Thursday, August 06, 2009

Hoarding: Clutter as Pathology

For the last year or so I’ve been debating whether or not I should write a follow-up workbook to complement my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff. During this time, I've searched the listings on occasion and watched as more and more books about uncluttering were being published. Today’s search revealed that there are 81,471 books that use the word “clutter” either in the title or somewhere in the book.

Of course, we can exclude from the list the obviously unrelated tomes such as Sidelobe Canceller Jamming Using Hot-Clutter, a naval post-graduate school report provided to the Pentagon; and Timber Management: A Quantitative Approach, written by a gentleman named Jerome L. Clutter; as well as plenty of others in which the word “clutter” just happens to appear in the text.

Let's even speculate wildly that ninety-five percent of the 81,471 books don’t have a thing to do with letting go of household clutter and getting organized. That would still leave over 4,000 books on the topic. Could there possibly be anything more to say that would be of value? It seems unlikely. As a result, even though the problem of clutter is clearly a hot topic for a substantial number of people, I’ve decided to pass on the opportunity to add to the clutter of uncluttering books.

However, I do want to take a moment to discuss the extreme form of hanging on to useless stuff: hoarding. This is a serious condition, as I was reminded recently by a fairly horrifying account from Ronni Bennett on her excellent blog, Time Goes By. She wrote about her grandmother, whom she barely knew, and the distressing discovery, when Grandma Hazel passed away, that she had been a hoarder.

I offered the following information in comments on Ronni’s blog; I’ve mentioned some of it here in the past, but it’s worth repeating in case you know someone who has a problem with the compulsive accumulation of clutter.

Hoarding is a condition that is not well understood today, especially by lay people, and it was understood even less in Ronni’s grandmother's time. But it is important, I think, to understand that it is a mental illness, not just "laziness" or a "lifestyle choice" as some people think.

The University of San Diego's Psychiatry Department estimates that hoarding affects 1.2 million people in the U.S., but it's difficult to know the extent because of the secrecy and shame associated with the disorder. Also, surprisingly, a hoarder may avoid revealing her situation by presenting herself to the world in a perfectly acceptable, conventional way (as Ronni’s grandmother did by always standing on the curb in front of her home to be picked up rather than allowing someone to come inside).

The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation devotes a portion of its website to hoarding. The Q&A page gives concise and useful information.

There is also a website called Children of Hoarders for adult children of parents or guardians who have or had this devastating problem. (See this 2001 post from the distraught daughter of a hoarder showing photos of her mother's home. This hoarder's home is relatively "organized," filled primarily with neat stacks of boxes and even some collections on display -- none of the seemingly random piles and bags of trash, garbage and the accompanying infestations often associated with hoarders' homes. Also, notice in the final photo that there's nothing unusual about the way her smiling mother looks.)

Although I sometimes teach workshops on uncluttering, I haven't had any personal experience dealing with hoarders. I do know of several people who have tried to help hoarder friends and family members and found it was a thankless task. Even professional intervention often fails completely, although that certainly doesn’t mean that help shouldn’t be sought.

If you read the disturbing story about Ronni’s grandmother, you’ll see that her isolation and loneliness helped her to hide her hoarding problem and added to the tragedy of how she lived during her mature years. After I read it, I was even more appreciative of my very sociable, well-liked eighty-seven-year-old mother and her beautiful, uncluttered little apartment. She's an inspiration.

Thanks, Mom.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: Matt Banks


dB said...

There's a documentary series on A&E about OCD called OBSESSED. It's very interesting, where you get to see them in teatment. One of the the interesting things is how successful (and quick) aversion therapy seems to be. Several patients have been hoarders. There's one really moving story about a guy in West Hollywood who is a hoarder and can't part with some of thing his mother left him before she died. Other episodes are about other forms of OCD and are very disturbing, including people who obsessively pluck their own hair.

It's made by the same people who do INTERVENTION, which is an outstanding doc series as well, nominated for Emmys this year. I highly recommend it.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks for the information, David. I'll look for the show. I'd be interested to see how aversion therapy works with hoarders, even though I find it so difficult to see how these poor people live. The other stuff . . . maybe too hard to watch at all!

Jeri Dansky said...

Other good resources include:

The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization and its Clutter Hoarding Scale, among other things.

The New England Hoarding Consortium newsletters

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks for the helpful links, Jeri. Sometimes I wonder if the extent of this problem has been significantly underestimated. It's good to know that much is being done to learn more.

Jeri Dansky said...

Regarding the prevalence of hoarding:

"Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., estimates that 2% to 3% of the population has OCD, and up to a third of those exhibit hoarding behavior (Cohen, 2004)."

-- from Squalor Survivors

And then there's this:

"Researchers have estimated that the disorder might affect 1 or 2 percent of the population, although one study suggests it might be as high as 5 percent, said Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass."

-- Rutland Herald

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I just checked the population of the U.S. and learned that it was 304,059,724 in July of 2008. That means that anywhere from over three million to over fifteen million people have to deal with the problem of hoarding. That's truly unfortunate.