To Have and to Hoard

My friend (let’s call her Margaret) collects dolls. She has “a lot of them” – and they were part of the reason she, her husband, and the cats moved to a bigger house. Simply by looking at a doll, Margaret can tell you its make, year of manufacture, and probably its political leanings as well.

Having said that, I have to say that besides being an expert, Margaret is also a seller – so the dolls are really just “passing through”, because she re-sells them. Sometimes, she sews exquisite wardrobes of clothes for them – or makes pets that have their own personalities. She also writes and prints to-scale books for them, thus ensuring that each item sold is a work of art unto itself, as well as being a collectors’ item.

People who “collect” things cannot really understand Margaret. How could she part with such superb exemplars of Schoenhut and Steiff, Nancy Ann and Ballerina Doreena?

Different people collect different things – keys; stamps; scarves; empty perfume bottles; Beano and Dandy and Bunty comics; matchboxes; gold rings; vinyl records; antique cars; coins, pig, clown, dolphin or owl statues; used chewing gum… you name it, and someone out there probably collects it.

There is a fine line between collecting and hoarding; and it’s not because, as some people thing, that one collects “items” but hoards “junk”.

When your house is so full of antique furniture that you have to pass sideways through so called “rabbit trails” in order to reach the bed, the bathroom, and the kitchen, you know your habit has mastered you. Or do you?

For hoarders, collecting is an addiction.

One woman who certainly could never have identified with Margaret is the one featured on the Hoarders series some time ago. She had a thousand dolls, most of which were in wedding gowns. Just for the record, this program is about people whose collecting, and collections, have spiralled out of control and become obsessions. These people buy clothes that do not even fit, appliances they will not even use, and books they will never even place on their bookshelves, let alone read. If a friend has a baby, they will not give her an armful of new, cuddly soft toys – they will purchase a new one for her, and probably a new one for themselves too.

It is said that hoarding is just like Lady Macbeth’s OCD – only, people who have it cannot even try to wash their hands clean away of contamination – they simply have to feed their habit. Apparently, these people have to fixate upon something, and instead of biting their fingernails to the quick, or attending each tombola going within a radius of ten miles of their house, or washing all the floors every day, they hit upon this habit-or-vice.

The hoarders who have money will buy things; those who don’t will stick to simpler, cheaper things like sugar and salt sachets from restaurants, nice pebbles, books from charity shops, or anything they can cadge off friends. In a way, hoarding assuages their sense of loss, be it of a family member who is not longer living, or of something they lost, or that they never had, in the past.

They kid themselves that this is only because they are making up a set. They would gladly buy 12 jars of coffee (even if they only drink tea) to get the full set of cups and saucers, but they will nearly faint in the shop if it is discovered that there are only five designs left, and one would therefore have to be doubled. Hoarders get the same high as do shopaholics, but they are not necessarily one and the same person.

Sometimes, the latter habit stems from finally having the money to get what you couldn’t have when you were not as well off; the former could be the result of losing something that was dear to you, or having it taken away from you. However, they cannot usually justify themselves in this way – they just “know” they have to shop, or collector, ever more “stuff”.

People tend to think that a hoarder is someone who dresses shabbily and goes around poking her nose into what people regard as rubbish. This is not true at all. Relatives and friends of hoarders often tell them to “snap out of it” – but this is akin to saying the same thing to someone with clinical depression.

They cannot do it alone, and even if they undergo therapy, they may not respond readily to it… mainly because they cannot realise that there is something unusual in their behaviour.

Just because I collect teddy bears, it does not mean I’m barmy, as my friend so succinctly put it. Maybe not, but its awkward having to remove six of them each time you want to sit down anywhere. Inevitably, Hollywood has got in on the act of hoarders – especially when they manage to fill a three-storey brownstone building with books and vehicle carcasses and booby-traps to avoid burglars robbing them – as was the case with the Homer Lush and Langley Collyer.

Billie Jean James was another hoarder whose husband found her in their home, buried under a pile of her “collections” that had collapsed on her, after four months of searching all over the country for her. Sniffer dogs had actually been to the house, but the stink from rotting piles of vegetables had been so intense that they failed to scent her out.

So – the thousand-Euro question is… should you really get your daughter the latest Barbie for Christmas?

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