There is a difference between someone who doesn’t want to throw out his or her old concert T-shirts and someone who keeps so many things, it affects his or her health. The latter is compulsive hoarding disorder.
One in 50 Singaporeans will exhibit this behaviour in their lifetime, which accounts for about two per cent of Singapore’s adult population, according to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2010.
What is it like living with someone who has the disorder? We spoke to Anne (not her real name), who is currently a third-year university student. She spent her childhood and teenage years living with a mother who’s a compulsive hoarder.
1. NO ONE WANTS TO CONFRONT THE HOARDER
The result is never pleasant as trying to clear away the hoarder's stuff can result in physical and emotional violence, said Anne. “When we had visitors on Chinese New Year, many had to stand or hang out in the corridor. But they would pretend nothing was wrong."
Whenever Anne broached the subject of clearing out the house, her father would get upset. Sometimes, he'd stay out for days because he didn’t want a showdown with his wife. It is probably a good move as he had a heart attack before and such confrontations wouldn't be good for his health, Anne said.
“But it’s frustrating. Everyone acknowledges that something is wrong, but no one wants to risk being the centre of a scene. I learned early on that you have to be the one to do it. Don’t expect help,” she said.
This often left Anne, who was in secondary school then, to face her mother alone on her periodic attempts to clear out the house. It was especially tough for her to be called a “useless daughter” and to be accused of hurting her mother. It also felt shameful because she knew the neighbours were listening, even if they didn’t outright comment, she said.
2. YOU DEVELOP ANXIETY AND FEEL JUDGED
Anne didn’t want to bring friends home or even let them know which block she lived in. The state of her apartment was a source of constant anxiety for her. “Whenever I took the bus back, I would purposely get off one stop early. For years, my friends thought I lived in a block that was actually quite far from my home,” she said.
Anne also felt a constant, illogical sense of being judged all the time. “It’s always at the back of my mind. Even a few passing words or the way someone looks at me can set off my anxiety sometimes. I would suspect that they knew, or that everyone is talking about it behind my back.”
As a result, she would swing from friendly and engaging to suddenly becoming withdrawn. “It affected my willingness to meet people and make friends when I was younger. I was the quiet and weird kid for the whole of my secondary school life," she said.
Anne eventually revealed the truth to two of her closest friends. While they’re accepting of her situation, no one gets invited to her house, even today.
3. YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT’S YOURS ANYMORE
When there’s so much stuff in the apartment, it’s hard to keep track of things. "After a while, you don’t know what belongs to whom," said Anne. "There were times when I wanted to throw out my things and Mum would get angry because she thought they were hers."
After a while, the confusion spread. “One time, I insisted that a bag of shoes wasn’t mine and we should throw it out. Later, I realised that the bag did contain my shoes. My mum had 30 or 40 plastic bags full of them but that one bag was actually mine.”
The confusion also applies to clothes, watches and bags. And this has resulted in her mum refusing to let her use them. “She’s afraid that I wear them out to secretly dispose of them, which I admit, is something I've tried once. But she also reacts that way to things I bought for myself. Imagine not being allowed to use a bag or wear an outfit you bought for yourself.”
4. YOU START TO WONDER IF HOARDING IS INFECTIOUS
Whenever Anne wants to keep something such as a birthday card or a favourite but worn-out T-shirt, she’s struck by the fear of becoming a hoarder. “I find myself wondering if I’m developing the same habits,” she said. “Is there a chance I’ll end up like my mum?”
That fear has caused Anne to throw out many things that she treasures – one of them was a trophy she won for composition writing in primary school. It was the first thing that got her interested in becoming a writer. “The house is already so crammed with things,” Anne said. “There’s not much room for me to keep things anyway.”
5. FORGET ABOUT DOING ANYTHING ELSE; CLEANING TAKES UP MOST OF YOUR TIME
“Although it looks messy, our house is not dirty. You can eat off the floor,” Anne said. “But just imagine the effort we spend to keep it clean when there’s stuff everywhere.”
Mopping or sweeping means having to move in a single file just to get from the living room to the kitchen. Magazines are piled to just about shoulder height, while mounds of old shampoo bottles, cosmetic cases, old jeans and trousers are piled up to waist height.
Cleaning means having to lift these items, check for bugs, and mop and vacuum under them. “It was always a three-person job,” Anne said. “Two people to lift things and one person to clean. It’s ridiculous and exhausting. And the worst part is, the house is still a mess after all the cleaning." The entire process, Anne said, could start from 8pm to almost midnight. And this was done almost every other day. Sometimes, whole weekends were spent on just cleaning.
When Anne was younger, neighbours who were understanding of her mother’s condition used to help. “I think it was also in their interest. They wanted to make sure we didn't have cockroaches and ants going to their apartments. But it was nice of them and they never made fun of us. The new neighbours just avoid us.”
Thanks to the intervention of social workers, and later, her mother's close friend, Anne’s mum is getting the help she needs. She has conceded to monthly “clearings”, in which unused items are thrown out.
“She’s always in a very bad mood after that and it gets very intense. There’s a lot of crying and asking why we do this to her,” Anne said. “But the apartment is a lot less cluttered and she's beginning to get over it quicker."
Anne doesn't live with her parents now but she is near enough to drop in to help with the cleaning and clearing. “I’ll have to keep coming back to check. It will never end," she said. “But that’s a part of life for me now.”
This story first appeared in 99.co.