I’ve spent the majority of my life surrounded by clutter. Not just typical, the house is a little messy clutter. I would have welcomed that. The harsh reality is that both of my parents are hoarders. I didn’t understand what that word meant until recently.  I spent over a year in therapy before it felt real to say it. Hoarding is a secretive disorder. Growing up, there was always a sense that the house I lived in wasn’t “normal.” It was messy. It was full of stuff. It was embarrassing.  If my mother was worried about not being a “good housekeeper,” I was burdened with an even greater amount of responsibility for not doing more to keep the house clean. So we just didn’t let anyone inside. It increased the isolation.

The truth about hoarding is that there’s no easy fix for it. There’s no magic pill. Because it’s not just about the hoarding and the stuff. It’s about the value hoarders attach to the stuff. It’s about the anxiety and the depression and the obsession with the stuff.  Those three things – anxiety, depression, and obsession – have just as much of an impact.

Growing up, I felt suffocated by clutter, but also by anxiety and panic. I had panic attacks I couldn’t control and didn’t understand from the age of six or seven on. I felt like a prisoner in my own body. To deal with the anxiety, I turned to compulsions. A predisposition to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder took on a life of it’s own. I started picking at my skin with a vengeance. By the time I was a teenager, I couldn’t wear short sleeves because they exposed the damage I’d done. I lived most of my teenage years in turtlenecks to cover the problem. Anxiety and depression over not being able to stop made the situation worse. It was a vicious cycle I couldn’t find a way out of.

Nothing changed until 2007. By that time, I had been living away from home for five years, completed a bachelor’s degree, and entered graduate school. But all of my successes were masked by the burden of making mistakes I didn’t understand. I’d had relationships with people I shouldn’t have. I’d hurt people with my actions. I’d let others down. I had failed to make friends and didn’t understand why I couldn’t just let go and have a good time…ever. Every day was a constant battle with depression and anxiety that fueled my skin picking. Guilt over destroying my skin fueled more anxiety and depression. More than anything, I felt hopeless.

Then I made a decision that seemed completely unrelated. I wanted to go to Alaska for an internship. It might not seem like much to the average person – travel is fun and exciting and inspiring. But for me, it only spelled panic. I struggled to go even short distances outside of my comfort zone, and never did so alone. I had grown up believing I wasn’t capable of such things. Taking this internship meant going somewhere on my own for more than three months. It seemed impossible.

But I was tired of feeling like a prisoner. I wanted to go to Alaska, but more than that,  I wanted to go and have fun. I wanted to finally experience what it felt like to be comfortable doing something so typical as traveling – even just to the next county – without having a panic attack. I didn’t think I could do it without medication, so I asked the doctor to prescribe something. She refused unless I saw a therapist first. I was irritated at the time, and in denial that most of my problems were even fixable, but it turned out to be the best decision I ever made.

I started therapy in 2007, and the last three years have been a process of self-discovery and healing. Getting healthy has required dredging up the past in order to heal from it. Knowing it can’t be changed and accepting that have been struggles. Coming to terms with the things I faced as a child – things no child should ever have to experience – has been an uphill battle filled with emotions and tears. But it’s been worth it. And it has motivated me to start speaking out, because hoarding doesn’t just affect the people who do it – it impacts everyone around them. Especially children. When I was little, there was no one to help me or explain what was going on. It’s time to change that.


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