Thursday, April 5, 2012

Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Do you know someone who hoards? Chances are very good that you do. According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, studies show that between 2 and 5 percent of the population hoards. That’s between six and fifteen million Americans.

Frost and Steketee are the authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, a fascinating look at the compulsions that make people hoard. Whether we are savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, none of us is completely free of the impulses that drive hoarders. In Stuff, we are introduced to individuals trying to overcome their hoarding problems as well as individuals who do not recognize their issues.

It can be a fine line between collecting, saving, and hoarding. The authors describe hoarders as engaging in something “that causes them distress or interferes with their ability to live.” They also quote The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which defines hoarding as “the inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.”

I found it very difficult to stop reading Stuff. The case studies are fascinating. One woman, Debra, felt it was her mission to be the keeper of magazines and television shows. She spent hours taping shows that she never watched. “seeing them didn’t interest her; preserving them did.” After a serious car accident, her major concern was that she couldn’t go home to program her videotape recorders. It is not uncommon for a hoarder to save so many recipes from newspapers and magazines that the kitchen is so cluttered he or she can no longer cook.

As part of her therapy, Debra was sent a postcard containing only her address and a stamp. She was asked to throw the postcard away and record how she felt. Days after receiving the postcard, she insisted that she was not ready to throw away the postcard. Another woman, Irene, described how she felt after throwing away a five-year-old ATM envelope containing notes on how she spent the cash on odds and ends. “When she threw the envelope into the recycling box, she began to weep. She said, ‘I realize this is crazy. It’s just an old envelope, but it feels like I’m losing that day of my life.’”

The authors speculate that our consumer society has contributed to hoarder problems. They note that “Forty years ago, facilities for storing unused personal possessions were virtually nonexistent. … In March 2007, the New York Times reported that self-storage unit rentals had increased by 90 percent since 1995 and more than eleven million American households rented outside storage space.” However, there is a distinction between people who acquire and save things and people with saving habits that negatively affect their lives.

Hoarding is a serious disorder. It affects not only the hoarder but family, friends, and neighbors. Therapy has mixed results. If you are interested in the psychology and science of hoarding and examples of hoarding behavior, I predict you will find Stuff a fascinating read.

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