Hoarding specialists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee recently published Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things that explores the psychological world of hoarding. In the book, the components of the hoarding disorder are explained through case studies, and the authors also provide many examples to illustrate where a hoarder’s actions diverge from those of a healthy individual.
The book is written in a positive and conversational tone that shows compassion for the subjects who are described in the case studies. The authors refrain from using judgmental language and shock-and-awe descriptions, which I find very refreshing, and instead focus on accurately portraying the complex world of hoarding.
Since the book was released, the authors have been interviewed quite a bit in the media, and these interviews cover a general sense of the text of the book. I recommend reading the Time article “Hoarding: How Collecting Stuff Can Destroy Your Life” and the transcript of the author’s NPR interview to get a big-picture view of the book’s content.
At Unclutterer, we are very open about our posts not being targeted toward people who are hoarders, but rather toward mentally healthy individuals who struggle with disorganization and want to learn more about simple living. Stuff does an excellent job of defining hoarding and describing the disorder, and I wanted to share some examples from the text with you —
From pg. 21: “The sense of emotional attachment that Irene [a hoarder profiled in chapter 1] felt for her possessions has been shared with us [the authors] over and over by people seeking help with their hoarding problems. These sentiments are really not that different from what most of us feel about keepsakes or souvenirs — the abnormality lies not in the nature of the attachments, but in their intensity and extremely broad scope. I find many articles of interest in the newspaper, but their value to me is reduced when piles of newspapers begin to impinge on my living space and overwhelm my ability to read what I have collected. For Irene, the value of these things seem unaffected by the trouble they caused.”
From pgs. 31-32: “Hoarding appeared to result, at least in part, from deficits in processing information. Making decisions about whether to keep and how to organize objects requires categorization skills, confidence in one’s ability to remember, and sustained attention. To maintain order, one also needs the ability to efficiently assess the value or utility of an object.”
From pg. 101: “Sentimentalizing objects — giving them emotional significance because of their association with important people or events — is not unusual. We all do it — ticket stubs from a favorite concert, pieces of a long ago wedding cake, a scrap of paper with a child’s first drawing. In this respect, what happens in hoarding is not out of the ordinary. The difference for Irene and Debra [two hoarders featured in the book], as for many hoarders, is that intense emotional meaning is attached to so many of their possessions, even otherwise ordinary things, even trash. Their special ability to see uniqueness and value where others don’t may stem from inquisitive and creative minds and contribute to this attachment. The desire to ‘experience everything’ may expand the range of attachments hoarders enjoy.”
From pg. 93: “Hoarding affords many of its sufferers the illusion of control and replaces fear with a feeling of safety.”
From pgs. 147-148: “While some hoarders, such as Ralph [a hoarder profiled in the text], become captivated by the possibilities in things, others are trapped by the fear of wasting them. Both types would save [a] rusty bucket with [a] hole in it, but for different reasons. For Ralph, imagining uses for the rusty bucket brought him joy. Anita, a participant in one of our treatment studies, spent little time thinking about possibilities, but a great deal of time worrying and feeling guilty about waste. For her the bucket would bring pain as she thought about what a wasteful person she would be if she discarded it.”
From pg. 155: “In one of our recent studies of people with hoarding problems, we found … hoarders were unusually sensitive to even small amounts of anxiety.”
From pg. 157: “Anxiety is not the only emotion hoarders seek to avoid. Most people, hoarders and non-hoarders alike, attempt to alleviate or preempt grief and sadness. Anyone who has stayed in a bad relationship or a bad job or has delayed breaking bad news to a friend can understand the urge. The difference with hoarders is a matter of scope: the number of sources for these feelings and the intensity of the feelings themselves, as well as the lengths to which they’ll go to protect themselves, are unusually great.”
From pgs. 214-215: “At this point, geneticists are betting that hoarding has at least some significant genetic cause, but exactly what is inherited is not clear. One possibility is that hoarders inherit deficits or different ways of processing information. Perhaps they inherit an intense perceptual sensitivity to visual details, such as the shapes and colors of Irene’s bottle caps. These visual details (overlooked by the rest of us) give objects special meaning and value to them. Or perhaps they inherit a tendency for the brain to store and retrieve memories differently. If visual cues (i.e., objects) are necessary for hoarders’ retrieval of memories, then getting rid of those cues is the same as losing their memories. Whatever is inherited, it is likely that some kind of emotional vulnerability must accompany this tendency in order for full-blown hoarding to develop.”
If you are interested in learning more about hoarding, I greatly recommend picking up Stuff.