This could be written by a baby boomer about our parents. Or by our children about us. We saw it on the website of our PBS friends, NextAvenue.org, where Christine Schoenwald writes that her mom has so few items in her house, it’s affecting her life. Why? Because according to Christine, Swedish Death Cleaning has gone too far!
“I’m doing a big purge,” my mother tells me. When most people say this, it doesn’t inspire the same kind of alarm and confusion as when my mother says it. Perhaps they’re a hoarder, and purging is the first step of their recovery. Or maybe they’re in the process of Swedish Death Cleaning (ridding a home of things your family won’t want to clean up when you’ve died) and are decluttering so their loved ones won’t have to deal with an overabundance of belongings after they’re gone.
But my mother is an anti-hoarder, and at this point, she doesn’t have any excess to get rid of — there are no knickknacks or books to toss. She’s scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to find things she can physically remove from her house.
The Opposite of a Hoarder
Instead of having an obsessive need to collect objects, an anti-hoarder has a compulsive urgency to throw things away. According to my mother, she gets a nervous feeling that can’t be quieted until she’s gotten rid of something. It doesn’t matter what it is or how she removes it as long as she gets the items out of her sight.
Think of anti-hoarding as the extreme version of Swedish Death Cleaning, though it’s unofficially known as Obsessive Compulsive Spartanism. The problem, as with any compulsion, is that the anti-hoarder isn’t just getting rid their excess — he or she is discarding practical items still needed in life, such as measuring cups, electric fans or cutlery.
No Need for Downsizing
Swedish Death Cleaning hadn’t made it over to the United States when my mother began to obsessively purge. She started when I was still in high school, decades ago. She and my father were on the edge of a divorce and she felt boxed in by her own life. At first, she enjoyed going to garage sales, thrift stores and buying things for the house or herself. But at some point, all the lovely Fiestaware, hand-painted trays and collectible china were no longer items that gave her joy, but things that caused her anxiety.
When my parents split up, my mother moved into her own house with a rental truck full of furniture and personal belongings. Within five years, she had gotten rid of almost everything except for one lamp and a single bed.
“You won’t have much of anything to pack when I’m gone,” my mother has told me repeatedly. It’s true — it’s more challenging trying to find silverware for the entire family than it will be to box up her stuff. My friends whose parents lean more towards hoarding than anti-hoarding envy me; they don’t understand that the opposite of hoarding has its own heartache.
Adapting to an Anti-Hoarder
When I stay at my mother’s house, I have to hide my belongings because seeing a room full of things causes her to have a meltdown. Another rule is to never leave anything behind or lend something I cherish to my mother — because they won’t be there when I get back.
Since there are so few things in my mother’s kitchen, everything has multiple uses. I’ve learned that an old-fashioned percolator can be used as a mixing bowl, a serving dish and a pitcher.
Anything that takes up a lot of space gives my mother anxiety, and that includes people. Family gatherings must be limited, or my mother will feel overwhelmed and lash out.
Here are five signs of Obsessive Compulsive Spartanism:
The person takes a visual inventory. If you’re in the house of an anti-hoarder, it’s usually difficult not to notice the empty rooms and the lack of possessions. In my mother’s house, over half the rooms are empty with the exception of a few vases full of branches cut from trees around the neighborhood.
Comfort for others isn’t a concern. You can count the number of chairs my mother owns on one hand, so she’ll bring in outdoor patio furniture if extra seating is needed. Her house isn’t very comfortable or welcoming. This may be intentional and used as a way to discourage people from staying too long.
The person isn’t discriminating about what gets discarded. I’ve received chunks of half-eaten cheese, expired salad dressings and stale bread as Christmas and birthday presents. To go along with the gift, my mother usually takes a card that she’s received, tears off the written-on part and uses the blank side for her message.
The person has attachment issues. If I give my mother a gift, I must release all emotions attached to it. She may use it, throw it out or immediately give it away. She’s indifferent to memorabilia, so I’ve taken back all the pieces of artwork I’d given her as a child. If I told her how much it hurt me to find the first short story I’d ever written in the trash can, she wouldn’t understand.
The person doesn’t see anti-hoarding as a problem. My mother has no intention of ever getting any kind of therapy for her condition since she thinks it’s an admirable quality — everyone should follow her lead and get rid of all their stuff. As far as my mother is concerned, even minimalists have too much stuff.
Swedish Death Cleaning is a thoughtful way for people to slowly pare down their possessions so as not to be a burden to their children after they’re gone. My mother’s extreme Swedish death cleaning isn’t a thought process, but a disorder that separates her from her family, rather than bringing us closer together.