How My Dad’s “Hoarding Tendencies” Changed My Relationship with Stuff

published Jun 20, 2024
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My dad is a hoarder and what I learned about it
Credit: Kadna Anda

My dad’s tendency to hold onto items until they piled up in the house has been something that has always been in the background of my life, but something I pushed aside during my childhood and adolescence. He would hold onto everything I ever owned: the shoes I wore as a toddler, school backpacks, the headboard of my childhood bed that was covered in photos of NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, and Eminem — something that seemed like its own time machine — and other items that told the story of my life. 

Content warning: The content in this story discusses mental health disorder(s). If this content isn’t for you, we understand. But if you are struggling or experiencing any mental health concerns, please take a look at our resources section below and seek help from a professional healthcare provider.

It was something that I thought of as a sweet and loving gesture from my dad. However, it slowly started to include other things such as old bills, old clothing, cardboard boxes, old calendars, old notes from my late mom, paperwork, a used laptop, and other unnecessary things. The habit snowballed quickly from there. The items began to pile up in various rooms, becoming tripping hazards during the night and crowding into cramped living areas.

Despite my pleas to him and the hazardous living situation, my dad and I could not agree on when or how to throw these items away. To me, the items he held onto were rubbish, things to be discarded. But to him, they represented emotional connections to my childhood, my late mom, and his past. 

Over time, I discovered that he was showing the characteristics of a hoarder. Despite what I may have seen on shows such as TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive and Tubi’s Hoarding SOS, the definition of hoarding is much more complex. 

What Is a Hoarding Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Health, hoarding is a mental health disorder that’s defined as a “pattern of persistent difficulties with discarding personal possessions, even those with no clear value, because of strong desires to save along with distress or indecision about what to discard.” 

What Are the Symptoms of a Hoarding Disorder?

The Mayo Clinic lists multiple symptoms of a hoarding disorder, including getting and keeping too many items that you may not need right now and don’t have space for and having ongoing difficulty throwing out or parting with your things, regardless of their actual value, avoiding or delaying decisions, and building up clutter to the point where rooms cannot be used. Stressful life events such as the death of a loved one, divorce, and the loss of possessions due to an extreme weather event can exacerbate symptoms. 

Living with a Hoarder

Therapist Psalm McDaniels says that some hoarders don’t recognize the negative impacts of their behavior, leading to conflicts with others who attempt to declutter the home and relationship issues. Some people don’t recognize the negative impact of hoarding on their lives or don’t believe they need treatment. The hoarding can be due to mental health conditions or “satisfying emotional needs.”  

My dad had experienced a lot within the past few years: the sudden death of my late mother, the changing dynamics in our family of origin, and his health problems. His tendency to hold onto things was something small and a behavior I attributed to sentimentality. As life-altering events occurred over time, the behavior got worse. Suddenly, he did not want to throw away old books that were no longer relevant due to believing the items were needed in the future and not wanting to be wasteful.  

“The hoarding may start due to a trigger, a prolonged difficulty with organization, or having a family history of hoarding (just as alcoholism in families can increase the chances of you personally having an issue with alcohol),” McDaniels shares. “Hoarding may also intersect with depression, anxiety, OCD, and ADHD, though having one of these conditions does not mean you will automatically become a hoarder.”

How My Dad’s Hoarding Tendencies Affected Me

Accustomed to how we lived, I learned to literally and figuratively construct my life around it. I did feel a sense of shame, which stopped me from doing things that others would see as “normal.” For instance, I never invited friends or romantic partners over, making them grow suspicious of me. As I grew older, I started to grow weary of his need to hold onto old items and the way that it made our home look, the way that repairmen and others would react upon entering the residence to complete a job, and the way I felt like I had to hide a part of my life — my home — to seem normal to others. Shame, embarrassment, and guilt over hoarding are normal for both the hoarder and the family members living with it. 

McDaniels adds that the hoarding behaviors “can come with feelings of shame which may prevent the person from inviting people over to keep it a secret. The person may be very isolated from others due to the secret, which can lead to tense relationships. The person may even see the clutter as self-protection from others, physically or emotionally. Ultimately, hoarding is a hazard, as it may prevent emergency responders, or family members from navigating the space in an emergency.”  

Due to the clutter, I had developed anxiety around leaving to go to the gym, a work function, or dinner with friends for fear of emergency services not being able to enter the residence if necessary. 

The hoarding tendencies seeped into my own life and affected my mental health. I felt ashamed of holding onto so many things that started to clutter my living space so much so that I tripped over things, then I would feel depressed about these circumstances and I would want to change them, only to not feel motivated to do so, starting a vicious cycle that I felt like I could not escape from. 

How I’ve Overcome It

Through therapy, I changed my relationship toward things, holding onto clothes that I knew I would wear and throwing away the backpack I had in seventh grade, full of boy band pictures and past schoolwork. It made me more minimalist. Choosing to keep as little as possible, I am diligent about throwing out things that no longer serve a purpose in my life and I cherish the things that remind me of others more. I keep my late mother’s old clothing, my dad’s customized Jets jacket, and a box of letters from old beaus. 

In addition to committing to my mental health and recognizing my tendencies to hoard items that should be discarded, I chose to love my father through it. I kept in mind that the process of getting through this was a long one.

McDaniels brings up some ways that loved ones can help a family member or loved one who has a hoarding disorder: “Be kind and convey care for them and their well-being, and you must practice self-love. Try to understand their emotional reactions, and do not minimize their emotions. If it is a dear family member, be patient with your emotions, you may feel sad, angry, anxious, etc., and that is expected and okay.”

Most of all, it’s important to remember that you and your family can get through this difficult chapter, she adds. “Remind yourself of your goal, maybe even consider neutral or positive things that may come from a cleaner space. Utilize positive self-talk. ‘I am proud of myself for doing this even though it is hard.’ Tell your family member or loved one you are proud of them for taking this leap.” 

By keeping these pieces of advice in mind during my family’s journey, I saw that there was a whole new world, and a new story awaited on the other side.

Mental Health Resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and needs support, visit one of the following websites below or call any of their helplines:

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