Feb 12 2009

Delta Burke and Andy Warhol were Plyushkins?

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.”


Feb 9 2009

Conquering Clutter the Hudson Guild Way

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:

Bio Behavioral Institute –  (Great Neck, NY)

UCLA – OCD Intensive Treatment Program (Los Angeles, CA)

The Institute of Living – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Hartford, CT)

Seeing it for yourself

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.


Feb 3 2009

Thoughts

Work has picked up on our website and at school as of late. The team has been surprised by the amount of access we’ve been able to get from people with this illness and experts on this issue. The situation wasn’t  looking so good a few weeks ago. I was banned from a de-clutter support group because of concerns about liabilities and was kicked out of a Clutterers Anonymous meeting but Frederick , an attendee at that meeting was kind enough to give me his phone number and returned my  call the same night. He invited us to his apartment to let us interview him on camera and take pictures the next day. Frederick’s an artist and used to work in fashion design. We are currently working on a video that will feature him talking about his condition.

Last week Ben and I ventured out to Long Island to interview Dr. Fugen Neziroglu of the Bio-Behavioral Institute. Dr. Neziroglu was very gracious and answered all of our questions. She commented on some of the pictures of hoarding sites we’ve been able to document.  And an interview with Dr. Randy Frost of Smith College is in the works. He’s considered one of the foremost experts on this topic.

We’ve also been kicking around a few interesting concepts for the site and welcome any comments and ideas from our readers.

The project has also gotten some attention on the internet. We continue to receive emails from people all over the country and the world. And Unclutterer, one of the more widely read blogs on the topic of clutter has discovered our site.

We’re humbled and honored by our readers’ encouraging words of support and will continue to report on this issue in a thorough and transparent manner.


Jan 25 2009

Clutter on 28th Street

Here are some photographs of hoarding at Frederick’s residence. We will likely be returning to his place to document how the scene has changed since the clean-up and fumigation of his studio.


Dec 18 2008

Hoarders at Holiday Parties

Shockingly enough, fellow holiday party goers have been incredibly interested in talking about hoarding. Tis the season to be merry and jolly, but I would never have guessed how fascinated all these Chrismakwanzakah revelers would be in the issue of hoarding. Even more than that, I have managed to make an average of 2.5 solid hoarder contacts at the parties where I have sought to spread the hoarder gospel. And, those contacts just seemed to come my way with little effort hoarding hoarder contacts.

I will discuss a few of the hoarder stories that I happened upon at two particular holiday bashes. At the first, I met a young man from the city whose uncle had been hoarding newspapers in his midtown apartment for many years, until his habit became severe enough that his extended family intervened. Now, the uncle seems to be on less cluttered ground, having met a new girlfriend and continuing to ensure the relative cleanliness of his abode. It seems that many uber-educated New Yorkers are inclined to hoard information in either newspapers or books, but this problem is generally much worse with folks who live alone. There is a marked contrast that exists between hoarders-in-the-making who co-habitate with mates and those whose hoarding has fully materialized when their household consists solely of one person. Anyway, the second major hoarder contact at this particular holiday party on the Upper West Side was a young woman whose middle-aged Pelham mother has become a collector-addict with all sorts of memorabilia and knickknacks. There was little evidence of shame in this behavior for this specific case, but the hoarding tendency seemed indefatigable. One of this mother’s daughters is a practicing psychologist, who has made little to no headway in combating the scourge.

At another holiday party, I was taken aback by the phenomenal interest in hoarding conversation that was displayed upon my introduction of the topic. Initially, when I entered the hipster holiday bash in Williamsburg, there was a rather awkward silence. But, as I broached the hoarding subject, people began telling highly animated stories about their artist comrades whose hoarding of plastics, metals, paints, and all sorts of marginally salvageable materials gave me new insight into the ways that hoarding is part-and-parcel a form of aesthetic expression. Our project team had discussed in some depth how a hoarder’s space is analogous  to an artist’s canvas, in the way that belongings and accoutrements are splattered, peppered, plopped down, and organized in a way that is often entirely indecipherable to laypersons or people unfamiliar with that unique way of compartmentalizing objects within a space.

Perhaps the hoarder’s aesthetic sense is rarely appreciable by the non-hoarding masses, but this parallel is undeniable. Hoarders clearly project their worldview and attachment to their immediate external space via their cluttering tendencies, in the same way that artists render their work a function of their vision. It is unclear whether hoarders harbor a hypothesis about their hoarding task, in the same way that artists would generally have some sort of philosophy about why and how they create beauty. Hoarders probably cannot generally be said to create beauty in an intrinsically recognizable or logical way. Regardless, the manifestations of the hoarding instinct does reflect some level of commonality with the artistic sensibility.

Anyhow, on to the actual examples of hoarding that were discussed at the Williamsburg party. I met four folks who had concrete tales of hoarding that involved either themselves or close relatives/friends. One Chicago native currently resides in the East Village and obsessively rummages through the trash for CPUs. She has compulsively searched for other goods in waste receptacles in the past. At this point, she collects the computer hearts in order to fashion art out of them and display the finished products in galleries. It is unknown whether her level of hoarding would qualify any more than Level I on the hoarding scale, but it seems that her aesthetic instincts could very well spiral into more severe hoarding behavior. Moreover, she uses epistemological theories by Heidegger to explain her relationship with space and personal items. It may not be uncommon to have an advanced postmodern sort of explanation for hoarding behavior.

The next hoarder tale that was evoked involved a young Brooklynite’s godparents who reside in Sykesville, Maryland. These godparents have been antique dealers for decades, but their home has long been a hoarding nightmare, most likely hovering somewhere around Level IV. Their stove was long ago rendered inoperable by the dead animals that lurked therein. Serious maintenance problems arose from the heavy antiques that filled the residence. Vast portions of the house have been inaccessible for years, and the hoarding by this couple seems not to have faded at all. Hoarding most certainly worsens with age, as people become less and less able to become emotionally and physically ready to discard the innumerable contents of their dwellings. The behavior becomes more and more entrenched as the years go by. Hoarders seem to lose the decisiveness that comes with the ability to throw things out on a daily basis. “Normal” folks make scores of decisions every day pertaining to how much stuff will be discarded from their personal spheres, but hoarders are paralyzed in this process of excluding objects that seem like they could potentially be valuable or useful in the long term.

The third hoarding story from the Williamsburg holiday party was not quite a genuine hoarding tale, but a diabetic fellow named Danny mentioned his penchant for hoarding medicines and insulin that could be useful in the event of a disaster. I responded to him that such careful planning for the worst was most likely not hoarding and that this was a reasonable way to prepare for possible eventualities. He replied that there were nonetheless other types of collectibles that he saved somewhat compulsively, but I retorted that collecting one or two types of memorabilia or cultural items is not hoarding until it impedes one’s living space. Everyone in our acquisitive society enjoys collecting something, and it is not unusual to assume that this must qualify as hoarding. However, actual hoarding only occurs in 1-2% of the American population. This means that the vast majority of people are acquainted with at least one hoarder. It also means that many non-hoarders fear becoming a hoarder, or they are self-conscious/guilty about some  acquisitive tendency that could spiral out of control.

 

Taco Bell hot sauce packets, courtesy of Flickr user: su-lin

Taco Bell hot sauce packets, courtesy of Flickr user: su-lin

The fourth hoarder story from last Sunday’s Willyburg party was of a young Japanese art history student in Berkeley who hoarders a diverse range of objects: Taco Bell hot sauce packets, blond wigs, Queen Elizabeth memorabilia, vintage summer dresses, and much more! This woman is also very motivated by a theoretical explanation for her sociocultural bent and how it manifests in her treatment of objects and extreme attachment to a plethora of inanimate things.

 

In sum, a surprising quantity of regular folks have elaborate tales of hoarding, involving friends, relatives, and themselves. The journey is getting crazier and more cluttered…


Dec 17 2008

To-do Lists

Anna Leah, who moderates a decluttering support group in New York, said that there are three rules, which each of her members should adhere to: they cannot bring any hoarded items to the group session, they cannot visit any thrift shops, and they must throw away at least one thing each week. Since starting the group four years ago, Anna Leah said that her members rarely follow through on her rules. Just last week, at least two of the members, found themselves rifting through items at a flea market.

Anna Leah said that the support group is a great way to get hoarders to confront their problems. She believes professional organizers only provide a temporary fix because they’re not showing hoarders what they need to do to minimize their clutter.

During the session, one of the members discussed the connection between art and hoarding. As a collagist, he’ll hoard various items and feature them in his work. But he said that lately he hasn’t been able to finish any of his projects because he easily gets distracted.

Several of the group members admitted to suffering from the same problem. One of the members suggested that she found it effective to set due dates for herself, while another member suggested keeping an agenda: her agenda included a list of color-coordinated tasks organized by their level of importance.

Anna Leah emphasized how important it is for each of the members to keep a “to-do list,” because it’s easy for people who suffer from hoarding to become forgetful and it’s important for them to establishing a level of control.

Another member of the group expressed her difficulty in discarding old magazines. After asking the group whether she should tear out the pages that are most relevant to her, one of the members suggested that she discard all of the magazines because most articles can now be found online through the publication’s archive on their website.