What It's Really Like To Be A Young Hoarder

by Rachel Kramer Bussel

Here's a simple test to tell if you're a hoarder: Move out of your apartment of 13 years. If a bomb looks like it's gone off after your movers have picked up your boxes and left, you're a hoarder. I know, because that's what happened to me.

I had officially moved into my boyfriend's apartment. My clothes and books carted off, but my old place was still in shambles, the accumulated ephemera of my life inhabiting every nook and cranny.

I'm a hoarder, and I simply hadn't been able to pack or discard everything in time for my official moving day, so I'd been living with all the detritus, unsure how to tackle the problem.

I'm not using “hoarder” as a way to exaggerate. This is not the clutter equivalent of a size-four woman saying, “I'm so fat.” My hoarding interfered with my everyday activities. My stuff covered every surface of my home, from the doorway, where I had to slam my body against the door to enter, to the living room, spare room and into my bedroom.

I would regularly trip as I made my way through the assorted papers, magazines, books, shoes, bags and random other items I'd collected over the years.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that there was so much stuff I felt swallowed up by it. I'd always been a packrat, but when I'd started living alone seven years before, my stuff had truly taken over — and I'd let it. Once you start down that path, it's incredibly hard to just “put things away,” so I was dealing with the aftermath of years of simply tossing things anywhere I wanted. I didn't even know what I had, only that I still felt like I needed to take the time to sort through it all before officially leaving.

When I arrived at my cousin's wedding after being cooped up in said apartment since the movers had left, I was desperate, stressed beyond belief because I was supposed to have officially cleared out three days before.

I was wheezing because of all the dust being kicked up, and I felt utterly trapped by all the stuff waiting to be thrown out.

My worst nightmare was that my landlord would come in and see the shambles I'd made of his apartment. Even though I didn't expect my security deposit back, I was more concerned with my dignity than my finances. I couldn't imagine facing him in an entire apartment filled with clutter.

In the nights after my moving day, I tossed and turned as I waited for an ominous knock on the door, but all I heard was my own panic. How was I going to get rid of everything when there was so much stuff that I had bruises from tripping over it whenever I walked across a room?

Even getting inside was a struggle; I'd slam my body against the door to push my way inside the morass of papers, books, clothes and gifts littering the floor. I'd learned to live with this level of debris, and I'd always assumed that moving would be the panacea.

I'd given myself four months to pack my belongings, but those months came and went incredibly quickly.

I had tried my best to clean out my apartment, but there was simply too much stuff for that to be a practical goal, which is what happens when you make zero attempts to purge for over a decade.

Friends had generously offered to help, but I'd rebuffed them all, sure that if they got a good look at just how messy my apartment was, they would no longer be my friends. I couldn't envision inflicting all the dust, dirt and sheer magnitude of stuff on anyone I cared about, even if their hearts were in the right place.

I had gotten myself into this mess, and I wanted to be the one to get myself out of it — except I clearly hadn't been able to do that.

My belongings seemed to have taken on a life of their own. They'd grown larger than my mind could even fathom. When you steadily accumulate possessions for that long, they become part of you — or at least that's what it felt like to me. Parting with them felt like parting with a piece of myself, which made the task not just daunting but impossible.

I'd no sooner burrow into a corner to sort than unearth old issues of Talk still in their packages. I couldn't throw them out without at least perusing them, could I? Floppy disks that perhaps contained brilliant old writings from almost 20 years ago? My first computer, a Mac Color Classic? Keepers, lest my urgent early-20s ramblings be destroyed forever.

The same went for letters from pen pals whose names and life stories I'd since forgotten, notebooks from law school (even though I never graduated and don't practice law), and the sneakers autographed by Cisqo.

Nevermind that I barely knew who Cisqo was; I'd won them in a contest, and I therefore had to save them.

En masse, it was amorphous “junk,” but individually, each thing became invaluable. I'd grab a pile, determined to do some damage, only to get immediately sucked in by nostalgia.

It didn't matter if it was a book I'd never cracked open, dust clinging to its pages, or the velvet Betsey Johnson skirt I'd bought on eBay, worn once, and stuffed into the back of a drawer.

For every item I threw into a trash bag, at least three more landed on my “must keep” list. It was a never-ending task that seemed to grow exponentially more stressful by the day.

You might think that by that point, I'd have been so sick of the process that I'd be ready to part with previously coveted items, but in fact, the opposite happened. The closer I got to having to say goodbye, the more fiercely I clung to my possessions.

They were my ultimate safety net as I got ready to uproot my life -- to go from complete independence with no oversight, which was part of what had gotten me into this mess, to living with someone who I feared would monitor my every move and purchase.

That's how I wound up wheezing at the beach wedding, my beleaguered lungs thankful for the ocean air. At the reception, I asked my former roommate (a different cousin), what I should do.

“My boyfriend said to just leave it all there, but I can't do that. I don't want to get sued.”

Plus, I would never have been able to live with the guilt of leaving over a decade's worth of trash in my home for someone else to handle.

“You could hire a trash-removal service. We did that when my dad's apartment caught fire. They came in and threw everything out.”

“There are people who do that?” I asked, shock and excitement making my voice screech. I couldn't believe a hoarding fairy godmother existed. If I'd known you could pay someone for this service, I would have saved myself many sleepless, stressful nights.

He sent me off to Google my options. As it turns out, there are multiple trash-removal services for hire in New York. Some were eco-friendly and recycled as much as possible, which would have been my first choice, but those were booked on such short notice; I was in a time crunch, so I chose the fastest option, which would simply take my trash and throw it away.

I sent them photos of my home so they'd have a sense of what they job entailed. They were up for it. For $700, they promised to send someone the next day.

The following morning, three men arrived with a small truck. When I showed them inside, they didn't bat an eye at the garbage I had to wade through, the filth I'd been too ashamed to show anyone. That was my first sign that things were going to be OK.

We didn't talk much beyond that. I got out of their way, because I simply couldn't watch. But something about their methodical, no-nonsense approach made me feel less awful about myself. They were there to do a job, not to judge me.

Outfitted in masks and rubber gloves and armed with garbage cans, the men were like decluttering robots, whizzing through the towering piles I'd agonized over so painstakingly.

They didn't stop to ask my opinion or weigh the potential value of selling an item on eBay. They weren't being paid to care about my stuff, just to get rid of it.

Meanwhile, in the living room, I huddled over my laptop, pretending I was totally fine with strangers rummaging through my old bras and clothes, my voluminous adult magazine collection from having worked at one for seven years, the random electronics I'd never bothered to discard, and whatever else was there.

Yet even though I knew they did this every day, I found that I couldn't just sit still. That old guilt kept coming to the forefront. I felt like the ultimate spoiled brat, paying someone to literally throw out my dirty laundry — along with my old lipsticks, journals, books, magazines, shoes and stuffed animals.

I listened to them fill up those giant cans. It felt wrong on every level. I'd thought they were coming to my rescue, but it wasn't actually easy to sit back and let someone else do what should have been my job.

“You should keep this,” the supervisor said, handing me the Social Security card I hadn't known was missing. Again, my irresponsibility stared me right in the face. I thanked him, then shut my computer, utterly unable to focus. Even though they weren't expecting me to assist them, I couldn't live with doing nothing.

To feel marginally useful, I decided to “help” them, but even at that late hour, my hoarding brain overrode my common sense.

Instead of adding to the trash cans, I reverted to my old M.O. and started rescuing the final “must-saves.” Yes, while they tore through my bedroom as quickly as possible, I was in the living room grabbing CDs, artwork, an old cell phone and whatever else suddenly seemed too vital to part with forever.

I lugged several huge bags to a nearby friend's house, sure my life would never be the same if I didn't salvage that rare, out-of-print 10,000 Maniacs album with the Cat Stevens cover.

Looking back, that seems ludicrous, but in the moment, you would have had to pry that record out of my hands, and I would have fought you.

Hoarding is an act deeply embedded in the core of who I am, and while I'd hired the cleaners to help me get out of my rock-bottom situation, I couldn't completely let go of the person who'd gotten herself into that situation in the first place.

Here's another way to test if you're a hoarder: It's when the reality of saying goodbye to your stuff is so painful you simply can't face it, even when you know you must.

Despite my initial hallelujah moment when my cousin suggested I hire someone, having someone else do my dirty work didn't mean I escaped unscathed. The four hours I waited while they filled the truck were my penance, every minute a reminder that I clearly didn't respect my stuff, because I couldn't take care of it.

If I'd ever thought I was “better” than the people you see on "Hoarders," that day was my comeuppance. Having to witness all those things I'd acquired with such great hope be tossed on top of each other as if they didn't matter — and paying someone for the indignity — was not some walk in the park.

My guilt was only compounded when I realized I alone was responsible for a truck's worth of stuff being taken to the local dump; as someone who's diligent about recycling, this made me feel like I was personally cutting down a tree for my own use.

Eventually, my former home was spotless, every last “keepsake” tossed out like old coffee grounds. As I signed off on the $700 fee, I was fully aware that the mental cost was far greater. I'm incredibly grateful such services exist, because I truly don't know what I would have done without them.

What I learned, though, is that you can't simply hire someone to absolve you of your worst behavior. Having my apartment finally clean and clutter-free didn't simultaneously cleanse my conscience.

It's been almost three years since I hired the service, and I still shudder to remember how humiliating it actually felt to know I couldn't do something as seemingly simple as throwing out my own garbage.

My hoarding is far more under control these days, but it still surfaces, especially during my three subsequent moves since that big one.

I've tried to use this experience to remind myself that no matter how passionately I want to keep an item, no possession is worth going through that kind of emotional turmoil.

I believe I'll always struggle, to some degree, with being a hoarder, but knowing exactly how bad it can get guides me in trying to make better choices so I never find myself in that situation again.