Anatomy of a hoarder

After greeting Jane at the apartment door, which she had cautiously cracked ajar – just enough to see a slice of her worried eyes, I peered in.

This was a milestone, a monumental moment in my relationship with the old woman, a church member my family and I had adopted years ago.

You see, when giving Jane rides to and from church, the store or to our house for holidays, she never met us at her apartment door. Not once. Rather, she waited on the curb, the porch or in the foyer of the dingy early twentieth century three-story home converted to dreary flats.

Standing pensively behind the door, her tiny stature framed by rubbish. Trash. Clutter. Everywhere.

Walls lined with stuff; mainly papers, piled so high there appeared to be only a narrow path for her to maneuver. I looked down to see stacks of old newspapers beneath her feet. If she had invited me in, which did not happen, I would have had to step up about six inches to enter.

Glancing over her shoulder, rigidly pressed on the back of the door, I peered past the neatly dressed woman, beyond her head matted with pin-curled gray hair, and caught a glimpse of her bathroom. The door was propped open by wide columns of tattered magazines – the bathtub chockfull of soiled rags, dirty sheets, discolored clothes and whatnot.

It was true – the rumors of her hording were real. I should have known by the looks of her handbag. She carried it wide open – all kinds of stuff hanging out the top, the sides. Not to mention those shopping bags she carried stuffed with plastic bags, scraps of paper, wrappers and the like.

What I observed of Jane, I can see hoarding is a complicated disorder. Wanting to better understand, I did some reading and found these common characteristics.

Hoarders suffer from depression and anxiety. They have family histories of hoarding and/or perfectionism and difficulties processing data, paying attention, remembering, categorizing and decision-making.

Hoarders have dramatic emotional attachments to inanimate objects, giving them human-like qualities. Conversely, hoarders feel safe, sane surrounded by stuff.

Possessed by strong feelings, hoarders do not throw away anything. They repurpose almost everything, even the plastic on a cured ham. No kidding. When Jane was over for Easter dinner some years ago, I attempted to toss a ham wrapper in the garbage and she gasped aloud and then gave me a royal tongue lashing.

Even though a hoarder's sensibility is encased in an emotional quagmire, there is help and hope. Emphasizing that hoarding can take years to overcome, Dr. David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital, offers these tips:

1. If you can't use it, don't keep it.

2. More is not better.

3. Don't overthink decisions.

4. You don't have to be perfect. Be good enough.

5. If you're repeatedly handling stuff by moving it from pile to pile, stop, make a decision to discard it and move on.

6. Face your fears; take risks with your hoarding compulsions.

7. Consider what's the worst that can happen if you throw out something?

8. Focus on small victories. Clean out one room or a section and congratulate yourself.

9. Sort things as they come along. Five minutes a day is better than nothing.

10. Know when to ask for help. Hoarding can be a serious mental health issue requiring treatment.

Jane is gone now. If it weren't for her hoarding, the loneliness may have done her in much sooner. Hoarders keep others at a distance for fear of being "outed,"worse yet, evicted. Jane was evicted more than once.

I can still see her standing pensively behind the door, her tiny stature framed by rubbish. Trash. Clutter. Everywhere.

SOURCE: "How to Overcome Hoarding," Dr. David Tolin from Steketee & Frost (2003), Clinical Psychology Review, 23, 905-927.

2012 © Copyright Paula Damon.

A resident of Southeast South Dakota, Paula Bosco Damon is a national award-winning columnist. Her writing has won first-place in competitions of the National Federation of Press Women, South Dakota Press Women and Iowa Press Women. In the 2009, 2010 and 2011 South Dakota Press Women Communications Contests, her columns have earned eight first-place awards. To contact Paula, email  boscodamon.paula@gmail, follow her blog at my-story-your-story@blogspot.com and find her on FaceBook.

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