Skip to comments.So Much Clutter, So Little Room: Examining the Roots of Hoarding
Posted on 01/04/2004 6:17:43 AM PST by TroutStalker
The cases never cease to fascinate: reclusive people trapped by their own accumulations, in rooms made unlivable by floor-to-ceiling heaps of newspapers, books and saved objects from twist ties to grand pianos.
Some pass into legend, like the Collyer brothers, "the hermit hoarders of Harlem," who in 1947 were buried by the piles of urban junk that filled their four-story Harlem brownstone. But even less extreme examples, like that of the Bronx man rescued on Monday after being trapped for two days under an avalanche of magazines and catalogs, haunt the public imagination.
Such compulsive hoarding is being recognized as a widespread behavioral disorder, one that is particularly acute in cities like New York, where space is at a premium. The pack rat behavior ranges from egregious cases that endanger lives to more commonplace collecting that resonates with anyone who has ever stacked magazines to read later or bought more shoes than the closet will hold.
One woman, for example, found throwing out a newspaper so unbearable that her therapist instructed her never to buy one again. Another could not pass a newsstand without thinking that one of the myriad periodicals on sale contained some bit of information that could change her life.
And a third, trying to explain why she had bought several puppets that she did not want or need from a television shopping channel, spoke of feeling sorry for the toys when no one else bid on them.
The emotional investment that goes into hoarding makes it much harder to overcome than landlords or housing court judges often understand, said Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and a national authority on the disorder who helped a group of medical, legal and social service agencies establish the New York City Task Force on Hoarding a year ago.
Similar groups exist in a dozen places, Dr. Frost said, including Seattle, Ottawa, Fairfax County, Va., and Dane County, Wis.
"I don't know if it's more of a problem in the city than elsewhere, but certainly the limited amount of space makes it come to a head," Dr. Frost added. "Most of this new attention is not coming from the mental health side of things, because many people with this problem don't seek help. It's coming from the housing side and services to the elderly."
Landlords, and lawyers and social workers who deal with elderly tenants, are often among the first to confront the problem.
Toby Golick, a clinical-law professor at Cardozo Law School, described the case of an elderly Manhattan man who rescued broken toys, discarded toasters and dilapidated umbrellas from the street until even his kitchen and bathroom were too crammed for use. The situation came to light only when the landlord could not squeeze in to fix a leaky faucet.
"He picked up things that he thought people were throwing away and still had life," said Ms. Golick, a founder of the hoarding task force, which will hold its second conference at Cardozo on Jan 21. "He was very upset that this was a disposable society and that people were very quick to disregard things of value."
In the end, she said, Cardozo's legal clinic prevented the man's eviction by working patiently with him on a compromise: the bathroom and kitchen would be cleared, and passageways tunneled through the piles of treasured junk in the other rooms. The turning point had been finding a resale shop that would accept some items, so the man would not have to throw them away.
Like the elderly tinkerer, the Bronx man, Patrice Moore, 43, saw treasure where others saw mainly trash. Interviewed yesterday at St. Barnabas Hospital, where he was recovering from leg injuries suffered when his collection collapsed on him, he said he might sue the landlord over the loss of comic books and articles from the 1980's about his favorite entertainer, Michael Jackson.
"I had to squeeze inside my apartment," he said of his 10-by-10-foot room, which rents for $250 a month. "I don't know how I lived that way. The problem was, I never got a storage space."
In one sense, Dr. Frost agreed, space makes the difference between eccentricity and pathology.
"People can collect and not throw things away without it really being a problem if they have the space and can organize it," he said. "It's only a pathology when it interferes with their functioning."
Pathological hoarding can affect people of all ages, and it seems to be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, added Dr. Frost, who has researched the problem for a decade and recently received a grant to develop a model treatment to be tested on about 40 subjects at the Institute of Living in Hartford and at Boston University.
There are three facets to the problem, he said: enormous emotional difficulty throwing things away; compulsive acquisition sometimes by buying things, but often by picking them up for free and a high level of disorganization and clutter.
Many of the people afflicted seem to be unusually intelligent, he said. "They see more connections between things, which leads them to value those things much more than the rest of us do. "
But they also have difficulty finding conventional categories for the information they collect. Instead, they tend to organize their homes by visual or spatial cues they might locate an electric bill, for example, on the left-hand side of a pile six inches deep, rather than where bills are filed.
This taxes their memory, so they tend to want to leave everything out in plain sight, piled in the middle of the room.
"They have to remember where everything is," explained Dr. Frost. "The rest of us only have to remember our system."
Equally important is their tendency to attach emotional significance to a wider variety of things. "For some it has to do with identity," he said. "I've had people tell me, `If I throw too much away, there'll be nothing left of me.' Almost like a Midas touch if something comes into my ownership, it's part of me."
Finally, the psychologist said, "throwing something away makes them feel unsafe." The sense of security and comfort that most people feel in the familiar surroundings of home, hoarders may feel only when hemmed in by a nest of debris.
But there was no room for sentiment at the two-story brick apartment building on Morris Avenue in the Bronx from which police, firefighters and other city emergency workers extracted Mr. Moore. A man who would identify himself only as the landlord's brother said that he had stuffed Mr. Moore's trove of paper in garbage bags and stashed it in a back room for the night.
"Tomorrow is trash day," he said.
Janon Fisher contributed reporting for this article.
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Oh well, time to work on my giant collection of twine!
That occurs long before they are stumbling over things. Ask the family of a person who resolutely refuses to throw away junk.
We spent a lot of time going through everything before having an estate sale. It was exhausting. Junk from garage sales, records from old businesses, stacks of magazines, seven bowling balls, drawers of old hardware filled the basement, attic and shed.
We are just now going through a dozen boxes of old photos, cards and memorabilia, pitching out pictures and obituaries of people we don't know.
My own solution to the problem is to move and/or get divorced periodically.
But that's about all.
Of course, I really cannot talk... I hoard things and so does my husband. Our daughter is showing signs of being a pat-rack as well. We are moving to a smaller home next year and I REALLY do not see what I will do with all of the accumulated crap of a 20 + year marriage.
In a box labeled "bits of twine too short to use."
I used to tease my dad about all the "goodies" he collected. But whenever somebody needed something (squirrel cage blower or a motor or a fan belt for a '56 Chevy or a heating element for a Norge dryer...), they'd give dad a call and he'd locate it in his collection.
I've inherited his collector skills, but to a lesser degree; only because I've moved so many times over the years. He lived in the same house for 40 years.
I see you've met my wife
Junk? It's perfectly good stuff.
One man's trash is another man's treasure.
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