Home & Garden

Conquer your inner pack rat with hoarding help

Get organized with baskets made with sea grass and date palm by artisans in Bangladesh. The Blessing Basket, $27-$36; available at Whole Foods.
Get organized with baskets made with sea grass and date palm by artisans in Bangladesh. The Blessing Basket, $27-$36; available at Whole Foods. Photo courtesy of Whole Foods.

But I might need it. But it was expensive. But it was Mom’s. But it still works. But it was a gift. But I might lose weight. But it might be worth something. But it’s irreplaceable. But I don’t have time to deal with it.

But, but, but.

And so the cycle of clutter collection begins. The piles stack. The closets overflow. Belongings take over.

And life deteriorates.

Now, I have my issues, but saving every plastic bag, coat hanger, piece of junk mail and rubber band that comes my way to the point of turning a perfectly good living space into an avalanche hazard isn’t one of them. But having too much stuff has become an American plague. And shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive, which have turned people’s personal pack-rat problems into spectator sport, aren’t helping.

That’s because when the average pack rat watches a show that focuses on the extreme, they feel downright pulled together. Shows that feature houses overtaken with material chaos make those who see themselves as “thrifty supersavers” feel better since their own clutter is limited to only two or three rooms they can’t use or go in, or perhaps just half a blocked hallway (as opposed to a completely blocked hallway).

If any of this sounds familiar to you, here’s your news bulletin: Clutter may be relative, but it is still clutter.

I know I sound like the clean police sometimes, and I am sorry to be a buzz kill, especially when we’ve all been shopping for a month and filling up our closets with goodies and presents, but someone has to speak up about this.

After a season of massive consumption, and hovering on the cusp of January, with its annual renewal of promises to kick our bad habits and do better on all fronts, it’s a sensible time to pause for a moment and think about your stuff.

A ‘spectrum’ of savers

“Our relationship with stuff can be put on a spectrum,” says hoarding expert Gail Steketee, professor and dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University.

On one end you have the ascetics, the nonmaterialists who practice austerity like a religion and don’t leave so much as a fingerprint behind let alone a carbon footprint. On the other end you have the serious hoarder. Like a Dyson Animal Vacuum, the super hoarder sucks everything — including but not limited to papers, books, clothes, jars, broken appliances and stray cats — to it and does not release.

In between the two extremes lie the manic purger, the nefarious neat freak, the nonobsessively organized, the domestically disordered, the sloppy supersaver and the pre-hoarding pack rat.

Reality check: To find out where you fall on the spectrum, ask a loved one. Most of us are clutter-blind. And hoarders in particular view themselves as frugal rather than nuts.

“Holding onto stuff becomes unhealthy when it negatively affects a person’s life,” says Steketee, who is also the co-author of two books on hoarding, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things and Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding.

“When clutter interferes with daily living, when you can’t sit on the sofa, or park in your garage, or have people over because you’re too embarrassed, it’s an emotional disorder,” Steketee says.

Besides that, a home filled with junk is unsightly, unsafe, unhealthy and unfriendly. Excessive clutter can cause fires, pest infestation, accidents, family arguments, embarrassment, social isolation (you can’t entertain), evictions, property depreciation and furious neighbors. Those with serious hoarding problems need professional intervention to unpack the problem.

Supersavers and pack rats can straighten themselves out with a little awareness, a lot of motivation and a few new habits, she says.

Are you a pack rat?

As with most problems, the first step is recognizing you have a problem. Here, according to the Hoarding Center, a part of the International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation (http://hoarding.iocdf.org), are several telltale signs.

▪ You can’t eat at your kitchen table or sit on your sofa because it’s covered with stuff.

▪ Your car is filled with stuff.

▪ You feel overwhelmed by the volume of stuff that has taken over your house or workspace.

▪ You sleep in a bed that has stuff piled on it, or you can’t sleep in your bed because it has stuff piled on it.

▪ You have difficulty passing up bargains or not taking free things even if you don’t need them.

▪ You experience intense emotions — guilt, anxiety, fear — at the thought of getting rid of things.

▪ You have trouble organizing your stuff, which is in random heaps not stored in categories.

▪ You can’t find items you need to find — like bills — because they’re buried.

▪ You can’t invite people over because it’s too embarrassing.

▪ Your neighbors wish you would move.

Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.

Fighting the

hoarding habit

Research shows that, left unchecked, a saving problem becomes a clutter problem, which turns into a hoarding habit, which requires professional help to unpack, says hoarding expert Gail Steketee.

Those who aren’t too far gone may be able to get their homes under control with a little awareness, a lot of motivation, the help of a friend and a few new habits. Susan Gardner, of Nashville, a retired Methodist pastor who now hosts free hoarding workshops (www.clearingthewayhome.com), offers these steps to letting go, lightening up and living better.

1. Break the acquiring cycle. The hoarding pattern starts by getting too much stuff. Supersavers need to figure out what drives them to acquire. Many shop to fill an emotional void, says Gardner. Others have a rescuer mentality. They collect slightly damaged goods they plan to fix and sell. To crack the cycle, go on non-shopping trips with an informed friend, where you shop but don’t buy. Take a reality check: How many broken items have you actually fixed?

2. Learn ways to let go. Once you find your sticking point, find some better logic. Here are some helpful mantras: Things aren’t useful if you can’t get to them. Fewer things add up to a richer life. Objects don’t contain memories — we have those regardless.

3. Find a friend. When decluttering, work with a buddy whose judgment you trust, and who is not overbearing.

4. Pick a number. Ask how many grocery bags, empty jars or dime-store flower vases one household needs. Lose the rest.

— Marni Jameson,

Special to the Star-Telegram

The fork principle

Local professional organizers have many tips and tricks designed to help non-neatnicks get their houses — and their lives — in better shape. Here’s one from Dala Mulholland, president of Elite Time Management LLC and Elite Custom Organizing in Southlake.

“We use a simple expression: Every thing has a place; everything in its place,” Mulholland says. “Whenever you come across a fork anywhere in your home, you immediately know where it goes. It goes in the ‘fork slot’ in the silverware drawer. Little to no brain power needed.

“Apply this same principle to everything in your home. Scissors, tape, coats, shoes, keys, purse, toys, brush, hammer, shampoo, etc., should each have their own designated space. If everything has its own place, anyone can find anything and anyone can put anything away properly without expending much thought. Save the brain cells for the really important things (like where to go for dinner).”

“As a bonus, you can direct your spouse, kids, mother-in-law, etc., to anything in your home from a beach chair on the other side of the world while sipping a beverage with an umbrella.”

— Elaine Rogers

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram