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When Belongings Hold You Hostage

Donna Van Cleve

The framed print of a Texas bluebonnet landscape was too big for the trashcan to hide. It didn’t matter to this 10-year-old girl that the corner was ripped, it used to hang on the living room wall so I rescued it from the trash and dragged it back inside. Years later I remember hearing my mother say that she had to hide things she wanted to get rid of or they would end up right back in the house, thanks to me.  


I have the hoarding gene, and it scares me. It comes from my father, who inherited it from his maternal side. He was born in 1930, and many who grew up during the Great Depression tend to hang onto way too much stuff because of that time of struggle and great lack. His brother was born in 1933, and the same year they lost their father from a lightning strike. His mother began traveling around to find work and sending money home where her unmarried sister took care of the boys.


Decades later when my grandmother retired, the two sisters lived together. On our too far and few between visits, I remember one bedroom in their house that had neatly stacked and tied newspapers and magazines, boxes of clean jars and tin cans, and no telling what else piled three-quarters of the way to the ceiling. Although most people would view those items as trash, their reasoning was that these things were still too good to throw away and might come in handy some day if times again got hard. 


The fact is, times never got easy for my grandmother and great aunt. Although having that roomful of stuff may have made them feel better psychologically, it didn’t actually help their situation and just took up valuable space. These women were neat, organized hoarders, and their hoard didn’t interfere with the rest of their house. 


Hoarding wasn’t an issue with my father until some years after my family moved to Cotulla. Prior to that we moved on average every three years, which enabled my parents to regularly cull and pare down their belongs. But they lived in Cotulla for 37 years, and things began piling up. A building behind the house used to be a beauty shop for the previous owners, and the “Shop” turned into a game room during my siblings and my high school years. But that changed after we had all left home by the late 70s.


Dad’s hoarding began manifesting itself in a big way when he began bringing things home that, like his aunt and mother thought, were too good to throw away, and the shop filled to the point you could barely walk through it. Then when it did fill up, the carport began filling up. Twice through the years, we cleaned and organized the shop for Dad, but it didn’t stay that way.


We have such good memories of "The Shop" during our high school years, but the building hasn't been usable for decades..

The problem was that he rarely used any of the items. Nothing was organized so he could rarely found anything he was looking for, and when he couldn’t find something he needed and had, he would buy more stuff, and the surplus added to the hoard.

This past year we have been going through his things in our current house’s garage and its attic, which has been his second hoarding site since 2008. I told him when we moved in together that we WOULD keep both vehicles in the garage, which we have been able to do for over eleven years. But the garage is full all around them. And part of that problem has been my hoarding, too. I’ve learned that events can trigger a serious hoarding situation, and I watch Buried Alive every so often to scare me into decluttering. 

This spring, family members tackled Dad’s shop for the last time. We hauled 85 percent of it to the landfill, 10 percent to a museum at the airport, and family members kept 5 percent. Dad wisely stayed away while we worked.


No telling what hoarders could accomplish if they were able to: 

  • Recognize what items were actually useful to hang onto 
  • Recognize trash and quickly deal with it
  • Realize when enough is enough 
  • Sort and organize their stuff

  • Learn some discipline

  • Find things when they needed them, which would eliminate thousands of wasted hours looking for things, and 

  • Actually put that stuff to use or donate it before time and lack of care makes it unusable

Mask making chaos.JPG

It's frightening to see how quickly clutter can get out of control. I spent several weeks making masks for my family, and my kitchen and dining room looked like a hoarding situation the entire time.

Snickers looking out door- Nov 21, 2011.

Our sweet Snickers came from a heartbreaking dog hoarding situation, and his health has suffered from it.

Hoarders fall into several different categories:

    • Collector hoarders who collect items (from valuable to worthless), sometimes to the point that the collection takes over the house

    • Nostalgic hoarders who can’t part with things (furniture, clothes, jewelry, cards, collections, keepsakes, etc.) of loved ones, even if they have no use for many of these items or room to store them; this can also apply to every scrap of paper, awards, clothes, toys, and other items that belonged to one’s children

    • Information hoarders who feel like they have to keep all kinds of information in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, clippings, etc., but they rarely remember what they have or ever refer back to these items, which can become chaotic, disorganized, and out-of-date very quickly

    • The “I might use this someday” or “It’s too good to throw away” hoarders, which also gets out of hand very quickly

    • Animal hoarders who have tender hearts, but are not doing the dozens of animals they’ve taken in any favors. One of our dogs came from a hoarding situation in a nearby town. The owners eventually moved out of the house, leaving it to the 144  dogs that lived in mountains of feces before they were rescued. That's where our 2 and 1/2 year old dog came from, and he was deaf and suffered from extreme separation anxiety. Getting a second dog helped calm him down. Snickers is 12 years old now, and still has nightmares, severe allergies, and has also gone blind. But he is loved, and we will keep him until it is more humane to let him go. 

    • The 'never acquired good habits' hoarder who lets things pile up to the point they become overwhelmed and then they learn to live with the chaos. Laziness, denial, and lack of discipline are also hallmarks of this type of hoarder, and I speak from experience here.

A firefighter friend from Houston, Jim Schaferling, who we first met through my son when they attended Texas A&M, wrote a letter to my Dad recently and mentioned a hoarding perspective I’d never thought about. Jim said:

“As far as fires in hoarders’ houses, that is one of the most dangerous fires we fight.


He continued, "The house is often a maze inside with narrow paths that collapse behind us and can lead to disorientation, especially in zero visibility. If we can’t find the seat of the fire quickly, it spreads out and intensifies rapidly and can overrun us quickly, especially since the plastics create very black smoke that leads to no visibility inside. The only way to recognize these houses is to have seen inside before the fire, likely on an EMS run or other emergency. Once we know we are dealing with a hoarder, our only option is to fight the fire from outside and only enter through bedroom windows to make a quick rescue when we know there is a victim.”


Dr. Julie Schaferling, emergency medicine physician, and Captain Jim Schaferling of the Houston Fire Department, are both on the front lines  fighting the Coronavirus Pandemic. Thank you both for your service, your courage, and your sacrifice to protect and help others, even at great risk to yourselves. 

Extreme hoarding is an obsessive-compulsive behavior, and individuals become psychologically attached to their stuff. They get to the point that they cannot recognize the difference between trash and necessary, useful items. They are trapped in a physical  and mental prison they cannot get out of. This type of hoarding needs professional help. 


For those of us who struggle with clutter piles and letting things go, but our houses aren’t completely out of control, there is hope! The following websites offer tips in overcoming or preventing hoarding:


How to Stop Hoarding Before It Starts


12 Tips to Overcome Hoarding


Experience the freedom of letting things go to keep them from owning you.


Start the journey if that’s something you need to work on. I’m still on that path, and will probably struggle with it for the rest of my life, especially since I live with a hoarder. But recognizing this vulnerability and acting on it regularly will hopefully keep it at bay.


Donna Van Cleve

June 2020


The Different Types of Hoarding Disorders 

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