09/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hoarder Culture

They've found another one. It's been all over the news. They keep showing footage of her standing in front of what seems to be an ordinary suburban home, but when the front door opens, her awful secret is revealed. This sweet, innocent-looking granny hasn't seen fit to throw anything out since the Nixon administration. She's a hoarder and her grown-up children have ratted her out. It's a disease, they say on the morning news, on CNN, on CNBC -- a disease that creates chaos for those around the hoarder. How did her life get so out of control? To find out, I'm told, tune into Oprah (or Dr. Phil) later today.

News about hoarding used to be a wake-up call for me and I'd spend the next several days trying to unearth my office from years worth of old manuscripts, bills, wrapping paper, empty hamster cages, sports bras, Easter baskets, dog bones, waffle irons, soccer cleats and magazines. Oh, and catalogs. Hundreds and hundreds of catalogs. Now, I'm so far gone that when I see a fellow hoarder being carted off, my eyes dart from side to side and my heart races. Is that a car I hear pulling up outside? A news van? Oprah's limousine? I envision myself being led outside to a waiting team of behavioral psychologists, while men in haz-mat suits and gas masks bravely enter my home.

I'm really not as bad as the people who end up on Oprah, but I'm getting there. I have children and sometimes they have friends over. Sometimes these friends have parents who pick them up and stop in to chat. I can't bear the shame of a messy home, so I do the only sensible thing. When I learn that somebody is about to arrive at my house, I run around grabbing newspapers off the floors, cable bills out of the sink, dog bones off the sofa, socks and sports bras off the kitchen table and I toss them into the only downstairs room with a door -- my office. Then I close the door. When the person arrives, they see a relatively tidy home. I'll sort out my office later, I tell myself. And the years go by.

I have sought help. I've watched the Oprah episodes, I've even watched home-improvement shows devoted to cleaning your home and organizing your life, but the extent to which they try to simplify the whole problem is absurd. The solution, according to the experts, is to throw stuff out. "Throw out all the catalogs, more are coming," said some house-organizing nut on one of these shows.

Right, and never find that set of barbecue tools with the industrial-sized tongs I saw in one of them, three years ago. Get real. I must have those tongs! I'll never find them if I throw away the old catalogs.

Last year my daughter was about to get her first driver's license. In order to do so, she needed to show her birth certificate. Her birth certificate was in the office... Someplace. So, one rainy afternoon, I decided to just get it over with. I would clean the office. Five hours later, though I was not even halfway through the pile next to my desk, there were five contractor sized garbage bags filled with junk in my front hall and I had learned the following:

A) I have ADD 

B) The accumulated stuff was crazily organized by stratum. It was like an archeological dig. The top layer was all stuff from the current month, the next layer, the previous month, dating back to the turn of this century. It occurred to me that I should leave everything just as it is. When I want to find the title for car, for example, I need only to figure out what month and year we bought it, and then I can instantly thumb through the pile until I reach that date, and there it will be.
C) I have really bad ADD.