Review #40: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee
“I used to go through the newspaper, page by page, looking for interesting articles. When I found one, I would read it and then cut it out and throw away the rest. Before long, to save time, I looked through the paper and cut out the interesting articles, but I didn’t read them. After a while it was easier to look the the paper and just keep the whole if it contained an interesting article. Finally, I stopped even looking through the paper and just save the whole thing. I plan to read them when I have time.”
Stuff is written by Drs. Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, psychologists who specialize in research and treatment (often treatment research) of individuals with compulsive hoarding. Yep, they treat the folks that we see on A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. The folks that we watch with our jaws hanging open as we witness mountains of things piled up to ceilings, covering two or three feet of floors (“goat trails”), and everything in total disarray despite protests of their importance — homes that are in total chaos, yet the hoarding individual is often blind to it. We watch in horror as discoveries of sailcats, rotten food in fridges that haven’t worked in years, and sometimes diapers (or bags) with feces emerge. We watch in concern as houses threaten to break under the burden of all the stuff. And most importantly we watch in disbelief and confusion — how do these people not see what is going? How are they blind to it? Why do they treat their supposedly treasured objects like trash? Why is it so difficulty to throw away what, to us, is clearly garbage? Unfortunately these shows offer only lip service to the many factors contributing to the growth and maintenance of a hoard.
Frost and Steketee, however, offer true answers. Based on years of research and clinical work, and using case studies, they explain the processes that lead to and maintain hoarding. Hoarding comes together as a messy marriage of excessive acquiring/accumulation and an inability to get rid of acquired stuff. Those are the parts we know about, but the authors explain why these two factors, and also why the selective blindness to the hoard, occur. The reasons, not surprisingly, are based in many areas of psychology — information processing (greater indecisiveness and more problems with decision making), cognitive-behavioral (irrational thoughts such as being afraid that throwing away a phone number will contribute to waste), anxiety avoidance (thinking about discarding causes anxiety, not throwing away reinforces anxiety relief), and minimal coping skills. Sometimes people also suffer from OCD or similar symptoms on the spectrum. Many suffer from perfectionism which leads them to do nothing rather than risk doing it wrong. Others suffer from delusional or magical thinking where they may anthropomorphize the objects (I can’t throw away this yogurt container since it will hurt their feelings). There is also emerging evidence for possible brain/genetic bases of hoarding. Most interestingly to me
As a doctoral psychology student I have always been fascinated by the hoarding shows on TV, but found myself having limited empathy for the majority of the people portrayed, at least when it came to the clean-up. I simply did not understand them, and could not conceptualize them in a way that made sense to me. I do have to say though, now having ways (based in psychology) to conceptualize what was going on (especially the information processing), my empathy has greatly increased. I thought often while watching the TV shows, “why don’t they just send them inpatient for a week or two and clean the place out?” This is definitely a topic addressed frequently in the book — the clean-up process and the many reasons why forced cleanout is a bad plan, and why the painful process of “one piece at a time” is the best way. Most hoarders have a deficiency in decision-making and categorization, and the “one piece at a time” is a way of teaching them those skills.
This book is completely fascinating, and written to appeal to the lay person. It has one of the most bizarre cases of animal hoarding that I’ve ever heard of (don’t worry, it’s not as scary to read as it is to watch, it’s just the back story is super weird). I seriously was sitting on the train with my jaw dropped at what I was reading. I won’t spoil it for you, but holy moley it was weird. I strongly recommend this to anyone who feels unsatisfied and full of questions after an episode of Hoarders or Buried Alive.