Perspective: the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance (source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
You know, it’s time to let things go, however, we don’t always have perspective. How much we value something is all relative to the owner of an object. We may not know when that time will come to let something go but you will likely know when it is right for you. Or do you? Parents often believe they can keep an item that their children or even their children’s children will value in the future. But that is not always the case. As a matter of fact, that is rarely the case. The problem is that the owner does not always have the correct perspective on the situation.
Do you need the help of someone to ‘encourage’ you to let go of a thing in your past that has caused you grief and pain? Keeping wedding gifts after a divorce? Old love letters from an ex-boyfriend? Files from two jobs ago? Maybe, it is the exact opposite. Maybe you don’t want to let go of those things that have sentimental value to you. You have kept something because it is something that your mom gave you (the doll that you received for your 7th birthday) or was it the sweater your dad always wore. It was the card collection that you’ve had since you were a teen. Keeping a few sentimental items does not make you a hoarder but people often ask why hoarding happens.
It is not unusual for someone to keep items purely for sentimental value but what if it is causing pain to others. What if all that stuff that you have accumulated is just one more box to walk around, one more shelf beginning to buckle, one more drawer to close shut? What if the things that you are keeping are causing others to walk away in disgust because you are basically choosing the stuff over them? In my years as a professional organizer, I worked with a few hard core hoarding cases and they remain the clients I am not surely going to forget.
In my experience or working with hoarders, I never engaged a client that was not also working with a mental health professional. As skilled as I am at organizing people and understanding the plight that they shoulder, it does not compare to working with a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. There are many roads that this person has traveled to get to this point of compulsive hoarding. In my experience, it is unlikely that a person has developed hoarding tendencies without an incident that was a defining moment in their lives.
Whether it was an unplanned moved, the loss of a parent, spouse or child, divorce or modeling by a hoarding parent, hoarding is deeply rooted in an event. Other events may occur subsequently but there is likely one event that set the ball in motion. The idea of letting go of something, as simple as a green plastic basket that strawberries are sold in, can be a difficult task. This was one of the items a client held on to, that and kettles (she must have had about 10 of them – in all forms of disrepair). She would also go through newspapers and clip out random stories and stack them neatly beside her. There was fabric and clothes that must have been 30 or 40 years old at the time. There was also an entire closet full of bed sheets. As we cleared away the clutter and went through all of their belongings, we found an envelope full of money that the family member had no idea when was withdrawn from her bank account. There were pictures and books and countless number of pint size green baskets… so many. Oh, so many.
As I said there was probably one moment in time that this particular person suffered a trauma event so huge in which this individual felt comfort by beginning to accumulate ‘stuff’. The need to feel surrounded by items ‘just in case’ or ‘until it is fixed’ or ‘because I like it’. For this particular family the traumatic event happened during the Second World War.
The family was moving to a new apartment in a short period of time. We had five days to clear a three bedroom apartment and condense it into two. As we worked our way through their home, I came across a cylinder tube (the kind that hold university diplomas) and we looked inside. As I unravelled the paper, my client’s brother was somewhat hesitant to look at it was looking down. I knew it was an official document of some sort and I was reluctant to just discard it. As I read it, the words seemed to echo loudly in my head: “On behalf of the Government of Canada, we would like to apologize for the interment that you suffered between during the World War II …” Interment? Were those the words that I was reading? Interment?
In an instant everything became crystal clear. I realized as a child this woman’s world had collapsed. Her parents (a teacher and an insurance agent), lost everything: their jobs, their home, all of their worldly possessions. Everything had been taken from them and they were shipped off to an interment camp located in another province with the unlikelihood of ever returning home. As I looked around, I realized that even though their personal journey had unfolded into rich full lives, there had been a point in time, a marker that would define them.
I do not have to be a healthcare professional to understand that to keep order in her mind, she needed to control her surrounding and what she was surrounded: simple, mundane, everyday items made her feel secure and safe. So requiring a compulsive hoarder to just ‘let it go’ is a gargantuan task. We are easy to judge when we have no idea what the circumstances are that got this person to this point. I loved working with clients and helping them find order in their lives but my heart was heavy that day. That whole job haunts me to this day because I often wonder if I could done more to help.
So I ask you today: when you are dealing with an aging parent who is hoarding stuff and you need to go through some of it, do you really know why they are keeping it? Are you aware of the moment in time when they started to hoard? Is it something that may have occurred long before you were even born? Many people will not divulge even the slightest reason for keeping those memories alive, not even to their children. The simple act of letting something go, can be a mountain to climb. If you have a family member that has hoarding tendencies, be sure that they are working with a mental healthcare professional to help them manoeuvre those mind fields that are memories.