Diller’s compulsive-decluttering patients, she says, sometimes describe “this tightness in their chest if they see things that should be thrown out,” one that can be eased only by getting rid of the offending objects.
“Any behavior can technically become a problem when it starts having an obsessive and compulsive nature. Even [otherwise] healthy behavior,” says Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C. area who has worked with patients who suffer from obsessive-compulsive cleaning. Both cleaning and decluttering can be positive behaviors, she says, but become a problem when they’re driven by obsessive thoughts.
One day in 2010, Charbit, then a neuroscience graduate student at University College London, Googled “the opposite of hoarding” and “clutter phobia.” She was in the process of writing a novel about a woman who suffers from the same compulsions as Charbit herself (the novel, A Life Lived Ridiculously, was published in 2012) and wasn’t sure how to describe her character’s symptoms—there’s no official term for compulsive decluttering. “I was a grown adult, fully medicated, with plenty of insight … but with no name for [the behavior],” says Charbit, who began taking medication for OCD at age 18. Her search led her to an article on “obsessive-compulsive spartanism,” she recalls. Clicking it open, she immediately recognized her own experience.
For Charbit, the thoughts began within seconds of waking up each day. “You have a few seconds of peace,” she says. “Then it all comes flooding: The anxiety, the dread … It’s that constant nagging. You never reach a point where you’re satisfied.” Even now, after years of treatment, “I would rather throw something out and buy it again than keep it.” The medication helps, she says, but it hasn’t stopped her from discarding and re-buying a food processor three times. “And don’t even tell me to recount how many books I tossed, only to go to Amazon and repurchase them.”
The author Helen Barbour, who blogs at The Reluctant Perfectionist and wrote The A to Z of Normal, a novel about OCD, believes the cultural embrace of decluttering makes it harder for those who do it compulsively to seek help. “[People] see my tidy home and sigh about the fact that theirs is a dump,” says Barbour, who was diagnosed with OCD in 1995. “What they don’t realize is how long it has taken me to order everything with millimeter precision, or the anxiety I feel at things being even slightly out of position.” Barbour lives alone, in part, she says, because her long-term partner is “the king of stuff.”
Barbour also found a supportive community online when she wrote a blog post about her compulsive decluttering last February. “Sorting and rearranging helps a little,” she wrote, “and getting rid of just one or two things can also temporarily alleviate the feeling.” Commenters responded with their own experiences: “I get a physical sensation as though I’m being crushed when I have too many things around me,” one wrote. “To say I hate clutter is an understatement … it literally feels like gears grinding in my head,” said another.