will fetch more together than apart, consolidate them. Crockery with the same pattern, for example.

5. Collection sales. You are in need of money and are going to be even more in need of money as you sort out your accommodation and employment and other needs. Label each collection with an approximate lower value. How much you, if you had one already, would tell a friend to offer for the collection. You're going to be checking actual values later, if there's a guidebook for that kind of stuff, but if not, you should ask for roughly double the lower value. It's likely that only you can do this, unless you have a trusted friend who also collects the same stuff.

6. Collection gifts. Anything that will not sell, or has a far lower dollar value than your estimated cost of listing, selling, and posting it, set aside to give away. The people who helped you sort are the first line of gift recipients. This should naturally follow from step 5.

7. Non-collection sales. You do not need two TVs, two washing machines, twelve forks, etc. Keep the best, mark the others to be sold. If they're all fairly crappy and fairly large, mark them all to be sold. You can lease a washing machine at your new place, or buy one second-hand. If you have multiple computers, consolidate the data on them. It's easy enough to hook up old computers to a LAN, share their drives, and have a modern computer archive the entire drive into a file. Again, label these things with an approximate lower value. Keep your furniture to a minimum. Common wardrobes, tables, chairs etc are easily replaceable from garage sales at very little expense (re-read Pastabagel's quote). If an item of furniture was a sentimental gift (Grandma's dinner table), mark it for gifting. Box up small items together and label them, eg "Misc SF novels", "cutlery and cooking implements", "T-shirts". Some of these might be better to bag now rather than box, since you'll be having a garage sale and people will want to look at them. Generally speaking other people are perfectly qualified to help you with this.

Regarding cutlery, crockery, cooking stuff etc - you know what you actually need. Keep that, and enough for three to six guests. If you have more guests coming, buy a stack of paper plates and plastic cups. Set aside what you'll need to get by until you move.

8. Non-collection gifts. Basically everything that isn't a collectable, but still has some value, should be marked for sale; but items that are too much trouble to sell, that you don't actually need to take with you, should be offered to the people who helped you.

9. Hopefully by now everything is labelled. Label everything that isn't, and sort the piles out. Hopefully by now your house now looks completely packed up and ready to move, except for your bed, your clothes, your plate and cup and food for the next few days.

10. Go through the sales pile and take out anything that can't be sold at a garage sale. Collectibles can - just put your price on them and stick to it. Anything worth more than a couple hundred bucks, that isn't of its very nature the kind of thing that people pay a couple hundred bucks for (fridge, washing machine), goes out. Everything else needs to be properly labelled, with stickers, and the price you put on it should be about double the price you valued it at. Other people can help you with this, easily.

11. Advertise the garage sale. Sort the stuff so that it will be easy to move it all out fast. Make all the necessary signage. Organize the charity to come by to collect the unsold stuff the day after the garage sale, and organize the junk collector (or rented skip) for later the same day, definitely not earlier.

People who come to garage sales have a bad habit of turning up ridiculously early; make sure you go to bed early the night before and have people ready to come by and help you as early as possible. If you don't want people before 8am, put a sign on the gate: "The Garage Sale starts at 8 AM. People bothering us earlier WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO BUY." Start setting up at about 7:30. This is something that you very much need help with - keeping the hordes at bay while you set up.

12. After the garage sale, pack it all into the charity pile, let your helpers have their pick, and take the rest of the day off.

13. Hopefully the charity people will arrive before the junk collector, so they can take all the stuff they want and toss the stuff they don't in the junk pile.

14. You are now down to two categories of items: your own stuff, which you will move; your stuff to be sold online, which you will put in storage (or ask a friend to store). Live out of boxes while you're organizing new accommodation. This, and applying for disability pension, and organizing some paid work for yourself, are your new top priorities.

15. Selling the collections is your next priority. If you've indexed it well, you hopefully won't actually have to see it again personally. If taking photos, making scans etc will help sell it, have someone else assist you with it, keeping it going fast and efficient and undistracted: unpack, photograph, repack. Borrow a digital camera for this, if you don't own one. Now set up an index of the stuff on a spreadsheet, and number the boxes, so that other people can easily find "Box 10: X-Factor 3 of 5, issues 367-490". Listing these on ebay and attending to the auctions is your second priority, behind accommodation and financial support.

16. Your third priority is relaxing, being peaceful and calm, taking care of yourself mentally and physically. Go for walks. Learn to cook, if you don't normally do so, and eat healthily. Get some exercise. Sit quietly in the park and read. If you're a religious person, attend to your faith - visit places of worship and pray. If you're not, learn to appreciate the wonders of the world. Go visit museums and art galleries. (And if you're religious, do that too.)

Therapy, Addicts Anonymous, and other such activities will be very helpful to you, but the purpose of them is to support you, to keep you on the track towards building a new life for yourself as a non-collector. Your physical health is as important as your mental health - attend to that too.

Explore new things. Change your hairstyle, your style of dress. Grow or shave your facial hair, whichever one you don't do now. Build new hobbies.

Regarding the old obsession - you are now not allowed to own those things. No-one ever died of not owning comics. Ask friends if you can borrow theirs. If they get iffy about letting you read for free (not likely, most of my comics-collector friends practically force me to read them), buy them comics as a gift once in a while. If it was DVDs, from now on, you're a renter. If it was books, from now on, you're a library member and a book-borrower. If it was action figures, you get to go to the shows and look at them, maybe say hi to old dealer-friends and fellow collectors, but you leave empty-handed.

Good luck. You can do it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:11 PM on January 9, 2008 [61 favorites]

In the interim, since it seems that some of these desires are causing you to make bad financial decisions (buying things after having lost your job), do you have someone who could take over the management of your finances?
posted by salvia at 5:23 PM on January 9, 2008

Oh my god, aeschenkarnos just wrote the best answer ever.

I helped my mother (a hoarder almost as bad as you describe yourself) clean out 40 years worth of stuff. She told me that having me there - as moral support, as her gofer/manual labor, as her conscience - was the only thing that kept her going.

Can you get someone to commit to helping you for as long as it takes? It's helpful if it is the same person throughout the process, but if you can't get one sibling, take whoever offers to help.

Our routine included a strict schedule: I would arrive in the morning 3-4 days a week. We would spend several hours sorting through crap. We would have lunch, take a short break, rest, regroup. Another hour or two of sorting. Then we would clean up after ourselves from the day's work - all supplies used (tape, markers for labeling, papers for keeping to-do lists, etc.) would go back to where they belonged. Any garbage from the day would go out to the alley. Charity giveaways would be loaded into my car for me to drop off on my way home. Then we spend a few minutes planning my mom's homework - things she could do while sitting in the evening watching tv, like sorting pictures or papers or the like. The next day we'd

It took us almost six months of this, but we got it done. But we had the luxury of some time. Since you don't, my suggestion is to get the major, obvious garbage out, and put the rest into storage. Then deal with it when you have a handle on yourself.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:46 PM on January 9, 2008

Gah! "The next day we'd start all over again.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:47 PM on January 9, 2008

What can I do on my own to work on this? I have hundreds of boxes filled with things that are important to me that I need to go through. How do I decide what to throw out? Are there social workers who will come to your house and help you through this process?

The people you are looking for are called "friends and family." If you've gotten to this point chances are you'll never be able to go through your stuff objectively and throw away/sell the things that need to be thrown away/sold. You say that your family is helping you financially, but really the best thing is to let them deal with the stuff. You will have to take a big, deep breath, steel your nerves and let it go. That "important" stuff needs to go, no matter how important it is. If you won't die without it, it needs to go, and your family and friends will be much more impartial about it than you will be.

Now, perhaps you think I'm being overly simplistic here, but I've been involved with four hoarders, possibly five, and I've watched different approaches succeed and fail. You don't own that stuff, it owns you now.

Other than that, congratulations on recognizing your situation. You've done more to address your situation than any of the people I've known, simply by taking that first step. Good luck.
posted by lekvar at 6:08 PM on January 9, 2008

Aeschenkarnos is right on target.

Follow that advice, but also think about donating most, if not all, of your books, CDs, DVDs, etc. to your local public library or a senior citizens' center, or a community center or church.

In many small towns (likely in some cities, too), these entities are woefully underfunded; some are downright broke. Donating items would help you tax-wise, but mainly you'd get that feel-good feeling from being so generous. When Mr. Smalltown Girl and I were moving from one state to another, we donated 200 to 300 books (all in very good condition) to a senior citizens' center, and they just about screamed with joy over such a windfall.

I wish you tremendous luck with tackling your problem. You are very brave.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 6:20 PM on January 9, 2008

Other People's Habits. Works with your own habits, too.
posted by Coventry at 7:00 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding It's All Too Much by Peter Walsh, who was the organizer on the show Clean Sweep on TLC. I am a low-level hoarder, and this book really gave me a different perspective on my "stuff."

Also, don't fool yourself into thinking that off-site storage is a good temporary situation. It's just a way to avoid the problem and give your money away.
posted by clh at 11:37 PM on January 9, 2008

There has been some very good advice already given. All I can add is been there, still sort of there, except for the losing my job and home thing. Part of my problem was that the man I married is also a packrat, and we just recently moved to a larger (three bedroom) home, even though it's just the two of us (no kids). We needed more room for our stuff. However, I'm slowly making progress. For example, we've been in the new house for four months, and I still have dozens and dozens of boxes that I haven't unpacked. (Note: these are not boxes of my books, magazines or collectibles - that will probably have to come later, but household items and clothes and such.) I'm firmly telling myself that if I haven't needed anything out of this box marked "kitchen stuff" for the past four months, then I probably won't need it at all. Then I get a big trash bag, and sit down in front of the TV (another "addiction" of mine, but why not be soothed a bit when taking such a giant step?) and start emptying the contents of the box into the trash bag. I might find three or four items that I truly do need (Aha! There's my meat thermometer!), but so much of it is useless clutter that I've been hauling around from house to house for the past 15 years. It's a slow process, of course, but I'm gradually feeling better about throwing away things. (I have OCD, and there was a time when I'd fret for hours after tossing something. But with medication and other avenues of support it's becoming a little easier to "let go.") I set little goals for myself - if I can get rid of all the clutter on this shelf by the end of the week, Mr. A and I will blow off an afternoon and go out for lunch and a movie.

One of the main problems is the feeling of being overwhelmed. Rooms and rooms full of boxes and bags of look at it and think "there's no way I'll ever get through all this" and you feel defeated before you even start. Once you do start de-cluttering, don't take on Herculean tasks. Don't spend 12 hours a day trying to empty an entire room at one throw; you'll get exhausted and discouraged. I wish you the very best of luck.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:49 AM on January 10, 2008

There has been some great advice here about the initial clean-up, and it's funny this was posted because I was going to post something very similar. Since anon cannot respond, I'm going to piggyback and ask about resources to help one KEEP things clean. From my research, I understand that usually within 6 months after a clean-up, a hoarder's home will look just like it was. There's some sort of thought pattern here that needs additional help to be broken besides just "get it cleaned up & keep it that way." Does anyone have any resources for figuring out why people let it get to that point, even when there is a strong desire to live in a clean and comfortable home, and not be embarrassed to invite friends & family over? Medications may be helpful, but if a person has been living in a way that contributes to squalor, even the backbreaking and time-consuming work of cleaning it up just isn't enough to change patterns if it's something that's not easily within their control & not just being "lazy" or "slovenly."
posted by Iamtherealme at 2:16 AM on January 10, 2008

Hoarding may or may not be a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. (Which, it must be noted, is not the same thing as OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.) I found this article (linked to from Wikipedia also) to be handy as a non-technical overview of behaviors that may be associated with OCPD.
posted by XMLicious at 4:23 AM on January 10, 2008

Iamtherealme - I am not a mental health professional of any sort, but from what I've read on the topic, it doesn't seem as if hoarders are necessarily lazy or slovenly. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by an irrational fear of throwing anything away, for fear they'll need it later. I would think this fear would have to be tackled before any maintenance program would be effective. I don't have this condition, but I do have panic disorder, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (along with medication) has been effective at treating my irrational fears.

After the fears have been addressed, I think it's a matter of learning new habits. The hoarder may never have learned HOW to keep things organized and neat, so he/she would have to be taught. I also think that a regular cleaning schedule would help the hoarder from becoming overwhelmed. Finally, there has to be some obstacle to the acquisition of new stuff - perhaps someone else needs to control the finances for awhile.

Again, this is an outside perspective from someone who is not afflicted with this. However, it helps me greatly to know how "normal" people deal with everyday situations which would induce panic in me, so perhaps it might help a hoarder to know to know how a non-hoarder deals with everyday home maintenance.
posted by desjardins at 10:35 AM on January 10, 2008

lots of really good advice here, i'm not going to try and add anything because i don't think i could add value...but good luck! i worked with a lot of compulsive hoarders as an undergrad (i was lucky enough to have my advisor be one of the primary researchers in the field of compulsive hoarding), so I know somewhat of what you're going through. small steps, family support, iron will, and perhaps think of sharing your collections with people you know will appreciate them, so you can think of those hours and dollars spent as doing good.
i like pastabagel's approach too hahaha...reminds me of my boyfriend who used to buy art on the walls of bars and then leave it there for all to see.
posted by Soulbee at 11:43 AM on January 10, 2008

Psychology of Clutter is a blog written by a psychologist who specializes in hoarding. You'll find a lot of good advice in the archives.
posted by happyturtle at 12:44 PM on January 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

What can I do on my own to work on this?


Get a helper who can be more realistic about what you need and what you don't need, what is useful to getting on with your life and what is of value only to people you find at science fiction conventions. Agree with a friend or relative that he or she will get X percent of any money that stuff brings in on eBay, with the helper responsible for driving the project and you there just as an advisor.

If you have the space, see if you can get a helper who will actually move in with you until it's done. You need someone to hold your hand. Do you know an out-of-towner who would like to spend time where you live? Maybe a student looking to get away for the summer?
posted by pracowity at 4:34 AM on January 11, 2008

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