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Hoarders come from different backgrounds; the common denominator is emotional attachment.
By Ronelle Grier
The back room of the Franklin Public Library is filled to capacity on this recent fall evening, but none of the men and women sitting in the large circle has come here to read. They are here to learn about a disorder known as hoarding from author, attorney, therapist and consultant Terrence Shulman, whose latest book is called Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding.
Shulman, a former shoplifting addict who has been in recovery more than 20 years, specializes in the treatment of compulsive and often-related behaviors such as kleptomania, shoplifting, employee theft, uncontrollable shopping and spending, and hoarding.
According to Shulman, hoarders come from a variety of backgrounds; many had parents who hoarded, while others were forbidden to keep their own possessions. The common denominator is the emotional attachment to the clutter. A person who hoards finds it difficult, if not impossible, to discard things, even items that are no longer useful, such as old newspapers or moldy bread.
Shulman says the distinguishing factor of hoarding is the inability to discard things because of an emotional attachment, to the point where the living spaces are too cluttered to be used for their intended purposes.
George B. said he came to hear Shulman’s presentation because of his mother, whose home was so cluttered that he feared for her safety. The problem, which began during his childhood, had gotten worse once the kids had grown up and left home.
“I could never have friends over; there was no room,” he said. “To my mother, getting rid of stuff is like giving away a piece of yourself.”
This kind of situation is typical, according to Shulman, who has worked with people whose homes are filled with excessive amounts of items ranging from jewelry and clothing to expired coupons, empty yogurt containers and even used bandages.
Jonah H., a retiree, said he has been trying to get rid of the piles of old paperwork that have gradually overtaken more and more of his living space.
“The room isn’t really that small; it’s just that I have so much junk it makes it look small,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m holding onto this stuff. I’m trying to let go of things, but it’s a slow process.”
Shulman believes that “a complicated equation of risk factors,” which includes genes, chemical imbalance, heredity and environment, determines whether a person develops a hoarding disorder. He also attributes the behavior to what he calls “spiritual risk factors,” such as childhood trauma or other emotionally wounding experiences.
“There may be also be some organic differences in the brain of a hoarder, but it is possible to build new neuronal pathways to change the behavior,” said Shulman, founder and director of the Franklin-based Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding.
There are no statistics on the incidence of hoarding among Jewish people; however, some experts believe certain factors may cause Jews to engage in hoarding behavior.
Those who survived the Holocaust may be more likely to stockpile items such as food and household goods, according to Dr. Charles Silow, director of programming for Holocaust Survivors and Families at Jewish Senior Life.
“Many survivors who went through such extreme deprivation, including starvation, have a sense of fear that what they have could be taken away again,” Silow said. “As they built new lives, many would accumulate things like canned goods or extra linens. They want to psychologically assure themselves that it won’t happen again.”
Shulman agrees that the Holocaust as well as other individual and collective traumas such as war, violence and anti-Semitism can trigger hoarding behavior.
“Hoarding often results in reaction to loss of control, fear of property being taken away, and loss of security,” Shulman said.
He added that the generalized value that many Jews place on acquiring things can cause these people to become hoarders. In addition to those that he treats professionally, Shulman said he has seen evidence of hoarding among Jewish people he knows on a personal basis, including some friends and relatives.
Jim M., one of several local Jewish hoarders who spoke out but wanted to remain anonymous, said his family never ate a meal at the kitchen table because it was perpetually covered with newspapers and other clutter that his ex-wife refused to remove. Every time he would try to clear the mess away, she would become extremely agitated, telling family members not to “touch her stuff.”
A 2010 article in Time magazine estimated that between 6 million and 15 million people in the United States have the mental health disorder known as hoarding. The condition has received attention in recent years from popular television shows such as Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive.
“Exploitainment” is the word used by Clinton Township therapist Debbie Stanley to describe those shows, which she claims are unrealistic and misleading.
“They show the worst-case scenarios, people with very little insight and a lot of squalor,” said Stanley, who specializes in treating chronic disorganization and hoarding. “My clients are well functioning — some are extremely high functioning — and they are not dirty.”
Stanley added that the shows’ quick-fix solutions, where years of clutter disappear in the course of one weekend, are misrepresentative.
She said that two years of treatment, including psychotherapy and hands-on decluttering, is a reasonable time period for achieving a successful outcome. The transformation can take place more quickly when the client agrees to use outside help to perform the clean-up, but Stanley stresses that the person doing the hoarding should make the decisions about what to discard.
“Stripping away a person’s coping mechanism before a better one has been gradually established is not only cruel, but it doesn’t work,” she said.
Shulman said people who hoard often exhibit related compulsive behaviors such as kleptomania, shoplifting and excessive shopping and spending. Hoarding can include people whose homes are overrun by animals to the point of posing a health hazard. Many individuals now engage in a process known as digital hoarding — their computers are filled with thousands of emails, photos and electronic files they are emotionally unable to delete.
Nina J. decided to seek professional help as she approached her 70th birthday. Always a collector, Nina now has more than 2,000 pairs of earrings, countless pieces of costume jewelry, which she stores away in plastic boxes and a bag filled with 200 nightgowns she has never worn.
“I would save things for best, and best never came,” said Nina, who also has so many houseplants that it takes an entire day to water them.
Nina also engaged in compulsive shoplifting, a behavior she has since overcome through a combination of therapy and 12-step meetings.
“I was arrested three times, and it still wasn’t a deterrent,” she said. “It began to make me sick; it was a real conflict between the person I knew I could be and a crazy lady.”
Nina still has not overcome her compulsion to shop and stockpile items she knows she will probably never use. She has tried to get rid of some of her possessions through consignment shops, but ends up returning to the store to buy them back.
“I once gave some clothes away to a friend and went into terrible mourning and agony,” she said. “I humiliated myself by asking for them back. She just laughed at me. I find that people just can’t comprehend; they have no sympathy.”
Nina felt the therapy she received did not help her overcome her emotional attachment to the possessions that fill several areas of her colonial home.
“No amount of looking at why was helpful,” she said. “Many other people have the same why’s, but they don’t hoard.”
Stanley believes the key to successful treatment is getting to the root of the hoarding behavior. She said it is common for concerned family members to want to swoop in and perform a major cleanup, thinking this will resolve the problem. According to Stanley, this kind of well-intentioned intervention can do more harm than good.
“It’s not about the stuff,” she said. “First you have to honor the fact that this behavior is serving them in some way.”
Stanley has worked with clients who used the clutter as a kind of barricade; they felt that being surrounded by a lot of things protected them from robbers or other invaders.
“I’ve heard people say they feel more vulnerable when the clutter begins to go,” she said. “I tell clients, ‘First you have to figure out what the hoarding is giving you. If it’s safety, then let’s find another way to make you feel safe.’”
Sometimes adding extra locks or installing an alarm system will reduce the fear so the client can begin to deal with the mess.
Hoarding, in its extreme, can pose serious health and safety hazards. West Bloomfield Fire Chief Jay Wiseman estimates that his staff members encounter at least one hoarding situation in any given month when responding to medical emergencies. Wiseman said that severe clutter makes rescue efforts more difficult for EMS workers, who have encountered homes where floors are completely covered with shoulder-high stacks of newspapers, piles of clothing and overflowing shopping bags. Navigating through narrow paths, known as “goat trails,” can be dangerous, especially in emergency situations where every second counts.
Wiseman said that hoarding also increases the chances of a fire, especially when the clutter spills over into utility rooms where hot water heaters are housed.
“A substantial number of fires are caused by combustibles that are too close to a water heater or other igniter, such as a space heater,” said Wiseman.
He said that stockpiling old newspapers, clothes, books and other household items adds to the overall weight of the house, increasing the risk of structural collapse. When unsanitary or otherwise dangerous situations are discovered by public safety workers or township code enforcement personnel, the resident is usually referred to a local social service agency.
“We try to get these people help,” Wiseman said. “There’s usually some degree of mental illness involved.”
There is currently no insurance diagnostic code for hoarding, although treatment is sometimes covered using diagnoses of depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorders, conditions that can also be present in people who hoard. A new category for hoarding disorder will be included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which comes out in May 2013.
Nina, a published writer and poet, said she is more optimistic now than she was a year ago when she discontinued therapy. She hopes her attachment to material possessions will lessen as she grows older.
“You wouldn’t know to look at me that I have this problem,” she said. “My mind is not the mess that my house is. It’s like I’m two people.”
To Learn More
Terrence Shulman will present a program on compulsive shopping, spending, and hoarding on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 7-9:30 p.m. at the Birmingham Community House.
The program will examine these behaviors using short video clips and a Powerpoint presentation.
Shulman will sign copies of his new book, “Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding,” which will be available for purchase.
Cost to attend the presentation is $24. For registration or information contact 249-644-5832 or www.communityhouse.com.
How Do You Identify A Hoarder?
These questions are taken from the book “Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding,” by Terrence Shulman.
• Are some of the living (not storage) areas in your home cluttered?
• Do you have trouble walking through some of the areas in your home because of clutter?
• Do you have trouble throwing away or discarding things, even those you no longer use?
• Does the clutter in your home cause you to feel stress?
• Do you have strong urges to buy things for which you have no immediate use?
• Does the clutter in your home keep you from inviting people over to visit?
• Do you feel unable to discard possessions even after deciding you want to get rid of them?
• Has compulsive buying caused financial stress or difficulty?