My coworkers are really nice, but I’m worried about one of them: She’s a single Japanese woman in her mid-40s and is quiet but friendly towards everyone. Half the office got together one Saturday to help her move some trash from her home. I figured it was oversized items she couldn’t do on her own. But when I got there, her house was literally covered in trash. It was disgusting, but we all did our bit. I feel bad because she was obviously embarrassed, but it seems like this cleanout is a regular thing.
Some in the office complained it took away from their family time. She obviously has a problem and it’s not going to get any better on its own. Is there anything I can do? I don’t want to hurt or offend anyone but I don’t feel just standing by and fixing the symptom, not the problem, is any good either. Advice?
—The Trash Man
Dear Trash Man,
You sound conflicted about how to best support your coworker. Hoarding is a recognized mental illness where an individual excessively accumulates possessions. For them, the idea of getting rid of anything brings such intense anxiety that it becomes impossible to do so. If they do get rid of something, they go straight out and replace it. Moreover, someone living with hoarding disorder may not understand the real impact it has on their health, emotionally and physically, or see it as a problem. It’s important to understand that to your friend, these things are not simply rubbish or unwanted things, nor is she being too lazy to clean up.
It’s equally important to note that not everyone who collects things is a hoarder. Many healthy people have numerous collections and cluttered homes. To be accurately diagnosed, your coworker would need an assessment with a licensed therapist, such as those working at TELL Counseling. Hoarding is a serious disorder that’s often misunderstood, affecting around 3-5 percent of the population worldwide.
What can you do? You recognized your coworker was embarrassed, yet asked for help—this was a big step on her part. You also remained caring enough not to let your coworker see your feelings, unlike others. Having someone who can be respectful, nonjudgmental and not make her feel ashamed of the state of her house is exactly the type of support your coworker needs. Having a friend to talk to who’s willing to help when she’s ready to clean up can be a great relief. Maintaining your relationship with her at work and outside of her home will also be helpful.
Don’t pressure your coworker to “just clear it all out” or state that “cleaning up” won’t help the problem. This is likely to make her feel overwhelmed, ashamed and anxious. There’s always a reason behind why people keep things. Listening to what’s going on for her and informing her of TELL Counseling might be useful.
This site run by the International OCD Foundation has a wealth of additional information, resources and support groups that both you and your coworker might find helpful: http://hoarding.iocdf.org.
The TELL Lifeline phone counselors are there for you. This can be a good space to talk about possible feelings of frustration and helplessness surrounding your desire to help your coworker.
Answer courtesy of TELL. If you need to talk, they’re here to listen. Call the TELL Lifeline at 03-5774-0992 from 9am to 11pm, 365 days a year. Or visit their website at www.telljp.com.
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