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Excerpt From 'Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things'

Irene was apologetic to the point of tears about her situation. Her husband had just left her because of the clutter. She had no money. She was afraid her children would be taken away because of the condition of her home if her husband were to petition for custody. Her daughter had developed severe dust allergies, making it difficult for her to stay in the house. Irene recognized that she had a problem and needed to do something about it. Some people who hoard never have lucid moments about their habits, so Irene was fortunate in this respect. She at least had what psychiatrists and psychologists call “insight” into the irrationality of her hoarding behavior. Yet despite having insight when talking generally about her problem, when trying to decide whether to discard a five-year-old newspaper, she could not see the absurdity of keeping it.

Our first stop, the kitchen, showed the enormity of her predicament. A two-foot pile of stuff covered her kitchen table. The pile contained a wide assortment of things—old newspapers, books, pieces of children’s games, cereal boxes, coupons, the everyday bric-a-brac of family life. Only a small corner of the table’s surface was visible, about the size of a dinner plate. The table had been cleared once, according to Irene. Five years earlier, she’d removed everything to the floor so that her son could have a birthday party. After the party, the stuff went back on the table. Four chairs were covered with clothes, boxes filled with long-forgotten things, and more. It was possible to walk around the table, but the floor under the table and chairs was packed with boxes and paper bags. The kitchen counters were completely covered, their surfaces obviously long buried in the mess. A pile of unwashed dishes balanced precariously in the sink. Bottles of pills and piles of pens and pencils were strewn among the dishes, utensils, and containers covering the countertops. As Irene was going through each of the items in her kitchen, it became clear to me that there was something peculiar about the clutter. Most descriptions of hoards include piles of worthless and worn-out things. Initially, the clutter in Irene’s kitchen seemed consistent with this model—empty cereal boxes, expired coupons, old newspapers, plastic forks and spoons from fast-food shops. But mixed among the empty boxes and old newspapers were pictures of her children when they were young, the title to her car, her tax returns, a few checks. Once when I had convinced her to experiment with getting rid of an old Sunday New York Times without first looking through it for interesting or important information, she agreed but said, “Let me just shake it to make sure there is nothing important here.” As she did so, an ATM envelope with $100 in cash fell out. This wasn’t exactly the outcome I’d expected from this experiment, but it did illustrate something important. Irene’s clutter contained a mixture of what seemed to me both worthless and valuable things but what was to her a collection of equally valuable items. She described it herself one day as we worked through one of her many piles: “It’s like this newspaper advertisement is as important to me as a picture of my daughter. Everything seems equally important; it’s all homogenized.”

Excerpted from Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Copyright © 2010 by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Read an interview with coauthor Randy O. Frost.

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