ADHD Related Clutter or Hoarding?


The other day I noticed that one of my kitchen drawers was overflowing.  There were so many potholders, oven mitts and dish towels, that every time I took something out, other items fell to the floor.  Trying to close that stuffed drawer was like engaging in a Houdini act.

When I finally broke down and pulled everything out, I was honestly perplexed.  Why on earth would I keep all these things when I had more than enough?  And why is it such a challenge for me, and millions of others, to throw things out?

In the April 2013 edition of Attention Magazine, there was an article titled, “ADHD and Hoarding”.  The author, Debbie Stanley, LPC, NCC, CPO-CD, made a distinction between hoarding and tendencies to collect, clutter, and be disorganized.  Her fundamental point was that hoarding is about strong emotional attachment to things, often developed as a coping mechanism after a traumatic period in life.  Due to the severe origin of the problem, addressing hoarding can be a slow and difficult process.

Clutter and ADHD
While some people with ADHD may fall into the category of hoarding, most do not.  Instead, the clutter often begins as a “natural response” to intellectual curiosity.  It’s common for those with ADHD to pursue many ideas and interests.  While it’s a wonderful trait, the resulting living space can end up having piles of books and magazines (half-read!), multiple incomplete projects and mounds of unsorted papers.  In addition, items are often kept out in full view to prevent the out of sight out of mind tendency.  (If something is put away, not only may it be forgotten entirely, but also finding it again may take hours.)

Unlike hoarders, most people with ADHD can comfortably discard a certain percentage of items.  They may be emotionally attached to some things, but not to everything, and are able to develop organizing systems with assistance if necessary.

My Conclusions
As I finally attended to my overflowing drawer, I noticed a few things.  One was a desire to save the extra items for some unknown future time when I would be in need of, say, 25 dish towels to soak up an oil spill or enough potholders to lift 5 turkeys out of the oven at once.  Never going to happen, but my save everything mentality, seemed to trump reality.  I needed to shed inventory and know that I could always get more if a need arose.

The second thing I encountered, was my unconscious emotional attachment.  It surely wasn’t an oven mitt I cared about; it was the power it had to access distant memories in a way that nothing else could.  Seeing and touching actual items from my past allowed me to recall vivid memories of my day-to-day life in Seattle that I thought were gone forever.  There was the sadness about that part of my life being over and memories of the good times as well.

The Just Do It approach to addressing clutter disregards this emotional component. Remember that you have a history with each article, big or small.  Perhaps the item was a gift from a cherished friend who is no longer in your life, or a favorite shirt that you wore in college.  If you acknowledge that de-cluttering will likely stir up strong feelings and approach the process accordingly, you can address your overflow with the respect it deserves.

Letting Go
Difficulty parting with possessions is a multi-layered issue that has to do life regrets, keeping possibilities open and having things on hand for every probability.  But when your living space becomes oppressive it’s time to let go.  Keep a few of your articles in storage when they are clearly important to you, but shed the landmines that derail or haunt you.  Having an environment that is functional and feels in control can be genuinely refreshing!

Don’t let your things rule you.