Sunday, May 23, 2010

When Possessions Rule Your Life

by: Julia M. Klein

Not until my mother died last year, at 82, did I realize how much she had saved. Her attic, closets and drawers overflowed with Playbills and travel brochures; size two designer dresses from the 1960s; broken appliances; baby furniture; expense receipts and stock annual reports; scrapbooks and photo albums; magazines and newspaper clippings; and every letter, greeting card and announcement she had ever received. It was an embarrassment of riches—and of junk. My exasperation was tempered by a sudden realization: I was hoarding identical emblems of my past, from Playbills and newspaper clippings to ancient letters from almost-forgotten lovers.

So it was with both interest and trepidation that I picked up Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee’s new book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. To my relief, I discovered that my mother and I were rank amateurs compared with the pseudonymous subjects of this book, who live among clutter so overwhelming that they scarcely have room to walk, or eat, or sleep. Before treatment, Irene mixed empty boxes, expired coupons and old newspapers with photographs of her children, important documents, even cash. Pamela tried to take care of 200 cats, filling her house with excrement. Ralph stockpiled rusty, broken objects and stacked moldy newspapers so high that they threatened to crush him.

Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College, and Steketee, professor and dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University, have been studying hoarding for nearly two decades and have developed a cognitive-behavioral approach to helping hard-case hoarders. But their book, with its insight into the magic and meaning of ordinary objects, speaks to the hoarder in all of us. I asked Frost to elaborate on some of their findings. (Read an excerpt from Stuff.)

Q. How did you first become interested in hoarding?

A. My interest began with a simple question from a student. We were discussing obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the student asked, “Why are there no studies of hoarding?” I couldn’t answer. So we placed an ad in the local newspaper looking for a “pack rat” to interview. We got more than 100 phone calls. I was hooked.

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