I’m deeply attached to relics from my childhood. A ragged teddy bear with a lost leg, looking like it just got back from war. A bathrobe with embroidered stars and way-too-short sleeves for my now-adult arms. A ballerina music box that got damaged in a move, the dancer now bent sideways, musicless.
Those relics I kept a long time, and I still have many others, but eventually space demanded that I sever a few mementos. It was painful throwing them away. Like I was throwing away pieces of my life. All the years of owning them had imbued them with memory and feeling, and to see them in the garbage or give-away box hurt my heart.
This experience is common; many people can relate. Now imagine having that same depth of attachment towards every object in your home. Bubblegum wrappers. Broken appliances. Newspapers. Imagine if tossing an old take-out menu filled you with the same loss as tossing your teddy bear.
That’s how the people feel in Randy Frost’s and Gail Steketee’s compassionate book, “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” DD# 616.85227 – this month’s Dewey Decimal Discovery pick from the section on health.
For those who don’t know, hoarding is a symptom of mental illness that involves storing objects uncontrollably. Hoarders will collect items to the point that their homes are no longer navigable, piles towering over their heads and leaving only the barest of walkways. They develop intense emotional attachments to their objects, and the condition shares a lot in common with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Since we’re on the subject, I’d like to take this opportunity to haul out my soapbox. (Don’t worry, I’ll only be on it a minute.) OCD is a topic close to my life, and I hate how misunderstood it is. OCD is not a funny quirk in which you like things tidy. It is a painful, agonizing illness marked by intense fear and debilitating anxiety. You can’t be “a little OCD, tee hee” just like you can’t have “a little cancer, tee hee.” Okay? I have to say that every chance I get, because it’s so important to me. Moving on! *puts soapbox back in closet*
Here were the most interesting stories and information I got from Frost’s and Steketee’s book:
One of the most famous cases of hoarding occurred in the 1940s. The Collyer brothers filled their mansion with everything under the sun, from small items like tin cans and books, to large items like pianos and cars. The stuff was so packed it blocked out the light, with tunnels you had to crawl through on your belly. Traps were set Indiana Jones style to thwart trespassers. Unfortunately, Langley Collyer accidentally tripped one of his own traps and died under a pile of newspapers. His brother Homer, long paralyzed and dependent on Langley to bring him food, died some time later from starvation.
What causes someone to live like this? Frost and Steketee to the educational rescue!
Hoarders turn to objects for emotional comfort. Their objects help them feel secure in a chaotic and threatening world – many describe their hoards as cocoons. Irene, a hoarder mentioned frequently in the book, exemplified this to a T. During a tumultuous childhood, objects comforted her because “they were removed from emotional life – soothing… Things were less complex than people, less moody. People either leave or hurt you” (page 34).
The brain of a hoarder has trouble differentiating between valuable and not valuable, confused by a myriad of details that all appear relevant. For Irene, every piece of clutter, including trash, felt as sentimental and “important to [her] as a picture of [her] daughter. Everything seems equally important” (page 24). She appreciated objects in a way the rest of us don’t – with probing detail, a massive scope for its uses, and even elaborate memory of where each scrap came from and how it connected to her life story. She got nostalgic looking at an ad for tires, because it reminded her of her daughter learning how to drive. A huge part of Irene’s collection was newspapers, which she kept because she felt she had to read them, but she felt anxious about not remembering every detail of what she read, so she stored them.
Irene exhibited OCD symptoms by needing everything clean; she didn’t fear germs, but it made her severely uncomfortable if something was “impure.” If she touched something she considered polluted, she would suck her fingers to rid them of the impurities. Debra, a magazine hoarder with OCD, preserved the pristine condition of her magazines by handling them in threes – top and bottom copies, which she could touch, and a middle copy which remained pure. She obtained these magazines straight from their shipping boxes so booksellers would not contaminate them. This need for perfection permeated the rest of Debra’s life. When her VCR failed to record a TV episode, she felt like a failure who couldn’t do something as simple as record a show. “I blew it,” she said. “There is something wrong with me that I can’t even tape a show correctly” (page 111). A child hoarder named James expressed similar sentiments; his hoarding episodes were triggered by a fear of failure, such as when he started a difficult math class.
Hoarding commonly occurs after a traumatic event; it “affords many of its sufferers the illusion of control and replaces fear with a feeling of safety” (page 93). A woman named Bernadette survived a rape when a man broke into her bedroom and assaulted her at knife point. With no support from her community, Bernadette tried to forget what happened. She found herself going shopping more and more to feel better. Her purchases filled her bedroom to the max, rendering it unusable. During their therapy, Frost remarked that Bernadette had ensured no one could ever break into that bedroom again, and she realized with a shock that that’s exactly what she’d been subconsciously doing.
The emotional bond between hoarder and hoard is so strong that those whose houses are forcefully cleaned out often commit suicide after. “I realize this is crazy,” Debra told Frost. “It’s just an old envelope, but it feels like I’m losing that day of my life… If I throw too much away, there’ll be nothing left of my life” (page 116-117).
Another common thread between hoarders is an inability to withstand negative emotions. Even small discomforts and mediocre stresses feel impossible to bear, so they avoid them at all costs. Hoarding perpetuates this, not only in the comfort it brings, but because saving allows the hoarder to not have to suffer the stress of deciding what to do with it all.
The good news is that hoarders underestimate their own strength. In therapy, many find they are more capable of tolerating anxiety than they know. With a slow, methodical, and compassionate process, many hoarders have been able to declutter their homes and work through the traumas that set off their hoarding to begin with.
If you’re interested in this topic, definitely check out this book! It’s been my favorite so far of this nonfiction project. 🙂