Wednesday, June 20, 2012

BC2012: The Secret Lives of Hoarders by Matt Paxton

This book scared the hell out of me. It really kicked my efforts on 2012 goal #7 -- clean and declutter -- into high gear.

Paxton says there are five stages of hoarding. I fear that we are already at the first stage, although I may be overreacting (I'm not sure whether my self-awareness may mean that I'm not really a hoarder). Hoarders have a strong attachment to things, but I haven't really felt a strong attachment to my stuff for many years now, maybe a decade. For example, I donate or give away most of the books I read once I'm finished; I don't feel any need to keep them around. But on the other hand, I'm out there buying more books when I already have enough to keep me busy for years.

Paxton doesn't just tell stories about hoarders; he describes the traits and behaviors that lead to hoarding as well. This book would be especially helpful for someone dealing with a hoarder in the family because he offers tips for how to handle both the person and his/her mess. The key is to recognize that hoarding is a psychological disorder, if not in itself than as an offshoot of several others Paxton names.

I gave my parents a dozen bottles of barbecue sauce last weekend. I still have about eight bottles, which I'll be hard pressed to consume before their expiration dates. I don't want to be a barbecue sauce hoarder anymore. I forced myself to let go of those bottles even though I would love to taste each of those sauces, and now I never will. I don't even cook on the grill -- I use barbecue sauce for one thing: dipping chicken nuggets. Why would I need 20 bottles of sauce for that?!?

Am I a hoarder, a compulsive shopper, or just a lazy bastard who doesn't clean up after himself? (I should make clear that I am not talking about leaving food and dirty dishes all over the house; our messes are relatively sanitary.) One interesting point that Paxton makes is that hoarders don't have a problem with stuff, but rather they have a problem with processing stuff. When I get the mail, do I immediately throw the catalogs and charity solicitations into the garbage, or do I set them on the table to sort later? It starts as a stack on the table, and eventually it consumes everything.

I spent three hours in our 95-degree attic last weekend sorting things: keep, recycle, donate, or toss. I made progress, but there's still a lot of stuff in the attic. While talking on the phone Monday night, I went through some of the stuff on the dining room table. I found the instruction manuals for a cell phone I purchased in December 2004, which coincidentally is the last time anyone dined at our dining room table (my sister-in-law was visiting from California, several years before she became persona non grata).

Paxton says hoarders are set off by triggers, such as the death of someone close. Part of dealing with a hoarding problem is helping that person to deal with the grief or stress that they have been avoiding. I asked my wife how much of a mess our house was before our dog Teddy died in 2005, wondering if that was our trigger (we both gained a lot of weight after he died), but she couldn't remember.

I could ramble on about my hoarding and decluttering escapades for pages and pages, but writing about it is really just a way to avoid confronting the looming piles. As for the book, I hope it's a life-changer for me though it's obviously too soon to tell. I'd recommend it to anyone dealing with hoarding or just curious about it (and judging from the conversations I've had lately, the latter group includes almost everyone).

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