Hoarding Junk in Head

Why Does Someone Live Like This?


I had just finished watching a movie on television and randomly clicked through the channels to see if anything else caught my eye. When I saw a woman teetering precariously atop a huge mound of junk, I stopped.

She was nicely dressed and appeared to be in her forties. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The narrator said the woman worked part-time as a clerk for a local hardware store. As I watched her awkwardly navigate the space, I was stunned to hear the narrator say this was “Carla’s” bedroom.

Upon closer inspection, you could see piles of clothes, but they were strewn haphazardly among boxes, stacks of newspapers, magazines, and books. There was no visible furniture other than a broken lampshade lying on its side atop a mishmash pile of junk. Plastic trash bags filled with God knows what, dotted the space. Most disconcerting was the trash; food wrappers, pizza boxes, soft drink cans, yogurt containers, and obvious garbage contributing to the landscape.

Well over four feet of refuse and personal belongings covered the entire floor.

The camera followed Carla as she proceeded to what looked to be a walkway, where the tower of trash was somewhat less dense but nonetheless, still difficult for her to traverse. As Carla tried to get a foothold, she would often slip and fall into the rubble. Eventually, she reached a place where a slight clearing was carved out of the chaos, revealing what appeared to be a large circular micro-fiber dog bed.

“This is where I sleep.” She said quietly.

I stared in horror as the camera zoomed in on a visibly active roach population moving freely amidst the debris surrounding her “bed.” My initial horror was superseded by a scurrying pair of rodents vying nearby for their own turf.

Suddenly, I felt like a gawker driving by a horrendous accident—torn between the knowledge I should keep moving, but compelled to stare.

Dear God in Heaven, could anyone truly live in this sordid squalor? Surely, this was some kind of staged scene. An elaborate set. When it became apparent that wasn’t the case, I was at first disgusted, disturbed, and then strangely drawn to the situation—and to the woman who called this disaster her home.

When the phenomenon of hoarding was introduced to the TV viewing public, most of us found it incomprehensible to understand, we couldn’t believe anyone would choose to live this way.

What caused Carla to excessively accumulate so much clutter? Why couldn’t she discard trash or part with some of her possessions? How long had she been living this way? Were her family, friends, or coworkers aware of how she lived behind closed doors? What kind of toxic tribulation led someone to this point? More important, what would it take to release the pain that kept someone in such obvious bondage and allow them to step into uncluttered freedom?

As numerous hoarding programs filled the airwaves, we watched trained mental-health professionals cautiously intervene, and we began to see the intricate layers of hurt and isolation buried under tons of trash, hidden beneath stacks of garbage. We began to see the complicated reasons and painful memories that led these tortured souls to hold on to things that literally and figuratively buried them, causing them to live in desperate, despicable conditions.

We began to understand hoarding as the outward manifestation of inner devastation.


Girl in Window

As a culture, we finally had a name—a label—for this pathology.

“Compulsive Hoarding” was a term that didn’t exist when I was a child, otherwise I may have been able to explain how I lived.

My mother was a hoarder.

Fortunately, she had three children who each, in their own way, kept her from burying herself alive.

We never crawled over mountains of trash, and the rented homes where we lived growing up were never without utilities or running water, never physically unsafe, never in danger of being condemned.

They were also never without copious mounds of papers covering nearly every surface.

But not just any paper—only “important” papers—and what constituted “important” was, well, important to my mother.

She didn’t save used food wrappers, dirty paper plates, or unsanitary trash. Moms “important papers” mainly consisted of anything concerning her kids, or items that connected her to anyone she knew personally—things like photographs, drawings, report cards, letters, greeting cards, newspaper articles, receipts, menus, or napkins from restaurants she visited. These important papers had value in her eyes; they held emotional significance—serving as a reminder of happy times or representing a kindred connection to someone—or something she cared for.

An avid crossword puzzle aficionado, there were also stacks of completed puzzles from the Plain Dealer, our local newspaper. I don’t recall her ever referencing a finished puzzle, she simply couldn’t throw them away once every block was filled in.

Mom had an excessive attachment to these possessions, and exhibited stress at the idea of letting any item go. She would periodically move items from one pile to another, without discarding anything. I think my beloved mother felt safer when surrounded by the things she saved.

Of lesser importance (but important, nonetheless) were paper goods that could be reused, things like grocery sacks, foil, cardboard, envelopes, and the like. Mom recycled long before there was a name for it.

Growing up, the only times I recall mom sleeping in her bed and not on the sofa were when one of us kids would move her papers to one side and open a space for her to sleep.

We had “junk drawers,” “junk closets,” and the infamous “junk room,” a back bedroom that was basically uninhabitable.

Our life outside the walls of our home was entirely different, which may account for the reason mom was so keen to explore the world of our community with us. We frequented libraries, parks, museums, art galleries, the West-Side Market, and the grand department stores in downtown Cleveland with regularity. We usually took public transportation, specifically the Route 22 bus that ran from Public Square across the huge suspension bridge and up Lorain Avenue. Of course, we had stacks and stacks of bus schedules at home – very important papers.

It took me years to realize the disorganization of my mom’s papers wasn’t the problem. Just as Carla’s massive collection of junk and trash wasn’t her problem. Yes, the sheer volume of physical stuff some people hoard is indeed problematic – but it’s merely an outward symptom of a much deeper issue. Undoubtedly, in these cases there is more going on than meets the eye, and being able to identify what that might be, is something a therapeutic professional can begin to address as soon as they visually see the hoard.

But what about the not so visible hoards?

What about the intangible things we can’t let go of that clutter up our heart, soul, and mind? How do we identify all the emotional junk we hang on to that can’t be seen by the naked eye? How do we dig ourselves out from under years of collected emotional and psychological pain that has buried and broken our hearts? How do we get to the bottom of painful memories that have affected (and infected) our emotions, thoughts and behavior?

How do we learn to set healthy boundaries when we’ve spent years hoarding our hurts?

The thread of commonality in every book in the Setting Boundaries® series is that finding hope, healing, and sanity isn’t about changing other people—it’s about changing how we respond to other people.

When it comes to hoarding our hurts, the issue becomes how we respond to ourselves—to our own inner pain. True healing can only begin when difficult questions are answered.

  • How do we sort through toxic trash that keeps us from walking in God’s purpose?
  • How do we heal from the pain of poor choices we (or others) have made?
  • How do we process pain from things others have done to us?
  • How do we overcome the effect of violated boundaries?
  • How do we get over the guilt, anger, shame, or fear we feel?
  • How do we overcome the lies, deceit, and mistakes of the past?
  • How do we learn to trust again, to love again?

In Setting Boundaries with Painful Memories, we will explore how the concept of boundaries, healthy and unhealthy, affects virtually every area of life. We will look at Scripture as it pertains to trial, tribulation, pain, and forgiveness. Giving illustrations where Jesus advocated and implemented boundaries for the good of individuals and all mankind—to hold us accountable for our own actions—as well as to punish wrong-doers.

We will take a deeper look at how to stop hoarding our hurts and throw out:

  • The refuse of regret.
  • The trash of tribulation.
  • The detritus of discouragement.
  • The garbage of guilt.
  • The mess of painful memories.

Setting Boundaries with Painful Memories is a work-in-progress, and I need your help—your feedback. If you’ve read this far I pray you will take some time to complete the short questionnaire available at the end of this post. I’ve distributed questionnaires for every book in the series. Being able to hear from readers around the world, and include quotes from readers in these books has been such a blessing.

These days, I’m frequently referred to as a “boundary expert,” which still has me shaking my head in wonder. God certainly has a sense of humor. I’m not joking when I tell interviewers, “I’m the most boundary-challenged person I know.”

Writing each one of the boundary books has been an enlightening study in perspective, perseverance, and yes, in pain. My social observations and philosophical insights on the subject of boundaries are all based on the personal revelations I’ve had about setting (and not setting) my own. As someone who has experienced extreme boundary violations in life, this topic is especially close to my heart—and to my senses—as painful memories can sometimes appear almost without warning. It takes a concerted effort not to hoard my hurts at times, and I’m not always successful.

Can you relate?

If so, will you share your perspective on this topic—particularly during a season when painful memories may be at their peak of power? I don’t know about you, but after Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas are some of my hardest holidays to get through. If you (or someone you know) have painful memories that are triggered by sights, smells, sounds, actions, or even by taste—will you please share these memories with me? Reader comments and insight play a valuable part in all the setting boundary books.

Thank you in advance for your contribution to the 7th book in the Setting Boundaries® series from Harvest House Publishers.

And I thank you for your ongoing support, encouragement, and prayers.

God’s peace and protection,

Allison's Signature Scriptina Font




Click on Questionnaire graphic icon for the form…

SBWPM Q&A Page 1

Boundaries with Painful Memories Questionnaire (V4)