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Shame and hoarding disorder

I have a many-layered relationship with shame, like many of us do. I grew up as a Roman Catholic, and those jokes about “Catholic guilt” don’t come from nowhere. I’m also gay, and while I see that as an absolute positive now, as a kid (especially as a Catholic kid), it was a source of great shame to me.

It wasn’t so much that it was wrong, it was that I was wrong.

I was my gay friends’ “straight friend” when I went to my first Pride event. By my second Pride, I was out and proud and not looking back.

I had to shed a lot of rules, misconceptions and self-recrimination to get to that point, but the support of the LGBTQI+ community got me there. If nothing else, I couldn’t look at those wonderful people who surrounded me and see them as inherently wrong. So I had to address the double standards I was applying to myself.

Then I got a job in sexual health, which involved a lot of direct conversations about things a lot of people feel shame about. Any awkwardness I might have felt had to be suppressed so that I didn’t let anybody else feel like their bodies, their STIs, or their questions were in any way shameful.

So while I still wake up in the middle of the night cringing about that time I bled through my jeans onto a posh café’s beautiful vintage upholstery or the vicarious mortification when my best friend called our English teacher “Mum”, I’ve also got pretty good at overriding feelings of shame and pushing through them.

But there’s one area where I get stuck. It’s a big, shameful burden that means that nobody can come into my house, that I can’t take photos at home, and that my kitchen taps needing to be repaired fills me with horror.

I’m a hoarder. A compulsive hoarder.

I’m a bit notorious in my friendship group for not having a filter. I say what pops into my head before I question whether it’s appropriate. I think “Have you ever noticed that the decoration on your fireplace tiles looks like vulvas?” was a particular highlight, but swearing in a job interview and talking artificial insemination with a disapproving relative are also high up on the “will you just think before you speak?” list.

Yet this – the way I live, the problem I have – remains virtually a state secret. I don’t let anything slip. Nobody knows. I had mental health treatment for many years, talking about all manner of trauma and distress, but I couldn’t even tell my mental health workers what was going on at home.

As I write, I look around myself and see chaos everywhere. Every pile of junk a myriad of unmade decisions, guilty purchases, and overwhelmed surrender to mess.

The world might be reasonably sympathetic to the fact that I have PTSD. When that was misdiagnosed as depression, the world might have been reasonably sympathetic to that, too. But the anti-stigma campaigns of the big mental health charities mostly stop at destigmatising depression and anxiety. Nobody’s destigmatising hoarding disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or any of the less socially acceptable conditions. We’re left to our own devices.

It all came to a head a few years ago and I needed somewhere to talk about living with hoarding disorder. I needed something to keep me accountable as I tried to make (slow, slow) progress with dehoarding my home. I needed an outlet.

I ruled out a diary – I’m terrible at keeping up with them and, let’s face it, I’d lose it in the mess pretty quickly. So I started talking into my phone and turned it into an anonymous podcast.

To my great surprise, people started listening. In fact, I recently passed 100,000 downloads. There was clearly a demand for a podcast about hoarding from somebody with lived experience of it rather than from a professional perspective and I get messages from listeners who appreciate what I’m doing and feel they are learning alongside me about how to cope with hoarding disorder and improve their circumstances.

And to my even greater surprise, I’ve kept it up and somehow my next episode will be number 100. I’ve interviewed researchers, therapists and specialists, including Professor Luna Dolezal from Shame and Medicine, and got insight into hoarding from many points of view. It all helps me; I’m learning all the time, and listeners tell me they are, too.

But shame permeates it all. It’s why I podcast under the name That Hoarder. It’s why, when listeners contact me, more often that not it’s by private message, not publicly – they don’t want anybody to know. It’s why I’ve had all these amazing milestones and yet even my best friends don’t know I’m doing any of it.

Talking about the problem has genuinely helped me, and it is true that my anonymity means I feel able to speak truly openly and honestly on the podcast. But shame doesn’t only make people who hoard feel awful, it also prevents us from seeking help, which means progress can be slow or non-existent. It can paralyse us so we can’t take action, and the lingering sense that we are gross, or lazy, or useless permeates every area of our lives.

I tell my listeners that shame doesn’t help us, and the irony that I am personally so full of shame that I can’t be honest about who I am is not lost on me. We need to destigmatise even the most unpleasant mental illnesses, not just the “easy” ones, if this imposed – and deeply absorbed – shame is to ever give us a break.


That Hoarder is a tea-drinking woman in her 40s who makes the Overcome Compulsive Hoarding with That Hoarder podcast, no longer rambling into her phone but with a proper microphone now. You can find her on Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Mastodon and subscribe to the podcast here.


Photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar on Unsplash


24th August 2023

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