Ask Amy: Wife's Hoarding May Bury Family Alive

By Amy Dickinson | April 1st, 2021

A husband worries that his wife's cluttering disorder could have serious consequences

Room cluttered due to hoarding

Dear Amy: My wife doesn’t discard anything!

As a result of her habits, our home is totally overfilled with stuff of all sorts.

All the closets are filled to overflowing, with clothing lying on top of everything else.

The pantry is so full that groceries now sit on the floor.

Our dining table has only about one-fourth the space left for us to actually eat at it.

The basement is so full, there is no room for anything else.

What to do?

– Worried I’ll be Buried

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Dear Worried: Your wife might have a hoarding disorder. This probably did not come on overnight, and you likely adjusted to the conditions in your home as her hoarding behavior increased.

Hoarding disorder is a serious malady with underlying contributing factors, and your wife needs professional treatment and lots of patience from you.

You might believe that a massive cleanup would force her toward change, but evidence has shown that after a cleanup, hoarders continue to hoard. Hoarders do not feel good about the condition of their homes, but they do feel extreme distress at the thought of getting rid of anything.

You should look at any of your own behaviors that might contribute to or enable her compulsion. Does she do all the grocery shopping, cooking and kitchen cleanup? You could take on these jobs.

Approach this with honesty and compassion. Urge your wife to get help from a professional counselor (look for one with this expertise).

Would she be willing to go somewhere outside of the home for the day while you tackled the kitchen and put a fresh coat of paint on the walls? This might be the best place to start, because your wife might not have such a personal attachment to these grocery items she’s collected.

If she is unable or unwilling to leave, start with a “harm reduction” strategy: “We need to make sure that we don’t have any expired food, because we don’t want to get sick. Let’s go through our pantry together and get rid of expired stuff. The food bank needs contributions of unexpired food; so if we have too much of something, let’s donate it to help other people.”

Anything you gather should be taken away immediately (otherwise it will end up right back inside the house). Let your wife enjoy the generous feeling of donating needed items.

Celebrate any small victories, and use success to inspire more change. If you are able to keep a tidier pantry, refrigerator, and kitchen (it doesn’t have to be perfect), you could move on to other areas of the house.

A book that might help is “Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring,” written by psychologists Michael A. Tompkins and Tamara Hartyl (2009, New Harbinger).

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2021 by Amy Dickinson

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