When a Hoarder Leaves Home

Other people’s stuff just left out on the street.

A friend asked me if I would like to help her clean out the home of a friend of hers. The homeowner is 70 years old, a consummate New Yorker, and…a hoarder. She had a health emergency that landed her in a rehab facility and her sister reached out for help sorting through what to bring her sister at the facility and what could be given away. I agreed to help.

To say that I really didn’t understand what the job entailed would be an understatement.

What she has

When we arrived at her home, one of the most obvious things about the place is that it is overstuffed. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of plastic storage bins, some small with cubbies, others larger chests with three drawers, in every room.

One container in the dressing area was full of shoulder pads covered in various fabrics, the kind that were part of “power” clothing in the 1980s, apparently cut out of dresses and jackets. She saved them all.

On one shelf were patterned cotton scarves, folded neatly and clearly never worn, in 17 different colorways. Yes, 17. I counted them. She was evidently a huge fan of scarves. We have uncovered hundreds, some well worn, others brand new.

The bottom drawer of one of the plastic storage containers was full of jars of the same lotion. There must have been 50 or 60 jars, most of them unopened.

Along one wall of the hallway were shelves holding nearly 1000 VHS tapes and over 150 DVDs.

What we’re doing

We are trying to donate as much of the usable items as we can.

We have brought many, many industrial-size trash bags full of used clothing to fabric recycling at our local farmers’ market.

Dressy clothing that is new or only lightly used, along with handbags and small purses and decorative household items, is going to a charity that raises funds through its thrift shops and uses that money to help those in need.

We brought other more practical clothing and unopened personal care items to a woman’s shelter, thanks to another friend who took care of that for us. That friend has also taken a couple of backpacks filled with more personal care items to a shelter for teens.

We have brought medical equipment and supplies to a charity that makes these items available to people in need.

We sent the VHS tapes to a company that recycles them (or disposes of them responsibly) and donated the DVDs to a local thrift store.

We have trashed as little as possible: old make-up, half empty bottles of shampoo and lotion, and other items that are beyond use.

What we’ve learned

In interviewing Dr. Gail Steketee, coauthor of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, I learned that hoarding is the inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed and that one of the top reasons for hoarding is the wish to avoid wasting things that may have value.

Our response to that is to acknowledge that so much of the stuff in this woman’s home has value and we will not waste it, simply put it in the trash it, but rather make sure it goes to a place where it will be used.

New homes can be found for almost everything, it just takes a little searching.

And for us, or at least for me, I’ve learned that what I have is enough, I don’t need to buy more. Helping to sort through the home of a person who kept way too much stuff is a lesson in anti-consumerism.

Being in this home offers me a look at what purchasing somewhat indiscriminately can lead to. It’s a lesson on how to be more measured in consuming and how important it is to sort through and get rid of things on a regular basis, small steps often, rather than waiting for what has become a large and somewhat onerous task.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

A Poetic Response to Hoarding

 

Every month, Goodreads, a social network for readers, and the ¡POETRY! group host a poetry contest. They feel it’s a great way to discover and support the work of emerging poets.

The June contest winner, Susan J. Raineri, wrote a thoughtful poem about hoarding.

 

The Hoarder

People let her down,
time after time.

In the empty bed,
where people left spaces,
things piled up.

Her life became choked
and crowded with stuff
that stayed put.
Rooms filled to their brims
up to the ceiling.

Until, she could barely
walk amongst it all;
more things, more and
more things.
At least, she could
count on these things.

They sat there
and collected dust,
but, they never left her.

She could choose
what to keep
and what to throw out.
Mostly, she kept.

We are all hoarders
of something;
holding on to memories,
collecting love and hate,
saving up envy
for other people’s lives,

 

The poet says in a note about the punctuation that the comma at the end is on purpose so that the reader can add whatever they think.

Do we hold onto our things because they make us feel secure? Yes, indeed, says the poet but that sense of security is illusory. Do we hold onto them because we are troubled by the spaces they will leave behind if we give them away? Spaces in our homes and in our lives can be challenging. Do we hold onto the stuff because we are afraid we’re throwing out our memories? It’s so difficult, as we say in our book, to “Keep the memories, toss the stuff.”

How do you think the poem should end? What is the last line you would write? Share your thoughts with us in the comment box.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Collecting: The Things We Love…

teddy-bears

“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.

houses

 

Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.

apples

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

snowflakes

And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?

moms-clothes

 

In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.

chicago

Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space below.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Hello, My Name Is Doris Sheds Light on Hoarding

 

I was lucky enough to be in the audience last week, on the night “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” opened at the E Street Cinema in Washington D.C. This lovely film, starring Sally Field, is the story of a 60-something woman who has sacrificed much of her own life while serving as caretaker for her mother, who was a hoarder.

While the hoarding part of the story is really just a subplot, coming from a family of what my coauthor and I prefer to call “keepers,” I found one of the many pleasures of watching the film to be the sensitive treatment of this ill-understood disorder. In an interview in Glamour magazine, Field, who consulted with psychiatrists in preparation for playing the role, says, “Doris is not a hoarder on the level that you’ve seen on television shows. There are degrees of these disorders…” And indeed, this is made clear in the film. Certainly the house Doris lives in is beyond merely cluttered: but as the story develops, the implication is that while her mother was probably a bona fide hoarder, Doris is not. In the beginning of the film she is not emotionally ready to clear out the mess accumulated by her mother over a period of years, but by the end of the film she is. She just needs time: time to grieve the loss of her mother, and time to move on to the next part of her life.

Through the character of Doris, the film presents some of the practical and emotional reasons that keepers have difficulty getting rid of things. At one point she says to the therapist her brother has insisted she see, “It’s just that there are so many useful things that people just throw away…” and, though she mumbles the line, obviously a bit embarrassed about her situation, what she says comes out sounding not pathological, but simply as a statement of truth. A scene in which Doris’s brother and sister-in-law come to the house and attempt to shame her, and force her to throw things out before she is ready to do so is a textbook example of how not to help hoarders, or for a less extreme term, packrats. (You can find some suggestions for better ways here.) And in the final scene of the film, Doris takes a lamp she has picked up off the street and brought to her office in the opening scene, and gives it to a coworker, who happily accepts it, as a parting gift. Because, well, the lamp is useful–and also kind of cool-looking, in a retro kind of way.

In a Skype chat with the film’s director, Michael Showalter, the night I attended the film, he admitted that while he had tried to present the phenomenon of hoarding in a more or less realistic light, the housecleaning that Doris does toward the end of the film is achieved more quickly than is realistic, for reasons of dramatic resolution. “I know it’s not that easy to resolve in real life,” he said. He explained that for the purposes of the film, showing that characters can and do change their lives, and that even long-entrenched habits can be changed, was more important. And indeed, though it is very difficult to get hoarders to change, when approached with enough patience and sensitivity, it can be done.

But in some of the lesser degrees of “keeping” behavior, drastic change may not be necessary. In an interview with George Pennachio on ABC 7, Field says she is not a hoarder, that she prefers to think of herself as a collector, but that she has sympathy for Doris. “I have boxes and boxes of things that are memorabilia of my life,” she said. “But so much of it is my kids and grandkids. It’s ridiculous. And they look at it and go ‘Why are you keeping that?” Her answer to them? “I’m just keeping it, OK?”

 

In that matter-of-fact tone, Field puts to rest the notion that there is one, and only one, right way of dealing with the desire to hold onto the objects that evoke treasured memories of our lives. Sometimes the answer to “Why are you keeping that?” may be “Just because…”

And you know what? In some cases, that may be answer enough. It’s too hard for your Mom to get rid of sentimental, or useful, things, so you’re going to have to do it when she’s gone–is that really such a big deal? Is it?

  

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Dr. Gail Steketee Shares Her Insights into Hoarding

Gail Stekette 2

Dr. Gail Steketee is Dean and Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her work on hoarding is a corollary to her work on obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders. She has published over 200 articles and more than a dozen books on these topics. With colleague Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored the best-selling book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and the first edited scholarly volume on hoarding disorder, the Oxford Handbook of Hoarding and Acquiring (Oxford, 2014). With Dr. David Tolin and Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding (Oxford, 2013). Dr. Steketee received the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the International OCD Foundation in 2013. She a gives frequent lectures and workshops on hoarding and related conditions to professional and public audiences in the United States and abroad. Dr. Steketee graciously accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post.

~ What led you choose to study the subject of hoarding?

I was working closely with colleague Dr. Randy Frost on research on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) when he indicated that some of the students in his course on OCD had decided to study hoarding symptoms and had sought information from people contacted through their local paper.  They got scores of responses to an ad for “pack rats.” Gradually it became clear that this was a serious condition that merited our attention as researchers.

~ Do you think there is a continuum of behavior from cluttering to hoarding and, if so, what are the signs people can look for in themselves to help them stop sliding down that slope?

Yes, certainly this spans a range from very mild to very severe and impairing. A red flag is when the person is reluctant to invite people over because they are embarrassed by the clutter in their home.  If it would be hard to find a place for a visitor to sit down comfortably, the problem has probably gone over the edge into the realm of a psychological disorder. But the true hallmark of hoarding is difficulty parting with objects that most people would throw out – this symptom begins early and does not necessarily produce serious clutter for some years.  So it is not simply a matter of the amount of clutter which can accumulate for a variety of reasons.  Rather, the crux of the problem is inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed.

~ In the introduction to Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding, you say “This book is for and about people who have trouble managing their possessions.” What a wonderful description of people who have too much clutter! Is there one thing that you can recommend for people to do to improve their relationship with their stuff?

Know your own goals and values.  What really matters to you in your life?  Be sure to follow those goals and question whether the objects around you are serving those purposes.  If not, it’s time to bite the bullet and learn to part with things that are in the way of attaining what you truly believe in.

~ You have said in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things that among the top reasons that people hoard are “to avoid wasting things that might have value” and “that the object has emotional meaning.” This is true for people with too much clutter, too. Can you give us your advice for addressing the wish to avoid wasting things?

This is not a simple matter, but in general, concerns about wasting and emotional meaning are really about our identity – who we are.  For fears of wasting, it’s worth asking how big a “sin” is wasting this thing versus the benefit of getting rid of an object that is not serving your main goals and values.  If you want people to visit your home, or if you want to enjoy reading in your living room, talking to your friend over tea in your kitchen, or cooking a meal for your family, is that a more important goal than suffering the guilt of not “wasting” this by discarding it? These are hard choices, to be sure, but essential ones.

~ And advice for dealing with the pull of emotional meaning?

Emotional attachment is similar.  It is worth asking what each of us would save in the 5 minutes before a fire consumed our home. Those items are likely to be the most emotionally important items, and the rest are nice, comforting even, but not essential to our being. Again, this returns to our own values – what is most important in our lives and is that truly represented by objects or does it lie within ourselves and our remembered experiences? But even for truly sentimental items, we can still ask – If we lost the photos of our father who has passed away, does that erase our memory of him and his influence on our lives?

~ What is the best way for people with a friend or family member who has a hoarding problem to approach the situation? What should they do or not do?

There is no simple answer except that an accusatory, critical and hostile tone won’t lead to change and is likely only to provoke anger and refusal to change. Calm, quiet, honest questions about what the loved one needs in order to reduce clutter is a great approach, but still might not yield any movement if the person is not convinced they need to change. If the situation is dangerous – the home is unsanitary, the clutter could easily cause a serious fall or a fire – the family member must seek help from authorities who are familiar with hoarding and can be thoughtful in requiring specific changes for safety’s sake.  The goal here is harm reduction first. If there is no major safety risk but the clutter is unacceptable to the family member, she or he will need to ask for specific actions and reasonable timeframes and indicate the benefits and the consequences of making or not making the change. This process may well require help from a professional, as it is not easy to decide what’s fair and reasonable in such situations.  I highly recommend Tompkins and Hartl’s book Digging Out intended for family members with a loved one who is very reluctant to change hoarding behaviors.

Thank you, Dr. Steketee, for sharing your insights into hoarding with us.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

My Brother, a Keeper

johnlettertosanta

In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about how, when it comes to downsizing, the world seems to be divided, more or less, into two main categories of people—Keepers and Throwers.

My brother, who died two months ago, was emphatically a Keeper.

Was he a hoarder? Certainly he exhibited some of the traits connected with hoarding, and certainly he kept a great many things that it made no sense to keep. I know this because after his death I spent considerable time helping my sister and brother-in-law empty out the very large storage locker into which he had loaded many of his possessions several years ago, when his illness (cancer) forced him to move out of his apartment and into assisted living.

There was a lot of junk in there, things that just simply needed to be thrown away or recycled, and never should have been kept in the first place.  Through the years of his slow demise, my sister tried—gently—to help him see this, and offered to help him do it, but he was intransigent on the subject. She—bless her heart—did not push him beyond the point of his tolerance. She could see that he had too many problems, and didn’t need one more.

That meant that the task would be left to us. She knew that, and she accepted the burden. I live far away and wasn’t able to help with the bulk of it. But I went there after he died to help as much as I could, for as long as I could. Though my sister is more of a Thrower than I am, we worked well together, and the process of cleaning out that storage unit was strangely therapeutic, I think for both of us, in a way that is hard to explain. Certainly we both felt close to my brother and to each other while we were doing it. I know I felt that we were helping him in a way that he needed help, and that he would have appreciated.

Many people feel resentful of the Keepers in their lives, especially when the Keepers leave behind storage lockers (and houses) full of stuff for their survivors to go through. I do understand their resentment, and I suppose it is pretty well justified. But, though it was a tedious, dreadful, and very sad task going through all the things my brother had left behind, I have to say I didn’t feel an ounce of resentment.

For one thing, though not as far along on the continuum as my brother was, I am a Keeper too. (So were my mother, and to a lesser degree my father, and many other members of my family. It runs in the family.) So I’m not inclined to cast stones in that direction.

For another thing,  I came to understand even better than I already had, as I read through some of the notebooks my brother had left behind, that people who can’t get rid of things really can’t do it, for some reason, or more precisely, reasons—psychological, emotional, maybe even physiological/biochemical. Not without just the right kind of help, anyway, and sometimes not at all. The process is so incredibly difficult and confusing for them that it may as well be impossible. It is also so deeply upsetting that they would rather bear the scorn of others and risk all kinds of social, emotional, and sometimes even legal consequences, than do what everyone knows needs to be done. People who are challenged in this way need understanding, help, and compassion–not criticism or ridicule.

So, yes, there was a lot of junk in that storage unit. But there was also a lot of material there that was definitely not junk—never-worn clothing, for example, and boxes and boxes and boxes of books. There were even a few (I think) valuable antique items—board games my father grew up with, for example, still in pristine condition. Also the first tricycle for both me and my brother. Wooden rocking horses made by my grandfather (now delivered to a cousin who has young grandchildren who are enjoying them). And hundreds? Yes, perhaps hundreds, of the die-cast model cars he adored.

Each of these categories of things represents a different reason for why some people have difficulty in getting rid of things. Compulsive shopping habits. Deep emotional attachment to the memories that objects evoke. The knowledge that “someone could use this.” The fantasy of  “someday” (“Someday I will have a house where I can keep all these things I love. Someday I will be able to read these books. Someday I will not have cancer anymore.”)

Then there was the note I found somewhere in all the confusion, a note he had written to Santa Claus when he was a little boy:

Dear Santa, I thought you might be hungry, so I left a snack. Would you hide my present in the liveing room. Would you sign your name here             . Your friend, John Hulstrand  P.S. The snack is on the bar, and in the wholes [sic] of the carton Christmas tree.

In the blank space he had drawn a rectangle, in which Santa had signed his name in handwriting that was uncannily very much like my mother’s.

This was one of many small gifts we discovered in the process of going through the things he left behind, my sister and I, in the weeks before Christmas last December.

We had to get rid of most of his personal papers. I gave some of the letters back to the people who had written them. Sometimes I felt a pang of regret or doubt as I placed things in the recycling bag, most of the time I did not. But I kept the letter to Santa.

I brought it home and put it in the book in which I am storing our family’s Christmas memories, and put it in the section for this year. This is the year we lost my brother at Christmas-time: this is the year we found his letter to Santa.

Does that one precious note to Santa justify the whole huge storage unit full of deferred decisions that my brother left behind? Does it make the fact that he also kept years’ worth of old bills and receipts that we had to plow through make more sense, somehow?

No, it doesn’t.

Could we have lived happily for the rest of our lives without having discovered that letter? Yes, we could have.

Did it provide some special insight into my brother’s life that nothing else could have? I can’t honestly say it did.

All the same, I’m glad that first my mother, and then he, kept it all those years. And I’m glad I was able to find it, and put it, once again, in a safe place.

me and my brother

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Help for Hoarders: Out of the Closet and Into the Light?

I’m not a fan of  “Hoarders” or any of the other reality TV shows that shine a very public light on the private and painful world of people who suffer from hoarding disorders, and their families. To me it smacks a bit too much of the kind of public humiliation I wish had gone the way of pillories and stocks in the village square.

Still,  I have to admit there may be a good side to the phenomenon: for these shows have drawn attention to a problem that is more common than many people may have realized; and one fringe benefit of all the attention seems to be that nowadays there is more help available for people with cluttering or hoarding problems–and a more open, public dialogue about the problem which can only be healthy.

Take, for example, an essay columnist Jane Brody wrote late last year. In “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to All That Stuff,” Brody was refreshingly, I would even say courageously, candid about her own tendency to “accumulate too much of nearly everything and my seeming inability to throw out anything that I considered potentially useful to me or someone else sometime in the future.” Very matter-of-factly Brody describes how she faced the fact that she was both buying and keeping too much stuff, and how she went about changing her ways.  And just the other day she published a “progress report” on the continuing process of decluttering her home.

The “Caring and Coping” series on the New York Times New Old Age blog is another source of help and advice for people who struggle with this problem and their families: for example, Cristina Sorrentino, of the Boston University School of Social Work, has prepared a PDF of guidelines for “How to Talk to Someone With Hoarding: Do’s and Don’ts” that is posted there.

Last week  the 14th Annual International Conference on Hoarding and Cluttering was held in California, the speakers  including Dr. Randy Frost, one of the world’s foremost experts on hoarding. Among topics of conversation at the Conference was talk that hoarding may soon get its own category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMD), the “bible” of American psychiatry. (In the past hoarding has been considered a form of obsessive/compulsive disorder, but according to some experts, it’s not a precise fit. )

Perhaps defining hoarding behavior as the symptom of a very specific illness can be helpful in both treatment of the condition and understanding of its true nature. Hopefully it will also lead to a more compassionate attitude toward the  people who suffer from it, and more effective help for them in confronting their problem.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

For more on last week’s Conference in San Francisco, and a social worker’s perspective on the problem of hoarding:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/04/25/BANU1O950D.DTL#ixzz1tleecLXT

http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/051711p14.shtml


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