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Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And The Meaning Of Things

Photo of box on shelf with other items piled up. Hoarding stuff
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Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

We all know a “pack rat:” someone who collects odds and ends and is prone to piles of obscure, seemingly meaningless objects. Others of us would consider themselves messy: never quite able to gain control over the stacks of bills, magazines, and dirty laundry. But for many, these characteristics are manageable. It doesn’t bring them any shame, anguish, or suffering.

For hoarders, mess is much different.

There is a very great chance that you know someone with a hoarding problem. According to one study, 2% to 5% of the population suffers from a hoarding problem. That means that between 6 million and 15 million people suffer from the effects of their hoarding every day.

Hoarding: We Are What We Own

In Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, hoarding is approached with all the compassion, insight, and understanding the topic deserves.

The authors - an internationally-known expert in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and a professor of Social Work at Boston University, respectively - conducted numerous case studies to compile the data for the book. What they found was quite remarkable:

  • First, hoarding is defined by the degree to which it interferes with the health, happiness, and ability to function of the hoarder.
  • It is characterized by an inability to get rid of objects, and a profound anxiety and grief when an item is trashed.
  • Hoarders often have difficulty separating which items are truly useful and meaningful, and which are not.
  • They often live in dangerous amounts of clutter, and feel great shame over their living conditions.
  • Still, they find it difficult to stop holding on to objects, even when it begins to interfere with their relationships.

Frost and Steketee explore several interesting examples of hoarding. All the hoarders featured had similar struggles regarding attachment to their objects, a need for “just in case” items (such as back-up clothing, food, and magazines,) perfectionism, and struggles with a sense of self, as well as security.

One woman described her hoard as being like a “fortress” to protect her emotionally. Yet, all the hoarders featured struggled greatly; their clutter was pushing them to the edge.

Hope For Hoarders

Many of the cases followed in Stuff has a positive resolution. With the help of a psychotherapist, the hoarding individual was able to learn techniques that eased their anxiety over parting with their possessions. They explored the roots of their hoarding compulsion, and what “stuff” meant to them emotionally. For many, it was a way to cope with vulnerability and anxiety.

Frost and Steketee have depicted a surprisingly common problem in a way that is sympathetic and easy to comprehend. With growing public awareness, finally hoarders can let go of their shame, and embrace a path to healing.

Hoarding can be very challenging, both to the person hoarding and their loved ones. If you or someone you care about has developed a hoarding problem, there is hope. Contact Nassau Guidance & Counseling at (516) 221-9494 today for more information.

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