How Did I Get Here? Examining My Hoarding/OCD Tendencies

As I do every summer since I became a student, I am visiting my parents’ home for an extended period. During my past stays since I first left home in 2002, including all the short trips home from overseas, I have always been distracted with my stuff stuck in storage here – now relocated interstate with me and into a storage unit in Melbourne.

For the longest time coming home meant ‘shopping trips’ for pre-loved clothes I had forgotten about, books and other knick-knacks. It meant hours in the unit rifling through boxes to list the contents of each box or container or bag – so I knew what I actually had – or sorting it out, reorganising it even. It meant repacking my bags to leave things behind and packing new things, or even (over)packing it all desperately to try to have everything with me. All this amongst the usual home rush to see friends and family as much as possible. Coming home was always one big stress ball for the added pressure that my storage unit gave me among such a full schedule – more so once my niece and nephew were born, because spending whatever time I could with them shifted my priority rightly to them.

One day life realigned itself. I had a car, a place in Melbourne and the ability to load up and move nearly all of it back with me. It took three carloads, three road-trips over six months of visiting to do it. Probably if I didn’t sell my car, I would have taken that last load back with me already, but here it stays waiting for another day, another road-trip.

But those days of distraction with my stuff are gone now, so aside from those couple of boxes here, filled with books I don’t really use, I have time on my hands in these summers spent here. Time for contemplation. Especially this trip, where I spend some days writing this blog.

This trip I had a major revelation. I realised the apple dropped straight down out of the proverbial tree. It didn’t roll far.

I love my parents dearly, and am very close with them. So similarities from the nurture side of parenting are just as strong as the nature kind. In their house, they have hoarding tendencies too. Overcrowded cupboards and piles in the spare room. Just like a lot of people.

But my gasp moment came during my contemplating and pondering. I realised so many of the things I collect, they collect too! Oh my gosh, yes! Why did I never see it before? My collections pretty much mirror the collections hoarded by my parents!

We both have collections of DVDs, videos, cassettes, and my parents even have records unused due to broken record players. Valuable collectibles now. They at least still watch their videos. I still listen to my cassettes. My 1990s boom box still works. They have books in their cupboards to read eventually, though Dad does actually read regularly. My books, that I used to want to put in a floor-to-ceiling home library with a ladder one day, are largely unread – even the ones, especially the ones collected overseas. Mum collects magazines and especially special editions covering a memorable event. I think as a kid she once unintentionally put the idea in my head that it was something you do, when she told me about how her mum threw out her scrapbook of articles about her favourite pop idols. I have torn out inspirational or memorable articles or useful how-to or recipe pages ever since – with the idea to put them in a scrapbook. As for special event magazines and newspapers, gosh I even have a special box for them. We both collect programs from musicals. We both save toys and children’s things. Mum saves them for the grandchildren. As a nanny, I used them for work but also capitalised on the fact I could claim tax on them each year, so tried to get whatever I could for my yet-to-be-born children.

It begs one to wonder, is this a generational thing? Is it a normal thing? Some people collect for a rainy day, others just don’t. Is it bad to collect or save things? How about if those things just sit in cupboards unused? Are we as recovering hoarders enlightened and those who choose to never think about the contents of their homes – because they have the luxury of size and space- not? Should we judge? Should I judge?

This leads me to think about my OCD tendencies. When did I start to see extra stuff as too much stuff?

When I worked in my first nanny job, they were much like my family; they had a house full of stuff. I, just springing out of my teens into my twenties, was ready for my next chapter in life, and started acquiring stuff too, more and more until it no longer fit just in my bedroom of my parents’ house. I was totally ready to spring from the roost into a place of my own and collected as such. I bought furniture, a flatpack larger bed, an armchair and cupboards that I built while still home to have places to put my stuff. No one anywhere gave me the impression that this wasn’t normal. I didn’t move out, I moved overseas instead, offloading the armchair but leaving the rest sprawled around my parents’ house. The new nanny job, they were the same. To this day, the original clothes, books and toys of their firstborn now serve their seventh child, with extra stuff hidden away in the storage cage that came with their apartment.

It wasn’t until my third job, a summer job in a summer house, that I saw a different way. This family introduced me to the idea of clearing out and actually throwing out whatever the kids weren’t using. And they were hardcore about it. So come my next job a few months later – probably overburdened with the mental clutter of my stuff at home, newly moved into a storage unit there – when I came into this 7-storey UK house totally overflowing with children’s stuff and unorganised too, I think that was the birth of my organisational skills. Into that house and those piles of kids’ toys and clothes poured my frustrations of clutter and inability to do anything about it. Because here I could do something about it.

When I look back at two decades as a nanny, all the homes I’ve been in and the families that filled them, I would guess that half the people hoard and collect for the rainy day, half the people only keep what they need, what they use. People who move a lot or have extra homes are more likely to have less. I don’t think rich people keep any less than poor people, who I would have thought would be more likely to save things for re-use.

I do believe that it all comes down to mindset and lifestyle. If you have a house, especially a big house where space is no issue, and you know you are there for life, well you can use what you use, buy what you buy without a moment’s thought of if it will fit and what you might do with it if you realise you don’t need it.

My problem falls at an intersection: I have the inherited collection tendencies of someone with a big house, but the lifestyle of someone who lives out of a suitcase, and the frustrations of someone with too much stuff and nowhere to put it or sort it and dump it. I want to keep the memories, but not the stuff. The advantage of having a storage unit long-term is that it erases the memories, sentimentality and emotional connection to things, so each year there are more things to disregard as the connection fades, and something new takes its place.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, the frustrations remain and I like to take it out on other people’s things, because I have no connection whatsoever to those things. Sometimes people let me. Last year I overhauled an office who let me in to declutter years of unmaintained office resources and books. Other people don’t let me – and that’s their right. It just means when I come home and contemplate, surrounded by the same collections of things for weeks, my emotional urge to scratch the itch is strong, and I have to sit on it and find other projects to do, until such time as I go back to Melbourne and my things, and scratch the itch right on the spot it is the most itchiest. I wonder if then, will that itch disappear forever?

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