A private pain

Labelling hoarding a mental disorder may help those suffocating under the weight of their stuff, says Susannah Walker

  • Published 29.08.18

Hoarding is officially an illness, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared or, to use their terminology, "a medical disorder". It's a classification I read with a grim sense of amusement as, like anyone affected by it knows, disorder is exactly the problem. Stuff stacked up everywhere, getting in the way; creased, crumpled, rotting and lost. But will their labelling of the problem help the estimated 2-5 per cent of us affected by hoarding? Can it bring some order to the chaos?

In her later life, my mother was a hoarder. In the words of the WHO, she suffered from an "accumulation of possessions" causing "significant distress or impairment". For years she refused to let me through the front door, so I had no idea how bad her house had become until she was taken into hospital after a fall, only to find her once beautiful home had been wrecked.

Every flat surface was stacked with paper, boxes and food cartons, while the floor was covered in a thick layer of old newspapers and unopened letters. Scrolls of lining paper and plaster dangled around a dark hole in the hallway ceiling where a radiator had burst; the kitchen floor was awash in black silt, and brambles snaked in through a broken door.

Back then, I needed the WHO's definition. Three years ago, my mother sat in the hospital ward, witty and alert, telling the nurses that she'd be fine to go home in just a few days, with no more help than a handrail on the stairs, and they believed her - they had to, she seemed entirely sane. My protests only finally registered when I brought in photographs of the house. Had there been a recognised medical label for me to use, maybe I wouldn't have had to argue so hard; perhaps my mother might even have got some help before her house crumbled around her.

Hoarding is a private disorder, going on behind closed doors, its extent only ever realised, as in my mother's case, when it spirals out of control. Even at the WHO's lowest estimate of how many of us are dealing with the condition, that still means that more people in Britain hoard than have Alzheimer's, and yet we rarely speak of it. Perhaps the WHO's definition can open up that conversation: it's needed. I would have been happy at the time just to know that I wasn't alone; that this dreadful mess wasn't because I had failed as a daughter.

In the end, my mother never left hospital. She died at the age of 77 just 10 days after the fall. She couldn't face losing the house or her independence, so death seemed like the best option. This left me with the job of clearing up the mess she had left behind, and in doing so, I started to uncover some of the reasons why she hoarded - the more I discovered, the more irrelevant any kind of label seemed to be.

Hoarding is undoubtedly a problem that goes far beyond a mere liking of knick-knacks and keepsakes. The accumulation of stuff impinges on people's lives for decade after decade; hoarders become alienated from their families, lose custody of their children. It's a sign that something elsewhere in their lives is making that person unhappy.

My mother's house represented a giant shout of pain against the tragedies that had filled her life. She'd been born a girl in a family that valued boys, so when her younger brother died of cot death, my mother believed she should have gone instead. She contracted polio, her father was made bankrupt, lost the family home, then disappeared. When she tried to start a new life and family of her own, her first child died at birth. Mementos of all these tragedies lived in her house: perhaps she hoarded to bury the evidence, or because she needed an outward display of her inner turmoil. But the hoarding was only a symptom, not the real issue at all.

In the face of these traumas, "hoarding disorder" seems only to describe the surface of what has happened, papering over the infinite human stories that bring it about. And it may even be genetic: the children of sufferers are much more likely to repeat this behaviour themselves - a 2009 study found that 84 per cent of hoarders report a history of hoarding in a close relative - and so I am constantly assessing myself for the signs.

For now, my house is relatively uncluttered, so I am off the hook. My things never caused me distress, or prevented me from living a normal life: from washing, or cooking, or letting people through the front door. This borderline is perhaps the most useful thing that WHO's words have given me, the knowledge that I am not a hoarder, merely someone with a tendency to clutter. Even so, I am still always on the alert: my life only ever one disaster away from a hoard.