Clutterers Anonymous: Help for Hoarders

By Bryan Le 05/11/12

Hoarding is a televised curiosity for many—but a very real, damaging addiction to members of Clutterers Anonymous.

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Clutter can rule you. Photo via

You've probably seen them on Hoarders—people who clutter their home with so many things that it gets out of control. The afflicted accumulate more things than they'll ever need and have trouble letting go of the things they have. Like all addictions, the causes are complicated. One longtime member of Clutterers Anonymous (CLA), a librarian now in her 60s, tells The Fix that some of the people in her fellowship suffered a lack of control over their space and belongings as children. “It's also trying to hold on to memories feelings that are not really contained in those inanimate objects," she says. "A lot of people just feel a void in their life and they try to fill it by acquiring more things and collecting huge numbers of things.”

Cluttering can do immense damage; sufferers' relationships are often broken over their mounds of things. They may also create a physically hazardous environment like Courtney Love, whose cat was apparently killed by her piles of Etsy fabrics, boxes of paperwork and trash. A big sign of being a clutterer, says the librarian, is "CHAOS"—Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome. “They haven't let anybody into their home in years, and obviously that has a deleterious effect on their social relationships,” she says. “There are people that are afraid to let even a plumber or a maintenance man in because they don't want anyone to see that secret shame.” Still, it rarely reaches the pathological and unhygienic levels seen on Hoarders; most who come to CLA—which was founded in California in 1989, and now has meetings in 70 US cities and abroad—are cluttered by paper, not necessarily filth.

The boundaries for recovery can be hard to define. Substance abusers have a clear target: abstinence. But cluttering is more akin to food addiction: just as you can't quit food—only overeating—there's no clear line that defines a person as "sober" of clutter. Most also don't know how to approach their problem. “First they usually try it the wrong way by just throwing huge blocks of time at it,” explains the librarian. “They say 'I'm going to get my place in order a week from Monday' or working on it for eight hours a day.” But simply cleaning house—or getting a professional organizer or television show to do it—is merely what she calls a “band-aid” approach. Real recovery comes from slowing down and being mindful of the mental patterns that create a compulsion to keep, she says. Talking it over with clutter buddies at a CLA 12-step program has helped her, and she's been attending meetings for nine years. Many CLA members are afflicted with other addictions—she herself came to the program from AA—and undergo a very similar 12 Steps to recover from cluttering. The librarian wants people to understand that clutter is a real addiction, compulsive and irresistible; it's too-often misunderstood: “People think it's a matter of willpower or a matter of being a natural born slob, and if we just try hard enough... that will solve our problem.”