A few weeks ago, before the mass rioting took grip of the country, before our Government decided to respond by donning jackboots and stamping rather than even attempting to understand why this eruption had happened, and before I went on an intensive driving course and had to leave early due to being generally impossible (*blushes*), I had a wee trip out to the sticks to do a spot of sorting and clearing.
I’ve spent a significant portion of the past year sorting and clearing and splashing industrial strength cleaning products about. There have been times when, standing atop a seemingly unclearable heap, I thought it was never going to end. But progress has been made. We really are almost there. Or at least ‘there’ enough to be able to start picking up certain threads of my life’s rich tapestry from where I put them down a year ago. Phew.
There have been two houses to sort and clear and the snapshots below are of the second.
Compulsive hoarding and its still more insanitary sibling Diogenes syndrome are almost impossible to adequately describe to people who haven’t witnessed them first hand (I had a go at describing here, talking about the first house). I can see why it’s hard to understand just how horrific it is if you’ve not been in amongst the piles; a heap of stuff is just a heap of stuff, surely? The stuff itself is overwhelming, but the stuff is so much more than material objects – it’s memories and people and happy times and sad times and hopes and ambitions and love and anger and fears and regrets and intentions and failings all densely packed and congealed with remnants of rotten food, mysterious gungy matter and rat droppings. And even if the heaps are gunge- and dropping-free, they’re still great big immoveable objects that restrict access to sinks, toilets, bathrooms, cookers, chairs, beds, windows, doors, floors and living. How can you have visitors if all the chairs are buried? How can you get someone to mend the leaky sink if the kitchen floor is four-foot deep in stuff? How can you turn on the central heating if the boiler or thermostat is behind a two-metre high heap?
Fundamentally, if you’ve got really bad piles, then they dominate your life.
The farmhouse I was clearing up had been overrun by rats when my father was living there. My aunt had cleared out all the bags of rotting food (the top layer of ‘matter’, exactly the same as in the other house) a few years ago when it was no longer possible for my dad to live there. After that, the rats moved out and the burglars moved in, but they didn’t make much of an impression…
The first house took a long time to do. I’d started clearing up when my father was living there but then the clearing continued for a different reason, so it was hard to get rid of things at once. There are right times to say goodbye to things. Recently acquired objects were easy to throw away or take to the charity shop, but I needed a respectable pause before tackling the things that had been in the house for 30 years. (I don’t think this is a hoarding characteristic; I think it’s completely normal when dealing with the belongings of a family member who has died). However, almost a year on, I’d become pretty ruthless. For me. So I hired a big skip.
I also took my camera with me as, over the past year, I’ve found that one way of making mucking out a house easier is to take photographs of items that you would have liked to hold on to (for a little while, at least) had gunge, droppings, time and space not dictated otherwise. I now have several hundred digital photographs of things. But they take up no physical room.
And so the clearing began.
Well, once we’d hacked down a Sleeping Beauty’s forest of nettles in order to get to the door and then sledgehammered and jemmied and angle-ground the boarded-up and astoundingly strong remnants of the burglarised door in order to get in, the clearing began.
The job required gloves, masks and a gung-ho attitude.
What was in the heaps?
Off the top of my head: endless newspapers and magazines, books on every subject under the sun, stacks of videos, shelves of videos, telescopes, microscopes, chemical balances, the cassette recorder from my childhood, the car blanket, the tent, drawings by a five-year-old me, mirrors, more mirrors, more and more and more mirrors, 1950s radio sets, wind-up gramophones, portable gramophones, weighing scales, paraffin lamps, hi-fis, typewriters, broken printers, ancient computer monitors, sewing machines, a broadsword, an epee, two pianos, one harmonium, one electronic keyboard, a piano accordion, a broken guitar, hundreds of framed pictures from charity shops, the odd airgun and shotgun or so, Fordson Major tractor manuals, the traditional car engine in the kitchen, shotgun cartridges in boxes, Ferguson tractor manuals, shotgun cartridges loose in unexpected places, air rifle pellets, Dyson vacuum cleaners, a Nazi armband, a gas mask, new telephones, vintage telephones, Pocahontas-shaped bottles of bubble bath, a whip, a remoska, boxes of pans, sheet music, cameras, miniature steam engines, warming pans, theodolytes, light bulbs, copies of the Magna Carta, a Millennium dome keyring, Christmas cards, framed photographs, model aircraft engines, model aircraft, model aircraft plans, model aircraft magazines, wine-making flagons, chunks of lead, a small bottle of mercury, thousands of semiconductors and diodes, drills, socket sets, drill bit sets, electric screwdrivers, electronic callipers, slide rules, thousands of old photographs, barometers, a three-in-one pocket voltameter, miniature brass cannons, yo-yos…
And a lot of that went into the ‘keep’ heap.
As for the rest, before the skip arrived, we created piles outside:
Starting to move 'rubbish' out
More for the skip
And some more
As we worked down through the layers, we exposed things long forgotten:
The kitchen table! (And cutlery drawer)
Cupboard and drawers!
Still more floor!
Not too sure what's in there...
We left the bathroom for another time.
Once the skip was full, my cousin made cunning use of a couple of big round bales and compacted the contents, giving us space for another third of a load.
Squashing it in
Scrap metal went in a separate heap for a separate skip, but we didn’t even attempt to move the collection of broken washing machines in the undergrowth.
And, eventually, this is where we got to:
And the sun shone through the rain!
There was a very good BBC documentary broadcast recently about hoarding and Jasmine Harman, who tried to help her mum clear the decks in the programme, has set up this excellent site for helping people with hoarding problems. The documentary was so good because it showed how ‘stuff’ can privately dominate a publically ‘normal’ family and how horribly painful it is for the hoarder and family to get to grips with the problem. Hoarders are undoubtedly impossible to live with and can be aggressive and hurtful if you pass comment or offer assistance, but they’re in a terrible muddle and, though the powers that be are still shillyshallying about classifying hoarding as a psychological condition, it seems logical that there are reasons and triggers for this sort of behaviour, such as some sort of loss, be it emotional or physical. I think that it’s a very sad condition, as the objects sometimes seem to become substitutes for other things; emotions, interaction, people.
I remember a conversation about a decade ago, at the farm, while trying to help my father do a bit of tidying up. I went out on a limb and suggested that maybe we could throw some things away. This suggestion wasn’t received too well, so I searched around for a suitable, harmless object to use as a guinea pig. My eye alighted on a battered and broken peach-coloured lampshade.
‘What about this? We could throw this away.’
‘But it was my mother’s’
‘Yes, but it’s broken. You can’t use it any more. We can throw it away.’
‘But wouldn’t she be upset with me for throwing it away?’
‘Well, she’d be more upset to see the state of the house!’
And he looked so forlorn that I gave up and we just shuffled a few objects from pile to pile.
The lampshade has now been thrown away.