Once known for her confidence and charisma as Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women, Delta Burke made headlines last year after opening up about her battle with compulsive hoarding syndrome.
“At one time I had 27 storage units. I don’t have a big enough house,” she said during an interview with Entertainment Tonight. “My mom had it, it’s my mother’s fault. She saved the diaper I came home from the hospital in.”
How does someone who was once voted “most likely to succeed” in high school become a compulsive hoarder? Well, as Burke mentioned, oftentimes the ailment is hereditary. Eighty-five percent of people who hoard can identify another family member who has the problem, according to the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA, San Diego. Other times, hoarding can be a result of neuropsychiatric disorders like eating disorders and is frequently linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Burke has a history of both disorders.
Adding to the list of celebrity hoarders, Andy Warhol collected over 400,000 objects in the last 15 years of his life, according to Matt Wrbican, an archivist at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Among the many items Warhol accumulated were newspaper clippings, unpaid invoices, pornographic pulp novels, airline tickets, supermarket flyers, and postage stamps.
Wrbican spends his days sorting through the 610 cardboard boxes, known as “time capsules,” that Warhol left behind.
“It would be easy to label the stuff ‘junk,’ but they’re really archives,” said Wrbican during an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.
Wrbican added that when Warhol went on trips he would not only bring home typical souvenirs but also, the porcelain, cutlery and menus he used on Air France Concorde.
As for Warhol’s four-story townhouse on the Upper East Side, his kitchen and bedroom were the only rooms he could walk through. Anything that couldn’t fit in his home was transfered to a nearby storage unit.
Hoarders have also graced the pages of classic novels like Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. One of the characters, Plyushkin, collects and saves everything he comes across – including a cake that is several years old, which he consumes after asking his servants to scrape off the mold.
In Russia, the name “Plyushkin” has become synonymous with people who accumulate useless objects. Those people are said to have “Plyushkin syndrome” or “Plyushkin symptom.”
Hoarding and decluttering have recently graced the pages of two major lifestyle magazines: Domino and Real Simple. In the February 2009 issue of Domino, interior designer Ryan Korban offers pack-rats solutions to clearing out clutter. In the March 2009 issue of Real Simple, a reformed hoarder, Erin Rooney Doland, discusses how she was able to purge her excess belongings.
With an estimated 4.5 million Americans suffering from compulsive hoarding, it’s no surprise that discussions on hoarding have become ubiquitous. Oprah.com has over 40 articles devoted to decluttering your home.
Here are a few simple tips on decluttering that I picked up from my experience attending the Hudson Guild decluttering support group meeting:
Don’t discard items – donate them!
Anna-Leah Braudes, the moderator of the Hudson Guild decluttering support group, said that it’s less stressful for hoarders to donate items rather than discard them. Most hoarders have an easier time giving up belongings if they can give it to someone who appreciates them. Braudes recommends donating clothes to the Salvation Army and books to Merchant Marines.
As for items like newspapers, Braudes says that purging papers is very difficult to tackle because of their frequent delivery. She added that hoarders like to randomly clip articles from the paper, but fail to file them in a place where they’ll have easy access to them at a later date. It was suggested at one of the meetings that hoarders should cancel their subscriptions to publications because most information is now available via the web through a publication’s online archive. Articles can easily be bookmarked or forwarded to a personal email account for quick future reference.
Acquiring decision-making skills
During each of her meetings, Braudes emphasizes to her members how important it is to acquire decision-making skills before discarding items. She says that if a hoarder discards an item without understanding why they’re discarding it, they’ll be more likely to repossess that item at a later date.
Braudes says that professional help, such as hoarding expert, Dr. Randy Frost’s, cognitive behavioral therapy for hoarding, can help hoarders tackle obstacles that they cannot handle on their own.
Below is a list of a few programs that offer professional therapy for hoarding:
Not too long ago, Braudes suggested a bold idea, that as a group her members visit each other’s home so that they can visualize what each person is referring to during group discussions. But to date, no one has accepted Braudes’s suggestion. In fact, several members ended up dropping out of the group to prevent this from happening.
Braudes believes if hoarders can view the clutter of others in-person, it will encourage them to look at their own clutter more objectively. Often times, Braudes’ members relate to the items being talked about and, she said this serves as an obvious way of helping each other.
The international community of hoarders is constituted disproportionately by Americans and other western folks. Additionally, 1st World countries with less effective social safety nets are far more inclined to produce a more extremely acquisitive brand of citizen. It is in the societies which over-emphasize material possessions and capital accumulation that clutter becomes most problematic and pathological. Thus, from initial attempts at gauging the hoarder proportion in countries like Sweden and Netherlands, it seems that many fewer citizens of those places have heard about hoarding. This is probably a result of the fact that hoarding is simply less common in societies that have more engaging mental health care and social counseling programs for all citizens. But, to be clear, much of these observations are speculative and certainly do not stem from any complex statistical survey of hoarding around the world.
As with many other psychosocial problems, the libertarian U.S. seems more likely that Western European nations to allow hoarders free reign to practice their odd craft without interference from government officials or health care workers. Many Europeans whom I have met seem rather surprised at my tales of American hoarding because they see such extremely deviant psychological cases as shocking. This derives not from the mere psychological deviance but from the fact that the appropriate public and private sector safety nets simply are not effective in addressing so many hoarding situations. The ‘live and let live’ creed reinforces a ruggedly individualistic social order accompanied by weak social protections in the U.S.
Beyond the welfare states in which hoarding seems less likely to fester, 3rd world societies perhaps contain much less compulsive clutter. In discussing the topic with lots of contacts in the subcontinent, I have not managed to discover any examples of hoarding in India. Perhaps the problem has not much been popularized or perhaps it takes on other forms. But, either way, hoarding is not recognized the same way there. It is very unlikely that anywhere close to 1-2% of the population suffers from the condition – as in the U.S.
The question that behooves asking is whether poorer, less developed societies are as prone as the U.S. to the same type of misdirected urges to accumulate junk and non-junk alike. The same goes for eating disorders and a number of other psychosocial disorders that occur with much more frequency in the urban, industrialized West. Deviant use of space and of stuff is less of a possibility in countries where there is much less space and stuff is afforded per capita. Is it wrong to assume that folks in underdeveloped countries have neither the time nor the sensibilities to engage in compulsive clutter?
There is a fellow Columbia Graduate School of Journalism student who had originally intended to do a print masters project on hoarding. She hails from Lebanon, where she said hoarding is not terribly common. However, she said that the one hoarder who she’d met in Beirut was completely unashamed of her behavior, in contradistinction to many American hoarders whose shame has no bounds.
Another international difference that I have heard about was involved the story of a Dutch family that had appeared on a popular TV show called Clean House. According to the person who told me about the episode, the father was such a hoarder that the rest of the family was forced to sleep together in one bedroom. This sort of situation seems fairly uncommon amongst American hoarders. The vast majority of hoarding cases that we have come across domestically are older folks who live alone. While I have heard about some American hoarder-couples who contribute equally to their household’s clutter, this Dutch example seems to confirm that there are some differences between American hoarding and hoarding abroad.
While the United States appears to be far more of a hoarder nation than most others, it remains difficult to determine whether hoarding simply takes on different forms in other societies. Are there more advanced forms of hoarding in highly evolved societies? Is there increased growth in clutterers who hoard information rather than physical possessions? Could this reality alter the established norms of hoarding? Moreover, do less developed societies simply have many more people who hoard food, water, and medicine rather than goods that are considered worthless or extraneous? These questions and more will be among the issues addressed in this blog during the coming weeks and months.
My escapades in hoarding investigation took me to Passaic, New Jersey, on Monday. I met with a chronic hoarder with whom we have been in intermittent contact over the past two months. The meeting proceeded as planned, yet I was concerned throughout that my relationship with our first major hoarder would be jeopardized by my inquiries. Like walking on eggshells, my conversations with Catherine aimed to satisfy my curiosities while remaining consistent with what I viewed as a reasonable level of empathy.
My worst fears as well as my most dashing hopes were confirmed in this watershed interview and exploration of a truly Level V hoarding site. The disgustingly repulsive fundamentals of Catherine’s hoarding were remarkable. I have already happened upon the holy grail of our hoarding investigation, and the sight of it may have been too much to handle. Catherine’s hoarding involves bottles, papers, toys, 8 cats, and furniture. But, far and away the most revolting part of this first hoarding scene experience was the presence of both human and animal excrement all over the hoarding scene.
The kitchen floor, with litter boxes
Catherine claims that her hoarding problem has improved. However, that is hardly believable, given the current state of her residence. It is impossible to enter more than a step-and-a-half through the front door of the residence. At least three feet of stuff cover the foyer and living room floors. It is impossible to enter more than two steps from the kitchen entrance to the residence, as three to four feet of rubbish cover the kitchen and adjacent areas of the first floor. And, this is a mere 5 months after Don Tagatac’s clean-up company removed 5 tons of detritus in 5 days of de-cluttering. Tagatac said that the stuff was about 5 feet high before he tidied Catherine’s residence. Now, the stuff is back up to at least three feet high.
Catherine risks being kicked out of her house by the Passaic County authorities because of the environmental and health violations associated with her hoarding tendencies. The county will soon take her to court and most likely put a lien on her house – unless Catherine manages to cough up the cash for another cleanup like July’s, of which she financed 60%. The county may again be willing to pony up 40% of the clean-up costs, but it is also very probable that Catherine is nearing the end of her quarter-century of extreme hoarding.
Catherine's baby pictures were almost discarded in the July cleanup
Catherine told me that I was the first human being who was neither family member, cleanup specialists, nor hoarding therapy group member to enter her residence in 25 years. That means that, since I was born, this woman’s life has been characterized by an unimaginable loneliness in her private life. The hoarding and loneliness clearly go hand-in-hand, as one builds on the other. Interpersonal connections are indubitably made much more difficult as the hoarding turns off potential acquaintances and mates.
In essence, I was shocked by the disconnect between Catherine and logic. To a reasonable person, her hoarding mess would involve a series of concrete steps that would lead to a more functional and sanitary lifestyle. But hoarders cannot fully perceive the irrationality of their behavior and how it alienates them from non-hoarders. Perhaps they are capable of forming interpersonal bonds with their fellow hoarders? This does seem somewhat feasible, but ultimately, serious hoarders create intimate relations with their junk in response to their isolation and disaffection from the rest of the external world. People who live with other human beings cannot accumulate the sorts of messes that exist in one-member households. Housemates cannot and will not generally tolerate extreme hoarding that has reached either Level IV or V – meaning severe impediment to living space and inoperability of most normal residential functions.
The cluttered living room
To conclude, Catherine does not have many options left. Therapy may still be on the table, but her depression and ADD problems have long been co-morbid with her hoarding behavior. As she ages, sadly, it becomes less and less likely that she can kick her hoarding addiction. The shame inherent in the disorder prevents her from ever really coming to terms with how the behavior is viewed by non-hoarding public. The legal ramifications of her destructive clutter keep mounting, and it appears increasingly difficult for her to avoid the sanction of Passaic County authorities. I wonder whether living in an adult group home might be the optimal solution for this type of extreme hoarder.
Cleanup guru Tagatac was afraid that Catherine’s behavior had reverted to prior levels of hoarding, but it seems that he was not entirely surprised when I told him how severe the regression was. Barring the exceptional generosity of Passaic County and/or an immediate and total reversal of hoarding tendencies, Catherine is nearing full self-destruction. Hoarding takes a significant toll on society, but ultimately, it is the individual hoarder who suffers the most from the tragically odd behavior.
Video: Catherine’s back stairwell, which leads to her highly cluttered kitchen.