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Publication Date : 09-03-2013
Where does one draw the line between collecting and hoarding?
It always begins as a hobby. Then it becomes excessive and eventually turns into a disorder. These “collectors” are driven by a desire to collect anything and everything with no rational reason. They are the obsessive hoarders - people who have difficulty discarding items that are no longer needed or of value.
Snow Ng, 31, first started collecting stuff as a tween when her parents told her it would be interesting to collect stamps and coins. She was very “focused” in her collecting, which comprised small objects such as her mum’s cookbooks, encyclopaedias and magic colour pens, which she never used because they were too precious.
The collection gradually extended to travel mementos, key chains, clothes, boxes, empty bottles, fashion journals, lamps, old school essays, ashtrays and lighters.
“All these things are related to a specific time and place. I tend to over-romanticise things and these objects remind me of the character I was then," says Ng, who is self-employed.
Over time, the clutter started to accumulate but Ng simply could not part with anything.
“I’m most definitely a hoarder but wouldn’t claim that I now seem or look like one, having moved to 10 to 12 different rooms and houses in the past 10 years in Kuala Lumpur,” she confesses.
“Usually, I’m forced to leave something behind as I move on. It’s painful.”
Ng once dated a geek and between them, they had six computers and a collection of video games. When they broke up, Ng left these gadgets behind. She indicates she can part with things, albeit reluctantly.
“I don’t think I’m being excessive and I don’t think I have a problem because I’m meticulous about keeping things clean,” she justifies. “I’m good at hiding my junk!”
Ng, like many others with similar conduct, is a hoarder. Clutter and difficulty discarding things are usually the first symptoms of hoarding. These early indications of a problem usually surface during the teenage years. As an affected person grows older, he or she typically starts acquiring things for which there is no need or space.
Ng has 30 boxes neatly stacked and labelled in her small place, but they are never unpacked. Her satisfaction lies in looking at the stuff she has collected over the years.
“It makes me comfortable and safe that I have the ability to own things which I consider luxuries. I lug my stuff everywhere! Whenever I move house, I will recreate the same look to give me a sense of comfort,” says Ng.
Occasionally, she will open a box and become sentimental over its contents, knowing that she would have to donate it someday. But till then, Ng plans to do nothing as she claims hoarding has not affected her lifestyle. Nor does it cause her any distress.
“Some hoarders’ homes are filled with so much junk, they look charming and vintage-y. Technically, my junk’s no longer in the trunk though I’m still hoarding as we speak,” chuckles Ng.
For example, when Ng decided to snip off her dreadlocks, she could not bear to toss them out. So she cut them up and placed them in a bottle which she keeps as a decorative item in her home.
Ng is lucky that her friends and family are supportive of her habits.
“It may sound bizarre, but hoarding gives me a sense of security,” admits Ng.
According to Mayo Clinic, people who hoard typically save items because they believe these items may be needed or have value in the future. A person may also hoard items that he feels have important emotional significance, serving as a reminder of happier times or which represent loved ones or pets. People who hoard may report feeling secure when surrounded by things they have saved over the years.
Hoarding is not considered an official, distinct disorder. However, it appears to be more common in people with disorders, such as alcohol dependence, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Corporate communications manager Rene Yap believes she is an old soul, drawn to all things old and from the past. Like Ng, she is a hoarder.
It started from a crush in primary school. Yap was nine when she discovered an interesting boy. Smitten, she picked up his used ice cream stick when he threw it away. She treasured it for a while. But the infatuation died pretty quickly and to the bin went the ice cream stick.
In secondary school, her art teacher sent away some pottery to be trashed.
“I couldn’t bear to have those items thrown away, so I picked one up from the school’s refuse centre. My younger brother saw me picking up the vase and was quite disturbed. But he got used to it soon enough.”
Yap collects stuff to remember and to feel like she owns a piece of someone she loves.
The 31-year-old says, “I didn’t collect for the satisfaction to begin with. It was more out of a fear that should I throw something away, I may need it in the future. So, I couldn’t bear to part with everything I owned, be it notes from high school or a wisdom tooth that I extracted in 2004.
“I’ve been brought up to not waste anything, whether it was food, plastic bags or scrap paper. Everything has a use even after it had served its original purpose.”
Yap sees herself as a biographer of her roots and the family’s history. Topping her list of hoarded items are currency notes and coins.
Other things amassed include old razor blades used by her late grandfather, her late grandparents’ wedding certificate, death certificates, non-working cameras, old perfume bottles, alarm clocks, expired and unopened Pepsi and Coke bottles and cans, old swimsuits, unopened gifts from ex-colleagues, toys and powder cases.
Yet, Yap states she has not collected as much as she would like to.
She remembers: “Once I found the metal frame or ‘legs’ that used to belong to a sewing machine. I lugged it home and left it outside my apartment for a day as I wanted to clean it before bringing it inside the house. I wanted to add a marble slab on top to convert it to a side-table, but it got stolen. I am still mourning the loss today ... it’s hard to let go.
“Honestly, I don’t find any use for these items. It’s more for the sentimental value. I feel like I am saving this for the next generation so that the younger ones would one day be interested to know how their great-grandparents lived.”
Yap admits she has a problem but says she is getting better. She has been sharing and immortalising some of her collection on Facebook.
“I realise that I need to let go of (some) things to de-clutter. Photographing them is also a means of remembering the things I used to own. Also, I’ve been watching Clean House and it scares me to know how some people can be deluded and start amassing so much in their own space. But the one thing I can’t throw away is my collection of books. I’ve loads and loads of them.
“I am not exactly the kind of compulsive hoarders you see on television. I keep things that are of value to me. I go through them when I can find them. I play this game with myself - I hide things in my room. I sometimes forget where I’ve kept my things and when I eventually find them, it gives me a nice surprise,” she says.
Recently, she found a diary from her primary school days but she doesn’t have the key to unlock it because she has forgotten where she hid it. That bugs her.
Yap’s friends remain polite over her many accumulated items at home but her mother thinks she is a karung guni lady (rag-and-bone lady).
However, unlike Ng and Yap who are “neat” hoarders, T. Alagappa’s apartment is cluttered to the extent that no one is allowed in. Not even his family members.
He started collecting postcards at six and moved on to other items such as articles, newspaper clippings, cassettes, compact discs and clothes. Anything he finds interesting is a must-have because “it could someday be useful”.
Most of his stuff lies in plastic bags on the floor, while the rest are kept in huge, Fed-Ex shipment boxes. He has no idea what the contents are because the boxes have never been opened since he moved into his current premises over a decade ago.
“I don’t allow people inside, not even my landlord! It’s disorganised and messy, and I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s health or safety. My home is an obstacle course,” quips the 48-year-old engineer.
He mops the narrow walking lane in the two-bedroom apartment once a month and yes, there are roaches but no rats. Alagappa is always well dressed and his outer appearance is no indication of the state of his house.
He says: “I would like to get rid of some of the things but I don’t know where to start. I tried doing it two years ago but I fell sick clearing the stuff so I abandoned the project.”
While he is not embarrassed to talk about it, Alagappa refuses to show a picture of his clutter and has not considered seeking professional help. After all, like other hoarders, he believes this habit of his is not cramping his lifestyle.
TO diagnose hoarding, Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the United States, recommends checking for three main characteristics:
- Acquisition of a large number of possessions that others would consider useless, along with an inability to discard them.
- Having an overly cluttered home or living spaces - so cluttered that living spaces cannot be used as intended, such as not being able to sleep in your bed, take a bath in your tub, or prepare food in your kitchen.
- Having significant distress over your hoarding or difficulty accomplishing your daily activities.