I’m no dragon…

Photo 10908953 / Dragon © Kostyantine Pankin | Dreamstime.com

Dear friend,

I hope you’ve been well. Lately, I’ve been thinking about dragons and their hoards. There’s something dangerously attractive about the idea of piles of gold and jewels, living in isolation, and flying free whenever one wants. As an introvert, I think the idea of living surrounded by the things I love and coming out only when I feel so called to is very appealing. And yet when we think of hoarding as humans, the idea is far more sad and troubling.

My uncle was a hoarder. He piled my grandmother’s house full of stuff and they never let anyone in to see it. I remember going over there as a kid and feeling like I was entering into another world; a world where things were piled high and it was hard to move around. The smell of grandma’s house was always a bit musty and strange, and I never felt quite comfortable there. As the years passed, the house got worse and worse. Since my family lived many states away, we only saw them once a year, so there wasn’t much we could do from a distance beyond encouraging Grandma to tell him to stop. It’s too late now and that’s somehow heartbreaking. My uncle passed two months ago and my last remaining maternal uncle has been working on cleaning out my grandmother’s house ever since. It’s a slow process, untangling decades of accumulation, but bit by bit, the house is becoming livable again.

Hoarding is now recognized as a mental illness, and it’s one that I think many of us can understand on some level, even if we don’t suffer from it ourselves. After all, who doesn’t love the idea of surrounding themselves with things they love? Whether it is family photographs, a favorite collectible, even a lovingly curated collection of favorite novels, most of us have things in our homes that bring us joy. Of course, most of us know that it is important to do a routine cleaning to remove items that are worn down, no longer used, or no longer serve a purpose.

The difference, of course, is that hoarders can’t let go of anything, and their homes become cluttered and dangerous as a result. It’s a lonely existence and aside from the obvious health risks of mold and pests, one of the worst parts about hoarding, for both the hoarder and those related to them, is the shame. The urge to hide it, to keep it quiet, to avoid talking about it to anyone. If we just don’t say anything, it gives them time to fix it, right? Well no, actually. It’s a vain hope. And it festers, like a wound that never heals. I wish my uncle had gotten help while he was still alive. I wish a lot of things, but mostly I wish my mom’s family had easier lives. I think most of us have someone we care about for whom we wish we could fix life circumstances.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching my uncle hoard things he planned to resell at antique stores, it’s to be vigilant about my own collections. I admit I’ve let things slip during my depressive episodes. It’s amazing how quickly things pile up, from books to clothes and even documents I no longer need. But over the past few years, I’ve been chipping away at my own home, removing the clutter – which has never even come a fraction close to what my grandmother’s house had become. I use a keep-donate-trash method, which has worked well for me.

My suggestion for tackling any area in your home that feels overwhelming – even if it is your whole home – is to start small. Pick one table, nightstand, or shelf on a bookshelf and start there. Start by tidying – put anything that has a proper place back where it belongs. Then move to decluttering – anything that you no longer need or want, get rid of it. This can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that material things are not worth your mental health or well-being. After decluttering, take a step back and look at what you have left. If it makes you happy, great! If not, maybe it’s time for a change.

I’m not saying that everyone who has a lot of stuff is a hoarder. Maximalism is an interior design style, after all. I’m also not saying that getting rid of everything one owns is the right way to handle hoarding. In fact, doing so without the hoarders consent can make the problem worse! But I am saying that for me, decluttering my space has been an important part of managing my mental health. It’s one way I’ve found to keep my depression and anxiety at bay, and it’s something I recommend to others.

I’m no dragon, but I understand the appeal of the hoard. I think we all do, on some level. But it’s important to remember that for some people, it’s not just a quirk or an eccentricity. It’s a real and debilitating mental illness. And if you’re struggling with it, or are close to someone who is, know that you’re not alone. There is help available, and there is hope for a better future.

Regardless of the state of your own collection, I hope it brings you joy. I hope your home is a sanctuary, a place you can return to at the end of the day and feel at peace. I hope you are surrounded by the things and people you love. And if you’re not, I hope you have the strength to make the changes you need to, for your own sake. Take care of yourselves, everyone. You deserve it.