While most people can tolerate a few unbecoming traits, seldom do they tolerate untidiness, dirt and chaotic environments. When it comes to houses, clutter is the biggest recipe for untidiness, which, unfortunately, many people struggle with.
Janet Muthoni, a fourth-year student at Laikipia University pursuing a degree in commerce, confesses to having been one in love with her clutter. “Yes, I had this weakness and however much I tried to control it, I was unable to.” This, she says, does not mean she was a dirty person, because as far as she is concerned, she is clean to a fault, but her collection of useless stuff made it difficult to keep her one-roomed house organised as she would have loved to.
Mostly, she explains, the items were of no value, but try as she did, she had trouble getting rid of them.
“I saw my friends pack up the items they no longer needed and take them back home, but I never brought myself to do the same. “I had dresses I used to wear in my first year, boxes of handout notes that I no longer needed, three old phones that I had stopped using after I upgraded, shoes, utensils and many other items that I no longer used, but I couldn’t get rid of them,” she recalls.
Hoarding was her problem
Her salvation came one fine Saturday through her boyfriend’s laptop. While searching for a movie to pass the time, she stumbled upon a US TV series known as “Hoarders” and her clutter problem got an instant solution.
“I learnt that it was a psychological problem. My first reaction was that it is a problem affecting others, but not me. The more I watched the programme, though, the more I could identify myself with the hoarders in the show. That is when I decided to talk to a psychology lecturer, who broke down the problem for me,” she explains, adding that her room is now clutter-free.
Psychologists we talked to agree with the TV series, explaining that having a house full of clutter is a psychological disorder known as hoarding. “A lot of what we do in our day-to-day lives, whether positive or negative, has [something psychological underlying it], and hoarding is no exception,” says Dr King’ori Wanjohi, a psychology lecturer at Laikipia University.
Like many other facets of life, he explains, this can be as a result of different issues taking places at a particular juncture in one’s life. “For example, someone who underwent a traumatic experience in childhood, say rape, may exhibit some distress later in life. A person who grew in an environment where one had to hold onto and guard tightly their possessions may have problems letting go what they have acquired in their adulthood, even when they no longer need them or are of no more value to them at that particular time.”
Dr King’ori, however, adds that this is not cast in stone, as this condition can also be associated with self-neglect or one’s personality or both. For example, someone living alone, is single or has grown up in a family that thrives in clutter may see no problem keeping clutter for themselves.
A psychological disorder
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), hoarding can be defined as a disorder where someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner. The items can be of little or no monetary value but usually result in unmanageable amounts of clutter.
While hoarding is not entirely a problem, notes ADAA, it can be an issue when it interferes with everyday living; for example, when clutter blocks your access to certain rooms or when it causes significant distress or damages the person’s quality of life or their family’s, such as getting upset if someone tries to clear the clutter.
While there are those who confuse collecting (an art popular with rich people who are fond of acquiring rare items) with acquiring clutter, there are other psychological causes of hoarding, Dr King’ori says. “Severe depression, psychotic disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (when a patient has obsessive thoughts and compulsive activity) are the severe and rare causes of hoarding but there are other more common factors, such as having a family history of hoarding, having grown up in a house with consistent clutter and having a deprived childhood”.
To understand whether you have the problem, Dr Geoffrey Wango, a counselling psychologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, explains there are telltale signs to look out for.
“If you keep collecting items that have little or no monetary value, or you find it hard to organise items and have difficulties in making decisions, this is a clear recipe for a hoarding disorder,” he says. Also, he adds, if you are struggling to manage everyday tasks such as cooking, cleaning and paying bills, you become extremely attached or have sentimental attachment to certain items, refusing to let anyone touch or borrow them, and you have poor relationships with family and friends, especially regarding your items, then there is a high chance that you are suffering from a hoarding disorder.
TREATING A HOARDING DISORDER
While quickly pointing out that a hoarding disorder can be treated, Dr Wango explains that it is a long journey requiring utmost commitment. “This is because many people who hoard do not see it as a problem and thus, don’t see a need to seek therapy or medication.” In other cases, he adds, the patients have little awareness about how it is impacting their lives or those of others around them.
“The [worrying] part about this disorder is that it will cause loneliness as its first consequence and then bring other mental health problems that will be difficult to treat. That’s why it important for a person to seek treatment because if left untreated, it will never go away on its own,” explains Dr King’ori.
Regarding treatment, continues Dr King’ori, the universal treatment of this disorder is known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). According to ADAA, CBT can be defined as “a type of therapy that aims to help you manage your problems by changing how you think (cognitive) and act (behaviour)”.
“In simple terms, he explains, the therapist works to make the person understand what makes it difficult for him/her to throw away these things and thus the reasons why clutter can be built up.”
Of course, according to Dr King’ori, this goes together with practical tasks to be worked on, according to a formulated plan that will give the patient responsibility to clear the clutter. Where this doesn’t work or the cases are severe, adds Dr Wango, antidepressants are used.