Thursday, July 14, 2011

Do you prefer having to being?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, materialism, clutter, hoarding, collecting

More than thirty years ago we moved cross-country so I could start graduate school. We had friends in the town we were going to, who offered to put us up for a couple of weeks while we got a house or apartment. It turned into a rough two weeks. They are very nice people, but they never put anything away. They had a lot of clothing for a family of four, and none of it was in the closets. It was about half-knee-deep everywhere in the house. It was like wading through shallow water to move about the house. They could sit there, having a conversation or watching TV, and seemingly not notice that there was nearly no carpet visible. As it happens, this was a rather mild case of hoarding.

I have a relative who is a more difficult case. Until recently, his house was filled with (fortunately neat) stacks of books and of boxes of genuinely valuable artifacts (he is an archaeologist). He managed to keep a portion of the living room clear enough so we could sit together and talk, but it took sideways walking to navigate most of the house. This was just what was on hand. He had three storage units filled to the ceiling with stuff. With the help of a therapist, after an intervention by his father, he has been giving away or selling things, and even throwing some stuff away.

Stuff! What a word!! There is even a saying, "Whoever dies with the most stuff wins." I've seen it on a No Fear t-shirt; and on another, "Whoever dies with the most stuff still dies." It seems the first proverb has been taken to heart by about two percent of us, according to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Two percent; that is one in fifty. Most of us know at least fifty people well, meaning almost everybody knows a hoarder.

Of course, not all hoarders are equally afflicted with the compulsion to hoard. It is a spectrum that begins at the deep end of enthusiastic collecting. Stuff opens with a brief description of the Collyer Mansion and the events surrounding the deaths of the Collyer brothers and the cleanup that had to follow. It is not the absolute worst case of hoarding ever, but it may be close. Among the 170 tons of stuff removed from the 12-room house in 1945 were a dozen grand pianos in various states of disrepair (one was playable), huge amounts of newspapers, and quite a number of booby traps set by one of the brothers, who died when he tripped one of them. His brother, whom he'd taken care of for years, blind and paralyzed, died soon after. The fact that they didn't live to see the enforced cleanup of the building probably means they were happier than the pathological hoarders who are the subject of court-ordered cleanups.

Randy Frost originated the professional study of hoarders and hoarding about two decades ago. He is also an expert on pathological perfectionism, which often underlies hoarding. Gail Steketee studies the phenomenon from a sociological perspective. They started these studies with the given perspective of the 1990s, that hoarding was a variety of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). While it is related, it turns out to be, if anything, inversely related. OCD compulsions tend to be based on fear of contamination of the self, while hoarding is most frequently related to insulating the self from discomfort. The things collected and hoarded are seen as having been rescued from loss, destruction or contamination "out there".

This image illustrates an early stage of hoarding, where you can recognize the phenomenon, but it hasn't gone to the level that it is dangerous to the hoarder. This is often called "excessive clutter", though someone with an experienced eye can notice that the majority of the things are either of no intrinsic value or just do not belong where they are. The computer under this stuff has become unusable. In a few months or years it could vanish from view.

While not all hoarders are perfectionists, those that are can be quite difficult to work with. Hoarders in general have very good memories, and they have a story (or several) related to each object, coupled with the conviction that it has to be seen to be remembered. The perfectionists can't stand to have anything removed, moved, or even slightly shifted. They'll notice the difference, and will frequently throw a tantrum.

As the authors came to better understanding of hoarders, they have developed effective therapies to help them learn to let go of things. This is difficult, very slow, and trying for both therapist and client, because hoarders often feel physical pain if they must discard something. This makes court-ordered cleanups of really dangerous or unhygienic cases particularly difficult, even traumatic, because as one hoarder said, these things were what he was; losing them was like losing himself.

This points up one big divide in people's attitudes. Some people's sense of self and self-worth are based on what they have; for others, it is on what they are. I was looking for the authors to write of success in getting having people to change to being people. I didn't find it. I wonder if it is possible.

The person who took this picture is a self-described hoarder, but the orderliness of the objects indicates to me that we have an enthusiastic collector here. He or she may be on the verge of hoarding, but has not yet crossed that line. A friend of my father's has collected sea shells all his life, quite obsessively. He owns a big house with a full basement, which is full of cabinets in which the shells are kept, all labeled and in order. It is a better collection than you'll find in some natural history museums. But it is a collection, a well-curated one. It just takes up around 2,000 square feet of living space. Fortunately, the fellow can afford it.

What is a museum curator? From this perspective, a person with a strong collecting tendency who has the self-discipline to impose order on the collection(s). Some of the hoards described in Stuff consisted primarily of museum-quality artifacts, but they were piled helter-skelter, gradually being damaged by humidity and possibly insect and rat infestations, or even being tripped over (I cringe at the thought of someone tripping over a valuable 18th Century painting and putting a foot through it).

What is to be done with hoarders? They range widely in sociability; some being quite extroverted while others are secretive and antisocial. But nearly all share this characteristic: they don't entertain at home. Most are secretly ashamed of their home, at least when they are not there, surrounded by the comfort of their possessions…possessions which have taken possession of them!

In a few cases, mandated cleanup is appropriate. For example, the homes of animal hoarders frequently become dangerously unsanitary. Even as they feel they are "rescuing" animals, they are making them sick instead. In other cases, the piles of stuff become physically dangerous due to their height and weight; there have been cases of floors collapsing. And then some people go so far as never throwing out used food wrappers or leftovers, and the house becomes a roach heaven. Such homes have to be cleaned out, and possibly burned down. But the authorities very rarely take the next step, which is to enforce therapy. After enduring the trauma, the hoarders become even more inveterate hoarders, and the cycle repeats.

For less damaging cases, I say, let 'em hoard. Sure, it is hard to attract a lover or spouse. For those that want a social life, it simply has to take place outside the home. When they die, then you bring in the professional junk removers. For one fee, they'll just landfill everything. For a little higher fee, they'll present the heirs, if any, with a couple of piles that didn't get landfilled: stuff that might be valuable, and things like photo albums that may have sentimental value to following generations.

There is one statement in the book I found intriguing: The book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, based on a PBS show, states that there are twice as many shopping malls in the US as there are high schools. There is a societal side of hoarding, and many hoarders have really poor resistance to advertising. There are few hoarders in poor places! May you be blessed to be a being person.

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