I love lighting Hanukkah candles and eating latkes, but a part of me dreads my family’s annual Hanukkah party. Why? Because more likely than not, I trundle home laden with gifts I won’t use from people I love but don’t know very well and only see once or twice a year. I don’t blame them, but because I’m a hoarder, the idea of owning even more unnecessary items makes me queasy.
For many hoarders, the holiday season is equally fraught. What are we going to do with more stuff? How are we going to manage to keep track of the gifts we want to give? Part of my struggle with owning too many things is that I often fully believe I will make good use of them, but then I don’t. I feel guilty enough when those are purchases I’ve made, but when they’re gifts, I feel doubly guilty. How dare I accept an item from someone who cares for me and not use it? And what do I tell them when they ask if I like it — that I can’t find it?
If you’re wondering what to get a loved one who’s a hoarder, here’s some advice. First, though it eliminates the element of surprise, I’m all for asking giftees what they might like, so you don’t run into the situation I’ve been in, where a friend who knows my voracious appetite for seltzer got me a SodaStream for my birthday, and when I told her I’d already received one, got me a subscription to US Weekly (I’m already a subscriber). My dad sent me a copy of Junot Diaz’s book This Is How You Lose Her, and he too knows me too well; I’d already bought it for my Nook. Asking doesn’t have to mean demanding, “Tell me exactly what to get you,” but can be more general, as in, “Would you use ___ if I got it for you?” and being open to their honest answer. Part of the problem with gift giving is that we hoarders are often too nice, wanting to express appreciation even if the truth is the gift we’ve just opened is going to immediately be regifted or, worse, go into hiding in some stray corner of our home.
The answer, often enough, is not more stuff. According to Elizabeth Savage, a professional organizer in New York City, “The real question when it comes to hoarders and the holidays is, what do you give to the person who has everything? Literally everything. They need less, not more. The trick is finding a gift that takes up no space.” In addition to “buying memories” with events like meals or trips, she suggests charity donations, or something offbeat like buying a star in their name. Jessie Sholl, author of the memoir Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding, says for the last few years she’s been buying grocery store gift cards for her mother, who’s a hoarder.
Ideally, the experience is something that can be shared by gifter and giftee, such as a meal, museum entrance, theater pass, or other outing, and I’d add that offering to organize the event and hold on to the tickets may be useful, so they don’t get lost or accidentally thrown away. Other gifts that won’t make an impact on a person’s home status include a class at a community college or specialized school/organization, massages and spa treatments, haircuts, or manicures/pedicures. Savage also recommends giving someone the gift of a personal organizer as a way to combat their hoarding, but cautions potential gift givers that this is a delicate proposition. “Remember, even though it really is the best gift, bringing an organizer into someone’s space is a huge and scary step for a hoarder. The decision has to be made by them.” Check The National Association of Professional Organizers for a registry of names.
But that gift could be the gift that keeps on giving, because for some hoarders, not being able to host their families in their homes causes tension and hurt. “How can I let those angels see how I live?” commenter BH lamented on a Children of Hoarders message board. “I would love any kind of gift from my children. Just because I’m a hoarder doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings. I am a very caring person who can’t stop giving all my loved ones gifts and cards. However, some of them have just stopped giving me anything, and I don’t know why they’ve stopped, but it hurts me deeply.” Showing you care, in whatever capacity, is always going to be appreciated, especially by someone who cannot perform the holiday tasks they may once have, whether hosting or gift giving. Other suggestions in that thread include homemade screen savers, meals that only require microwaving, or a toll-free voice mailbox from VoiceQuilt where loved ones can leave messages. Tailoring your gift to suit a hoarder’s needs shows you care, even if the topic is a painful one.
Going in a whole other direction, in a Wise Bread post entitled “How My Hoarder Family Saved Christmas,” Max Wong writes about the radical decision her family embarked on in 2001 in order to ward off clutter before it threatened to overwhelm them: no gifts at Christmas. Not only did they save money by being able to take advantage of post-Christmas sales if they desired, they were able to use their money in other family-bonding ways. “Two years ago, our huge extended family went to Las Vegas for a reunion at Christmas, a trip that a lot of us would not have been able to afford had we spent the money on traditional gifts,” Wong writes. Miss Minimalist blogger Francine Jay has more suggestions for a clutter-free holiday, including giving good deeds and a virtual gift exchange.
Savage concludes with advice that goes beyond the issue of hoarding, but is especially apt for those affected by it: “The holiday season tends to be stressful for everyone. It’s a time that can be full of joy and mirth, but it also can people a time when people feel most lonely. The absolute best thing you can give someone who hoards is your love and attention.”
Sometimes the quest for the perfect gift can get in the way of remembering the point of the gift in the first place — whether you’re a hoarder or not. As a giver, I sometimes get so hung up on finding a unique present, I lose sight of why I’m buying it to begin with. As a receiver, I don’t want to rebuff the efforts of anyone who cares about me and come off as callous. Lucky for me, my family’s Hanukkah party takes place in early January, due to scheduling issues. I plan to write a polite but firm email saying that I don’t need any gifts but will be ready to receive any graciously (and then I’ll quietly regift them if I do).