Sometimes when I see people in the media covering a topic that’s familiar to me, I rejoice. It feels like a confirmation and validation—not that I need media to validate my existence, but especially when it’s about a topic I feel shame about, it can be comforting to find that others are dealing with the same thing. When it comes to Interview’s recent hoarding fashion spread, though, I felt the opposite. I’m a hoarder, and while I’ve lived in homes cluttered by far more junk than the model in that spread, it wasn’t glamorous, fun or romantic. It was stressful, scary and overwhelming.
For starters, if you have food lying around, you are going to acquire bugs in short order unless you clean it up immediately afterward. It’s not fashionable to find your favorite clothes crumpled in a corner, wrinkled or stained beyond repair, or full of tiny holes where mice have bitten through them. Hoarding isn’t just about spreading out your favorite items on a coffee table or artfully strewing things around; it’s not shabby chic. Owning so much that you cannot cope with it all, but still wanting more—it doesn’t matter how cheap or expensive the stuff in question is. Some people hoard cans of food, some designer clothes. The point is, it’s hard to appreciate the things you own when you can barely find them. Ultimately, hoarding isn’t about the stuff so much as it’s about the reasons behind what you own.
I say this as someone who has, in fact, done a photo shoot in my home, lying on top of a seemingly endless stream of belongings. I did so because there was nowhere else in my home that was clutter-free. I thought perhaps it showed that I wasn’t bothered by the clutter, but looking back, I consider my blasé attitude a coping mechanism. I had to pretend I didn’t care in order to get out the door every day and go about my daily life. When I was forced to actually face my clutter and see how it had affected my life, it was painful.
The copy reads, in part, “She lives in her own world, surrounded by the comfort of her possessions, a dark nostalgia, and romantic layers that cover the skin.” While at first being surrounded by your own possessions can feel comforting, in my experience, that quickly morphs into chaos. The nostalgia is indeed “dark” because rather than being able to enjoy my clothes, shoes, books, magazines, souvenirs and other items, I was simply swimming in them. By the end of my thirteen years in my last apartment, there wasn’t an inch of uncovered floor space. I would trip over belongings and have to shove doors open in order to squeeze through them. Rather than owning my possessions, I felt more like they owned me.
At The Gloss, Jamie Peck wrote that “the clutter comes across as visually stimulating, cozy, even nestlike.” Those are all things I wish my clutter could have been. Personally, I found it hard to observe the clothes being modeled because I was distracted by the clutter—especially the food. The dark mood of the images seems to me to hint that hoarding is, indeed, disturbing. If I were able to live like the model in the shoot, able to find everything I wanted amidst that level of debris, I’d have been overjoyed.
But if you’re a hoarder, it’s far more likely that if you find yourself able to cope with that much stuff, that’s simply a sign that you could cope with more. It’s a very slippery slope. Or, as Bored & Pretty joked, “Post photo shoot, model and hoarder Verunca refused the mental health counseling offered by Dr. Robyn Zasio, and was highly combative when her fellow models pleaded with her to at least accept the help of a professional organizer. She used the profits from the episode to purchase more newspapers, a pair of Prada shoes, and a Balenciaga tote.” (The model’s actual name is Kati Nescher.) That’s not to say that there’s a single appropriate amount of stuff we should all own. Just as some people can knock back several drinks but aren’t alcoholics, some people can live with clutter and not have it affect their daily lives.
My hoarding isn’t just limited to my bedroom or apartment. When I walk out the door, I carry a beautiful red Orla Kiely purse, one whose handles I had to have professionally replaced because they’d gotten destroyed from overpacking. Right now, it’s overflowing with books, papers, pens, beauty items and all sorts of ephemera. Yet every time I go to try to remove something, I fear I’ll misplace it. It’s easier to carry it around and have it out in the open, in case I need whatever it is.
Hoarding is as much a way of thinking as a way of doing. Yes, how it manifests can be a health hazard and cause innumerable problems in people’s lives, especially if they cannot invite people over for fear of ostracization or legal ramifications, as Kimberly Rae Miller so movingly details in her memoir about her father’s hoarding, Coming Clean. But I do believe that only dealing with the material stuff can create a hoarding time bomb waiting to explode. I once hired a personal organizer to the tune of $5,000, only to find that very soon after, my place slipped back to its former state.
Just as some people find comfort in very sleek, spartan, minimalist décor, I feel most at home with the opposite. While I don’t relish the weight of that Orla Kiely purse digging into my shoulder (and invariably leaving a red mark), it’s worth the comfort of knowing what I might want is within arm’s reach. When things feel too “put away,” I start to panic inside. For me, there’s safety in numbers. That being said, I don’t want to return to my previous way of life, especially now that I live with my neat-freak boyfriend. I want to be able to have guests without fearing they’ll run screaming or stop being friends with me because every surface is covered in random belongings. But I also know I need to strike a balance between neatness and what will soothe and comfort me. Sure, I could blaze through my closet, bookcases and possessions and blindly chuck some percentage of my belongings (like “getting rid of 100 things”) but I suspect that would make me feel as empty inside as my home would then look on the outside.
I don’t think Interview’s hoarding fashion spread is offensive in the way Vice’s female suicide spread was, nor do I expect a fashion-oriented magazine to be a source of factual information about a mental disorder. But let’s be clear—it’s pure fantasy. It’s highly unlikely that a hoarder would let a stranger who’s not there to help into their home, let alone open it up to a camera, unless they’re angling for a reality TV spot. When I hoarded, I lived in fear that my landlord would suddenly need to gain entry into my apartment. I hustled in and out quickly lest my neighbors got a peek. I didn’t let dates inside. I worried during every trip that should something happen to me, my parents would see how I really lived.
This spread is coming out just as the DSM-5 has made hoarding its own separate disorder, rather than a subset of OCD. Hoarding disorder is currently defined as “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.” This could mean accumulating clothes you don’t wear or holding on to ones that no longer fit (whether because you once loved them or think you might fit into them again).
I have trouble returning clothes I’ve already purchased even when I can tell they don’t fit or they don’t look as good as they did in the store, often convincing myself that I can figure out a way to make them work as part of my wardrobe. When I examine a piece of clothing, I don’t just see it as it is, or how it fits now, but how it was when, where and why I bought it, and all the attendant memories it provokes.
I admit, too, that there’s an attraction to the idea of hoarding, of owning a seemingly endless amount of clothes, the way Paris Hilton’s closet, with its hundreds of pairs of shoes and “racks and racks of clothes” is described in The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales. It can seem exciting from the outside, even if you’re not anywhere near as wealthy as an heiress, to have everything you own on display, to revel in disorder rather than spend hours upon hours cleaning, sorting and filing. But if you know someone who’s a hoarder, be aware that the glamour stops at the door. They may look impeccable on the outside, or even own clothes you’re jealous of, but on the inside they may feel as out of control as a filled-to-the-brim closet.
On the other hand, what the spread does get right is the momentary high of reveling in one’s stuff, a similar high to, say, binge eating (something else that I’m more than familiar with). But, like any high, it doesn’t last, nor is it a permanent solution. The problems will always catch up with you, which is what you don’t see in Interview—or at least, its copy. I think, if you look closely enough, you will see it in the food and the stacked newspapers, in the darkness permeating the images.
I don’t expect a fashion shoot to delve into the dark side of hoarding or offer advice, and perhaps the images were meant in a tongue-in-cheek way. Savvy readers hopefully already know that hoarding isn’t artful, exciting or sexy. Hoarding isn’t something to aspire to or fetishize; it’s a real problem that, in its most dire cases, can cause health issues and even death. If you find yourself overwhelmed by your possessions, please know that others have dealt with the same thing you are, and help is available in the form of a professional organizer and/or therapy.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author, editor and blogger. She’s edited over 50 anthologies, including Orgasmic; Fast Girls; Gotta Have It; Twice the Pleasure: Bisexual Women's Erotica; Baby Got Back: Anal Erotica; Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission; The Mile High Club; Cheeky Spanking Stories and Best Sex Writing 2013. Find her online at http://lustylady.blogspot.com and @raquelita on Twitter.