The Emotional Consequences of Cleaning Your Room

By Regina Walker 11/03/15

The Fix Q&A with Barry Yourgrau, author of Mess, on how his hoarding is more about impulse control than addiction.

Barry Yourgrau
Barry Yourgrau Corinne May Botz

“No, I don’t have a crack pipe or a chatroom dungeon habit or a dead body. But my condition would provoke alarm, even disgust, in most people. Make that the condition of my apartment. I’m a pack rat. A clutterbug. I have something of a hoarding issue.” — Barry Yourgrau from Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act

In his most recent book, Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act, NYC-based writer and performer Barry Yourgrau takes the reader inside the most often secret world of a hoarder. 

Mr. Yourgrau was motivated to begin the journey of “cleaning up his act”—and deconstructing the reasons why he hoarded—after being given an ultimatum by his girlfriend, Anya von Bremzen, a well-known food writer.

After she witnessed the extent of his situation (he had gone from “collecting” various meaningful objects from around the world to collecting shopping bags, broken typewriters and dirty clothes), she made it clear to Yourgrau that either the clutter went or she would. This began a journey, chronicled in his book, of decluttering, letting go and searching for the reasons why he had come to this point.

Millions of Americans struggle with what is known as hoarding or cluttering and the shame of their situation often leads to secrecy and isolation that rarely allows for resolution. Hoarding was officially deemed a mental illness in 2013, when it made its way into the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Barry Yourgrau is a wonderful storyteller. His book not only describes the experience of being a hoarder but additionally looks for the ultimate answer to the question why. I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his book and his experience with hoarding and his answers were illuminating, humorous and insightful. 

You described the stuff that you had accumulated as "company." Could you explain that further?

I came out with that remark spontaneously in an NPR interview. I realized that the sheer physical presence of the stuff I’d accumulated around me, as dispiriting as it was in its worst state, was also a kind of comfort. A companionship, even if inanimate. There was something there with me, as it were, as opposed to nothing. It was also cozy, in its way. A nest. Who doesn’t like a nest?

Do you believe hoarding is an "addiction?"

No, I don’t. Though hoarding is often an attempt to keep at bay or dull emotional pain (hoarders seem more liable to traumas than other folk). The condition, in its accumulation aspect, is closer to a problem with impulse control—though again, there are echoes of an addiction. For instance, Randy Frost, the psychologist who initiated the field of hoarding psychology back in the early 1990s, told me a hoarder’s accumulating might be similar to a gambler’s way of thinking. Hoarding used to be classed under OCD in the DSM. It’s now recognized as a distinct disorder: Hoarding Disorder (no longer “Compulsive Hoarding”). And note, what is now rated its lead symptom, ahead of accumulation, is the inability to let go of things, regardless of their socially apparent worthlessness. What underlies this fear of letting go is not truly understood. [Maybe it's] some response to trauma or emotional and physical deprivation? Excess accumulation of course is still a major component.

You talk about attending some 12-step meetings in your book, can you share your experience of those?  

Clutterers Anonymous is the 12-step program for hoarders and clutterbugs. I attended a couple meetings, and didn’t feel it was for me despite being very moved by one sufferer there. Trouble was people talked mainly about accumulation, not intimate attachment. And in 12 step, you only give your own testimony, you don’t comment on other folks. I found the sessions of a peer support group more satisfying—and profoundly moving—partly because you could comment, which led people into further places. Though, I was a bit of a loudmouth and the group leader essentially got me to leave. Life keeps happening, doesn’t it, whatever the setting?

How were you able to "let go" of those objects you hoarded?

I got rid of the really egregious stuff, e.g., the accumulated plastic grocery bags and piled empty liquor store boxes. A little directed anger at my situation helped accomplish that. (I’d call it positive destruction). For the rest, all my various experiences for my decluttering project, which is what my book Mess records—attending 12 step and peer groups; talking to and going on the job with professional declutterers; speaking with my own shrink and experts in hoarding psychology including brain researchers, and psychoanalytic critics of hoarding psychology too; visiting hoarders including the man outside London known as “the UK’s most extreme hoarder”—all this, with the help finally of an outsider (I don’t want to commit a spoiler) helped me.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?

I learned I'm really sort of a semi-collector. And more profoundly, that I needed not to judge other people before I spent some time with them. An old lesson, ever needing refreshing (for me). The peer group experience was a poignant revelation, actually. I recall the first session: I cringed inward about what company I’d found myself in. But rather quickly I realized what courage and sensitivity these people had. I felt deeply humbled and touched by their courage in dealing with the situations they were struggling with. 

Also, as a writer new to non-fiction, I was electrified by how Google has tranformed researching: you can have a sudden hunch, and presto, there's the info, without going to the library and digging through archives. On the other hand, Google is like looking at a landscape through binoculars. You can miss the overall picture.

Are your hoarding/cluttering days over?

Well my place is no longer an awful mess. It’s more vital, it’s “functionally decluttered” I’d call it. Or perhaps, I’d say I’ve practiced “good enough” decluttering (to borrow Winnicott’s concept of “good enough” mothering). I have a lot of souvenirs from travels with my girlfriend, who’s a globe-trotting food critic. They're more nicely arranged and edited. My dining table is nice and clear. I’m happy to have visitors, as opposed to years of not allowing people in (though my apartment is mainly a place where I write and store my clothes and possessions; I go to my girlfriend’s place in the evening).  

But amazingly, given how locked my door was to the world for so long, the NY Times photographer was in here for an article. My place was described as an eccentric and curious sort of museum. Which delights me. Because I am not a minimalist, not a Marie Kondo-style tidy-upper. I’ve come to think that essentially it’s a matter of personal style. Some people like objects of all kinds more than other people do. Some people are more sentimental. Some people can tolerate disorder and a touch of dust more than others can. Who says everyone has to be as neat as a pin?

Regina Walker is a regular contributor to The Fix.

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.