Sunday, December 25, 2011

Compulsive Hoarding: Treasures or Trash?

(this is an essay I had to write for my oral comp class a few years ago; I have done a bit of editing but it is a subject I find fascinating)

Compulsive hoarding is a nice way of saying that someone has too much stuff. But just how much is too much?

Those who don't like clutter are sometimes too quick to tell others what should be thrown away. What looks like trash to the anti-clutterer could be treasure to the one that is saving it. As I read over the two articles that I selected, not only did I get a chill up my spine, but I began to get a sense of dread. I began to see a potential future for myself, one that could bury me alive -literally, if I let it. I'm beginning to think I may have crossed the invisible line to "too much."

After reading the case study in Behavior Modification (214-232), I began to see a glimmer of hope for those like me- those who like their treasures. I'm glad I read it after I read the article in Discover (30-31), which had some not-so-happy endings in it. So, please, read on and you can decide for yourself: what is trash and what is treasure and how much is too much.

Should you intervene?

The best way for an intervention, in compulsive hoarding, to work is to have a plan of action. This plan, according to Behavior Modification, was put into action in a case study written by Jill A. Cermele, Laura Melendez-Pallitto, and Gahan J. Pandina. Their subject: Mary. The authors wrote down a definition of hoarding that had three specific parts: "(1) the acquisition of, and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value; (2) living spaces sufficiently cluttered so as to preclude activities for which those spaces were designed; and (3) significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by hoarding" (Frost and Hartl 1996; "qtd. in" BM 217).

The article also suggested that a hoarder may be more likely to have a close relative that also hoards. Many of the items that are hoarded are the same kinds of things that non-hoarders buys. Hoarders seem to not like others touching or throwing away any of their possessions in their collections. "Behavioral avoidance describes the difficulty hoarders experience in discarding items in an effort to avoid feelings of anxiety about decision making, feelings of loss, and the overwhelming task of actually removing months or years of clutter" (BM 218).

The plan that was put into action with Mary had three steps, which was thoroughly discussed with her before any action was taken. The three steps were: (1) assessment of clutter, (2) intervention planning, and (3) dehoarding. They also laid down some ground rules to help Mary be more comfortable. The rules were simple: Mary was in charge of whether and how the dehoarding took place, support and feedback would be provided during the process of dehoarding, and active participants and physical help would be given for the sorting through and removing of items. The plan went very well and many of Mary's treasures found new homes by being donated to good causes. Mary felt relief that her things had a place to go. She was even able to sell her house and move within six months.

Extreme Cases:

The second article was from Discover (October 2004 30-31). Mary Duenwald related several stories of hoarders and how different their lives were. Mr. Moore lived in a full 10 by 10 foot apartment in New York City. He was buried standing up for two days before someone heard his cries for help. One man collected books, papers and pieces of junk mail. In his treasure collection, he lost a six-figured check. Then there was the very sad story of "Homer and Langley Collyer, two pack-rat brothers who for four decades crammed their Harlem mansion with heaps of debris: newspapers, old Christmas trees, sawhorses, perhaps a dozen pianos, even a dismantled automobile" (30). Homer was found dead of starvation and it took city workers eighteen days to uncover his brother's smothered body.

The article also brought out that hoarding compulsion "is a natural and adaptive instinct gone amok" (30). This statement is supported by the examples of the Arctic gray jay and Mall black wheat-ears. "Humans appear to be the only species that takes hoarding to pathological excess" (30).

The article goes on to say that hoarders are emotional, intelligent, and well educated; but, think in complex ways. The inability to make decisions seems to be one underlining cause of hoarding which tends to extend to other areas of their lives. Such as starting a project and going on to another one before the first one is finished. Hoarders also like to talk a lot. They give every possible detail about a subject. Medicine does not seem to work with hoarders. In a study published in the June American Journal of Psychiatry, it's reported that hoarders "have lower activity in the cingulate gyrus -a structure that runs through the middle of the brain (think mohawk), front to back-particularly in areas known to be involved in decision making and focusing attention" ("" Dis. 31). The article gives solid evidence of physical reasons for hoarding and little hope of a cure.

What about ME?????

My mom's mom is a pack rat. That's one mark against me. I have a huge problem throwing away my "paperwork" like: paid bills, cute poems, pictures the kids drew ten years ago, and magazine articles that show craft projects I'd like to try. There's mark number two against me.

My kitchen table is too full to sit at and eat. Does that make marks three already? My ex-hubby use to say that I give way too much information when he would ask me a question.

How many marks do I have left?

In my defense, I can honestly say I've never lost any of my children or pets within my treasures.

If I were to believe the definitions given in the articles, then I would have to say I am crossing over into hoardingism. I don't have trash, I have treasures. I hate throwing away things that I may be able to use "some day" because the day after I throw it away, I'll really need it.

I feel that the author in the Discover article found the most extreme cases she could find. I also noticed that the people were older, so maybe that gives me a few years to nip my hoarding inclinations in the bud. I'll have to find my biggest nippers for the job; I know they are around here somewhere.

The articles did throw some cold water on my face and help me to see my treasures in a different light. Mr. Moore and the Collyer brothers, are good examples to think about when I try to decide if I should keep something or not. The case study on Mary gave me hope that I'm not a lost cause.

Is my ability to collect things inherited? Is my brain somehow not working right? Can I rightly blame someone or something else for me being a pack rat? Can I actually get rid of any of the clutter in my house without making myself upset? These are all questions that I have been asking myself because of reading those articles.

Maybe it won't hurt me to go through everything in the house and see just what things I could find a new home for. I could still keep my most special treasures. I could even have a huge yard sale, sell all my not-so-special treasures, make alot of money, and go buy new treasures. I'll have to make sure the sign says "hoarders only" since everyone that is NOT a hoarder will think it's all trash.

( now please be a bit easier on people like me :D )

The two articles I used:
Cermele, Jill A., Laura Melendez-Pallitto, Gahan J. Pandina. "Intervention in Compulsive Hoarding." Behavior Modification, Vol. 25 No. 2, April 2001: 214-232.

Duenwald, Mary. "The Psychology of ...Hoarding." Discover Oct 2004: 30-31.

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