Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hoarding and the Holidays

This will be my final post about Stuff. I spent much of yesterday morning discussing the recent spate of crime on Black Friday by crazed bargain hunters. While I spent little time discussing hoarders who are also compulsive shoppers in previous posts, Frost and Steketee do talk about them in the book. Some people are addicted to the high that they get when they make a purchase. Other people are obsessed with how the item will make their life better, or help them to prepare for some kind of disaster. F & S encourage the shopper/hoarder to take non-buying trips to shopping malls and analyze how long it take him/her to get over being upset when s/he does not buy an item. This treatment is a form of desensitizing the hoarder so that s/he will not be driven to buy so easily.

As we all know, American society is obsessed with bargains and shopping. After 9/11, our government essentially asked us to strike a blow against terrorism by hitting the mall. We are told that spending money will help the economy to revitalize itself.

As we enter the 2011 holiday season, it might be a good idea for everyone to reflect and regroup. Look at the possessions that you own, and decide whether you need more, or whether you can donate some to others who have less. Look at your bank account, and reflect on how much happier you will be with less debt and more money saved. Think about whether people really should spent their holidays selling items in a mall rather than with loved ones. While this won't cause hardcore hoarders to have an epiphany, it is a good start for the rest of us.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hoarders and Enablers

I just finished reading Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean about her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding by Jessie Sholl. Sholl's mother was a nurse who worked many hours of overtime, was distanced from both her birth family and children, and was a shopoholic addicted to thrift stores. During Jessie's attempts to clean out her mother's house, she would find unopened bags from thrift stores containing multiples of the same item.

Despite Jessie's attempts to declutter her mother Helen's house and her attempts to persuade her mother to keep the house uncluttered, she was not successful. She even tried to encourage Helen to go to therapy for her hoarding, but Helen refused. Eventually Jessie learned to separate herself from her mother and to lead her own life, not to continue to clean up after her mother.

Ironically, Jessie was confronted by one of Helen's neighbors, who implied that Jessie's neglect was causing Helen to live in squalor. When Jessie eventually joins the site "Children of Hoarders", she meets a woman online who had a similar experience. This woman realized

"after years and years of pleading with her mother, and after countless unsuccessful cleanup attempts - each involving verbal abuse (and threats of physical abuse) by her mother- Starlene has finally given up. As difficult as it is, she knows that she has to detach emotionally. She has to give up the hope of saving her mother in order to save the one person she can: herself." (Dirty Secret, p. 226-7).

Both Jessie and Starlene realized that their mothers needed to make the decision to get help, not them. They also had enough sense to move to other states and reduce contact with their mothers in order save themselves. In Stuff, Frost describes attending a social services-mandated decluttering in Manhattan. The coop to be decluttered was owned by an elderly widow. She lived there with her adult son and her elderly sister. While the widow's husband was alive, he had banned her brother, Daniel, from visiting. Once the husband died, Daniel moved in; his own apartment was so filled with clutter that it was unliveable, and he moved on to cluttering up his sister's apartment.

Frost's description of the apartment was out of a nightmare. When he first approached it, the doorframe was completely covered by roaches because Daniel hoarded objects that he found on the streets of NYC. The owner took a nap on the coach one day, and found herself completely encased in a wall of junk that Daniel had built around her as she slept. The apartment was decluttered four times by city orders, and still she allowed Daniel to return with his clutter.

Do family members enable the hoarders by walking away and allowing them to hoard undisturbed?

Do they enable them by staying and cleaning up after the hoarders, again and again and again?

Is it fair that the burden of decluttering frequently falls on local government?

Is the local government responsible because it is too difficult (and unsafe) for family members to get their loved ones treatment and aid?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hoarding and Security

A re-occuring idea in Stuff is that hoarders hoard as a way of creating a safe environment. Frost and Steketee have one patient who had been sexually assaulted in her own home. She began to fill up the room where the assault had taken place with hoarded items. Eventually the room became so full that she no longer could enter it, and moved onto other rooms. She married, had children, and sought help only after her house was too crowded for her family.

Madeline, Ashley's mother, began to hoard after her own mother threw out items in an attempt to clean up Madeline's room. When Madeline first married Ashley's father, she rented a studio apartment where she stored her hoard. After Ashley's father divorced her, Madeline could no longer afford the studio. Instead, she filled her house with her items. When Ashley went on vacation, Madeline took over Ashley's room, and Ashley returned to find it full of hoarded material that she could not move. Ashley was forced to sleep with Madeline until she could get away to college; Madeline then stored more clutter on Ashley's side of the bed.

Both these examples demonstrate that the hoarder needs her/his hoard to be secure. The hoarder views these items as treasure, and feels a sense of security within the hoard. The needs of other individuals, whether children, spouses, or pets, are immaterial in relation to this need to feel secure.

American society places a great emphasis on possessions. Back in the 1980's t-shirts emblazened with "He who dies with the most toys wins" were popular. What you own defines your worth as a person. One of the most horrifying moments (to me) in the wildly successful first "Sex and the City" movie was when Carrie was given a closet larger than my studio apartment to hold her designer shoes; she was successful because she could not only afford dozens of pairs of pricey footware but could also house them in style. While most hoarders are not piling up designer handbags or clothing, they do define themselves by their possessions, even if the value of these items is not apparent to anyone other than the hoarder.They are what they hoard, and having it around them makes them feel secure.

Animals and Hoarding - Part 2

I find myself wondering if animal hoarding is something that developed in the 20th century. No one could have hoarded animals in the Middle Ages. They could not have afforded to feed the animals. Most people lived in a communal space with relatives who would not have tolerated hoarding. Also, any woman with 200 cats in her hovel would probably been executed as a witch along with the cats.

Why do people hoard animals? Frost and Steketee profile some people who feel that love from animals is purer than that of people. Some do it because they view it as a humanitarian mission. Others feel that they have a psychic bond with animals that draws them to needy animals. Oddly enough:

"One of the most puzzling features of animal hoarding is the lack of recognition of a problem that is way out of control. Many animal hoarders can be standing amid their sick and dying animals, with feces covering the floors and walls, and still insist that nothing is wrong. This type of assertion, in the midst of clear evidence to the contrary, suggests a distorted belief system- a delusional disorder. Delusional disorders are usually highly specific and do not accompany distorted thinking in other area's of the person's life. Perhaps animal hoarding represents a delusional disorder with a special, almost magical connection with animals as the predominant theme." (Stuff, pp. 131-132).

While I am not an expert on hoarding, I wonder if animal hoarding really represents an ability to depersonalize the animal, to turn it into a thing rather than a living animal. Dogs and cats would prefer to be in homes or free in colonies, not stacked into piles of cages. The better animal shelters try to get the animals adopted because they know that a long time in a cage is psychologically destructive for the animals.They also know that large free-ranging packs of animals can become destructive to themselves. Perhaps animal hoarders mentally turn the animals into objects that they can then stack around themselves for protection.

About a year ago, I read an article in an ASPCA publication about how they were working with an animal hoarder. They began by getting him to relinquish a few animals, then analyze how he felt about them being gone. They also worked on cleaning his apartment and getting him pyschological treatment. After reading Stuff, I realized that the ASPCA agents were using a modified version of the decluttering methods further detailed by Frost and Steketee in Buried in Treasure. The ultimate goal by the ASPCA was to get the hoarder down to a few animals and to make sure that he no longer hoarded them in much the same way that treatment of non-animal hoarders hopes to get them down to few possessions and no future build-up.

More from the ASPCA at:  (article on page 8).

Animals and Hoarding - Part 1

An entire chapter of Stuff is devoted to an animal hoarder. The woman profiled by Frost and Steketee struck me as a somewhat unusual hoarder. She had been going to a therapist for a number of years. The therapist hoarded cats (she ended up with over 200 in cages) and gave the woman free therapy in exchange for cat care. The woman herself ended up hoarding cats and was eventually raided by the ASPCA.

Animal hoarding has received much publicity in recent years. In addition to New York hoarding/torture cases, a non-kill shelter was recently shut down because the caretakers could not care for the large number of animals. There is a TV show on Animal Planet: 

that profiles pet hoarders. The ASPCA has even begun an intervention program to identify hoarders, get them to relinquish their animals, and go for treatment for themselves:

While I have have owned multiple cats over the past 20 years, as have members of my family, I'm not a hoarder. I've rescued kittens and cats and adopted them out to good homes. My own cats receive individual attention, medical care, and a clean living environment.

My only personal experience with someone who I would view today as an individual with hoarding tendencies occurred over 10 years ago. I went to visit a friend in another state.She and her boyfriend were living with eight cats. One of the cats was an adult cat who had been trapped from a feral colony. He had an extremely difficult time adjusting to life as an indoor cat away from his colony, and spent all day crouching in the bathroom behind toilet. He did not interact with the two "owners" or with the other seven cats in the apartment. It was clear to me that the cat would have been happier neutered, ear-tipped, and returned either to his original colony or to a new colony. His "owners" seemed to think that all he needed was food, water, and an indoor shelter in order to have quality of life. They viewed the animal as an abstract rather than as a cat who deserved some quality of life. They had rescued him from the streets - he didn't need anything else.