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I like to clear up clutter ... but my husband is a die- hard hoarder

There is a drawer in our home stuffed to overflowing with wires – from TV cables to mobile phone chargers to computer attachments. Try opening it and you'll find tangled up flexes of all descriptions springing out looking for a new home, just begging to be made useful.

Try and close it and you'll need a crowbar, a lot of brute strength and quite possibly a fireman. Every so often I wonder what would happen if I just emptied its entire contents into a black bag, ready to be taken off to the recycling centre. Even the thought gives me a very pleasant rush.

But would the house fall down? Would time stop? Would I suddenly realise that everything in my life would be perfect if only I could just lay my hands on a 1995 Nokia phone charger? I doubt it. I take out the bundle of ugly wires, and feel tempted ... so, so tempted to dump them all.

But I know it's not worth it. The OH, you see, knows and loves each of these tangled wires – he is convinced that someday, somehow, every single one of them will come in useful ... for something.

So we're different. I get a psychological high from throwing stuff out whereas my OH seems to exhibit separation anxiety if I even mention decluttering (unless it's purely my stuff I'm talking about).

"But that's a good lamp" (or chair, or desk), he will say of some ancient (but not antique) monstrosity we inherited. "We don't need it, get rid of it," is my answer. "If in doubt, throw it out," is another.

Between the ages of 21 and 40-something I have moved home about ten times and each time I prided myself on doing so with a minimal amount of baggage.

I usually work along the lines of, if you haven't had a use for a particular object in the past six months, then it is surplus to requirements, so dump it. The OH, on the other hand, is an eternal optimist, fully convinced objects long past their sell by date will someday come in useful.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm missing a nostalgia gene. I have no attachment to furniture, clothes, pictures or gifts which remind me of a particular event or time in my life.

There are no boxes containing old wedding gifts or my children's first baby teeth, toys or report cards. I have no jewellery or expensive possessions I would return to rescue if my home went up in smoke.

Three or four times a year I ruthlessly go through my wardrobe and anything that hasn't been worn in the past year is sent to the local St Vincent de Paul shop. I'm not particularly tidy – I've long held the view an untidy bedroom is the sign of a healthy mind, but I've little actual clutter.

nirvana

Yes, I know. I'm just wonderful. Sometimes all this virtuous decluttering makes me feel as if I may be near to attaining that Buddhist nirvana of "non-attachment" – I feel pure and energised and yes, it has to be admitted, rather self-satisfied and smug at my ability to just let go of things I don't need. And then I walk into my study and realise that it's all a lie. And I am, in fact, in danger of becoming a obsessive hoarder.

The compulsion to hoard stuff is, according to recent scientific enquiry, a natural and adaptive instinct gone wrong. Many birds and animals hoard items of food in order to get them through winter, for example, but humans are the only species that take hoarding to a pathological excess.

Usually when we describe people as "hoarders", we just mean that they are reluctant to throw out stuff, that they hang on to that old dress or ancient lamp for reasons of nostalgia – that they have a psychological link to certain items. Or maybe they're just a bit messy or disorganised and are putting the big clear-out on the long finger. Most people can live with a bit of clutter, it doesn't adversely affect their life.

But for some people, hoarding can be a severely debilitating condition needing professional medical intervention. And, in some cases, it may lead to severe illness and even death.

The first extreme case of hoarding was discovered in 1947, when brothers Homer and Langley Collyer were found dead inside their Fifth Avenue house in New York.

Seemingly they had transformed their house into a fortress with hundreds of boxes and cartons, thousands of newspapers, books, furniture, toys, pianos and even an old car.

They had created tunnels through all the junk to get around, but Langley was buried alive while trying to get food to his brother. There have been similar incidents reported since then and now scientists believe that "hoarding" is a distinct disorder that has its own unique signature in the circuitry of the brain.

Most of us do not hoard on a scale that needs medical intervention. Serious hoarders, who are a danger to themselves and those they live with, only account for about 2-3pc of the population. But many of us do find it hard to throw stuff out when we no longer need it – or indeed have room for it. Myself included.

clutter

Ahem, yes – after all my fine words about my ability to declutter – I find that I have to backtrack and admit; mea culpa, I do hoard stuff. Not furniture or magazines or ornaments, clothes or jewellery, but books. I confess, I am a book hoarder.

Remember I said that I moved from house to house with the minimal amount of clutter? I omitted to mention the 20 of so boxes of books I dragged around with me. Funny how that just slipped my mind. Because, in my head, books aren't clutter, they aren't just "stuff". They are an extension of myself, a part of who I am.

See, there's my first copy of Wuthering Heights (I have three) that I found in my Christmas stocking when I was 14. There's the hardback version of Alice in Wonderland that a friend gave me on my 18th birthday. There's the second-hand copy of Anna Karenina I bought for 10p at a church sale. There's Hilary Mantel's first book on the French Revolution that got me through my history exams. There's... you get the picture.

When we moved into our current house, we had feck-all cash for the many home improvements it required (we still don't), but I insisted all funds be invested into ceiling-to-floor bookshelves in a room set aside just for my books (and a few belonging to the OH, aren't I generous!). I have areas for fiction – high and low-brow literature – for biography and world religions; history and philosophy – divided into century and discipline; for film and theatre; science and science fiction; crime and mystery.

The books on these shelves tell my own personal story. They chronicle the journey of my life. Sometimes, to quote a hysterical Cathy about Heathcliff, I think they are my life.

Certainly they elicit an emotional response from me, one that I imagine other people must get from old photographs or memorabilia. They are my friends and I return to them time and time again for comfort as well as for knowledge.

Before I thought of writing this article about hoarding, I imagined that it was something other people did – my OH for instance. But there I was, researching its causes and I came upon the term "bibliomaniac". A bibliomaniac is a person whose need to acquire and hoard books becomes a dangerous addiction.

Now, in the same way that most of us are not dangerous hoarders, I am not a dangerous bibliomaniac. I have never contemplated murdering anyone in order to acquire a book – unlike the Spanish monk Don Vincente, who in the 1830s committed at least eight murders in the quest for valuable manuscripts.

But I do have a problem getting rid of books. My possession of a Kindle has scarcely helped matters. Though I love to use it for downloading an immediate purchase or to take with me when travelling, if I like a particular book I will buy it in hardback also. And I like lots of books.

So, next time I feel tempted to throw out that bulging drawer of wires, I may step back and consider how I would feel if I came home to a study of empty bookshelves.

Bereft, lost, angry? Definitely all of those. Even the thought of losing my books makes my stomach churn. Fit to kill? Erm, maybe. On second thoughts, my bibliomania may not be such an innocent hoarding addiction after all. But it's one I'm willing to live with.


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