I feel the need to re-visit the ultimatums conversation. Also, I get asked this question a lot: “Why do people who hoard keep so much junk?” I think this question and the ultimatum conversation go hand-in-hand, so I’m putting them together in this post. Hopefully, when you read the title of this post, you thought, “Well, ultimatums are really unhelpful, so why would we even try this?” If you did, hooray! But I want to discuss it again because a lot of family members and friends think that their situation is different and so perhaps the response can be different than everyone else’s. OVERALL, YOUR SITUATION IS NO DIFFERENT THAN ANYONE ELSE – HOARDING IS A DIFFICULT BEHAVIOR TO ADDRESS AND ULTIMATUMS ARE NEVER, EVER THE ANSWER.
The mistrust and pain that are experienced by an ultimatum that goes sideways are really not necessary for either one of you. Here’s an example, a young woman came to a family member support group that I led and said, “I was so angry about my Mom’s hoarding – she had so much junk and crap that she was never going to be able to use and she wouldn’t get rid of it. So I told her I was coming over and we were going to clean out her house. I came over and we got started sorting things that I thought she could donate. I found a pair of jeans that were a size 4 – a size that neither of us had ever worn and would never be able to wear, so I said, ‘Hey Mom, let’s put this in the donation pile.’ And Mom came over, grabbed the jeans, and said, ‘I need these.’ We argued for about 15 minutes, each of us getting angrier and angrier as the argument went on. Finally, I said, “I’m not going to talk to you until you get rid of these jeans.” I left, Mom kept the jeans, and we haven’t talked for a year.” Unfortunately, this is a common experience in families.
Family members get to the end of their ropes and figure that – surely – they are more important to their loved one than their stuff. So they make a big statement about what’s going to happen if the stuff doesn’t go, and then are surprised, hurt, and angry when they find out the stuff matters more. (It really doesn’t matter more, but they put their loved one in an impossible situation and in the anxiety and fear of the moment, their loved one picked the stuff – every time.) So, a lot of angry words get spoken, and hurt feelings are felt, and it’s hard to figure out how to come back together in the midst of it all.
This situation of hoarding is difficult enough. Don’t make it worse by saying words that you may not be prepared to follow through on. Is a pair of jeans really worth the loss of a relationship?
But, you say, there is a lot of junk in the home. Why? Why can’t we get rid of it? It’s meaningless. It’s stupid. It’s taking up space. It makes no sense. I encourage you to keep in mind that, regardless of the value you put on an item, your loved one who hoards sees that thing as their belonging, their possession. How would you feel if I came into your house and started point out what was junk and unnecessary and needed to be tossed? My guess is (if you’re like I am) that you’d tell me all the reasons why a particular item couldn’t go, why I don’t understand the meaning of another piece, etc. People who hoard are no different in their thinking – and we need to respect them.
So my advice to you family and friends is to get support for you. If you feel supported by your people, you will be better able to support your loved one who hoards without holding unrealistic ideas or issuing ultimatums. We’re getting to the treatment part of my posts, so hang on, I have ideas for family and professionals to help make change to a hoarded home. But back to you, this situation of hoarding is really hard – really hard – and you’re worried about the safety of your loved one. Or, you’re angry about all this shit and crap sitting around – and you know that if they don’t do something about this, you’re going to be left to deal with it all when they die. Or, you’re embarrassed that a member of your family lives in such a disgusting way. Or, you just feel really, really sad about this.
All of these feelings – and more – are legitimate. And they are yours. So you need to find support to help you explore these feelings and figure out what to do about them. A trusted friend or family member, a mental health professional – a trauma or grief specialist, a neighbor or co-worker – or all of the above. Find your support network and lean on them for whatever the outcome may be: change in hoarding behaviors or resistance, a process that can be managed by a few people or a process that involves the city and a housing inspector. There are a lot of tough decisions ahead, and your loved one who hoards likely will be unable to make them without help. If you can be a trusted person to them, you may be able to have a voice in this situation. Whether or not they trust you, this will be an exhausting process. Take care of yourself first – put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to help your loved one who hoards.
Janet Yeats is a marriage and family therapist and writer who specializes in issues of trauma, grief and loss. Janet consults, speaks and writes on hoarding disorder as well as other trauma and loss-related topics. Visit her youtube channel (Janet Yeats) to see videos and webinars on these topics.