I’ve always had this really bad tendency to keep all my old clothes, even the ones I had fully grown out of. This was probably something I did subconsciously because, growing up, my mother always told me to save my clothes for the best occasions. As I grew older, I found myself filling my closet with cartoon pyjamas I’d got before I hit my teens, stained white T-shirts, scarves that I never needed, and denims that fit snugly a decade ago. Sometimes, the clothes would spill over from the closet to other storage spaces around the house. Else, they’d be bundled up and carelessly stuffed under my bed or behind a curtain where I couldn’t see them.
Every now and then, when a friend would point out how terrible this hoarding was becoming, I’d clean up my closet, put aside huge bundles of clothes that were of no use to me anymore and… let those bundles just be. I’d find myself unable to give them up. Until one day, when moving to another city forced me to give most of these clothes to charity. The declutter gave me immense relief. And a bit of anxiety too. That’s when I realised: I may have had a bit of a hoarding problem.
Hoarding is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Though humans have probably been hoarding ever since they existed, we’ve seen this phenomenon peculiarly unfold in several ways over the last few years – from panic-ridden shoppers clearing out toilet paper aisles to those who stock up on more bread and milk than they can consume, to governments accused of hoarding COVID-19 vaccines. In most cases, people who hoard stuff are either driven by the fear and anxiety of not having enough when shit goes down, or the classic mentality that they must save things for a rainy day.
“Hoarding is a phenomenon where the person finds it difficult to discard or let go of things that are objectively not helpful,” counselling psychologist Devika Kapoor told VICE. “But to the person who hoards, they do see a lot of value in these objects and these values sometimes base themselves in rigid beliefs around what will happen once they discard these objects.” Kapoor added that sometimes events like losing a friend or the death of a loved one can also push people to hoard things they may not need as they process the feelings of loss.
The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies hoarding as a medical disorder, stressing that the issue can sometimes be complex, and is often linked to other serious mental health issues like clinical depression. Hoarding also differs from the act of collecting, which is when people acquire things to organise, admire or display them even if they are not actively used.
In developing countries like India, where it’s almost a mandate for every household to have a plastic bag stuffed with plastic bags, hoarding is a common tendency. And according to Kapoor, there’s a deeper reason behind that.
“Most Indians operate from a scarcity mindset (when you are so obsessed with the lack of something that you can’t focus on anything else) because of macro-traumatic events that have happened in our country, like wars and the Partition. This then plays out with them being unable to discard things, or even appraising the value of something in a positive way.”
For Akshaya Iyer, a 27-year-old radio jockey, her family’s habit of keeping all cables and wires that accompany electronic devices led her to do the same. Now, she has more than 60 cables in her home, most of which are either broken or have no use.
“Every electronic device comes with a set of wires, but we often don’t know where to connect them. So, we just keep it because you never know when it will be of use. I’ve also kept cables of phones long after I’ve stopped using the phones.”
Iyer believes that a lack of understanding about what exactly the cables are for has led her to store them, even if they don’t have any immediate use. “I think we hoard these wires purely out of fear or as a safety measure. The idea is that they could be of use one day and, at that time, we don’t want to face the inconvenience of going to the store.” That “one day” however has never arrived. Iyer is now working towards recycling some of her old cables that no longer work, but admitted that decluttering her stash would be a gradual process. “I feel like we’re now emotionally attached to these things, so getting rid of them is something we have to slowly do over time.”
This statement especially rings true for Divya Swamy, a 30-year-old food marketing executive who has been hoarding price tags from her shopping hauls for over 10 years. “I first started keeping price tags of band T-shirts that had cool designs or the band’s logo,” she told VICE. “Then, it just became a habit. Now I have hundreds of these price tags.”
Swamy recollected a fight she had with her mom when she accidentally threw out a price tag. “She removed the tag and threw it away,” she said. “I created such a big scene that she had to go through the trash to find it. After that, she too started keeping her tags, no matter how lame they were. When I had a baby, she started to keep the price tags of my baby’s clothes as well, but by then, I’d started to feel like the habit was getting too much.”
Another weird thing Swamy hoards for no reason whatsoever is empty packets of tea. “It started when I’d kept a tea packet to remember the brand in case I needed to reorder it. But now I have a metal box full of them.”
Swamy also speculated that her habit was a result of seeing her mother store hundreds of plastic bags and containers for decades, a common practice in many Indian households.
For Kapil Darbari, a 42-year-old bank employee, his habit of hoarding old gadgets that no longer work is a result of growing up in a country where accessing these gadgets was not always easy. “I grew up in a middle class family, where buying something like a Walkman was very expensive for us. I had to save a lot to buy it. So, after having gone through all that trouble to buy something, you don’t feel like letting it go.”
But it didn’t stop with the Walkman. Darbari has kept every device he’s ever used over the last 20 years, from the MP4 player he bought on his first trip to Goa as a teenager to his very first flip phone. “I’ve kept every gadget I ever owned since 2002,” he added. “My wife hates me for it because they take up a lot of space. But there are times when my hoarding habits prove helpful, such as when we want to listen to a song that is not available in the digital format.”
For some people who hoard, holding on to the things they ascribe a value to often results in being unable to declutter. Aashna Sharma, a 25-year-old writer, feels this way when it comes to empty shampoo, conditioner, makeup and skincare product containers. ”I just can't bring myself to throw them away because I always feel like there's still a bit left. And I feel like I’ll forget their name in case I want to reorder. I store these in the drawer underneath my bed. One day, though, that drawer actually cracked and broke from the weight of everything I had thrown in. Even so, decluttering is a nightmare that hangs over me like a shadow every single day. Lately, however, I've gotten better at just closing my eyes and throwing stuff out.”
For Upasana, a 29-year-old marketing professional, her obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) led to her storing plastic containers and vacuum storage bags from the age of 12. When she was moving countries to study, she tried taking her stash with her. “I had so much excess baggage, though, that they said I’d have to pay Rs 35,000 ($463) for it.” Having to pay that much for her habit became an eye-opener. “So many of the things I hold on to are because of the memories attached to them as well.”
For some, the memories attached to seemingly useless items often provide a sense of comfort and security. Others, though, may feel it’s their way of sparing the Earth from more waste. That’s the case for 26-year-old engineer Edwin Wilson, who finds it tough to throw away empty batteries.
“We have all these small gadgets in our house that use electric batteries, but when the batteries die off we don’t like to throw them away because they contain chemicals which are not good for the environment,” he told VICE. As a result, Wilson has kept hundreds of old batteries in a Tupperware container. “Sometimes, we even try using them when we desperately need batteries, and when one seems to work, we realise it may not be completely useless.”
Wilson pointed out that his hoarding habit may be a form of jugaad, a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way. “As Indians, we have been told to save from a very young age, and I think that’s what results in us being more likely to hoard things.”