Finding Clarity Through Clutter

Matthew Morris
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For the last three years, I have been working with people, labeled “hoarders,” who have become overwhelmed by their possessions in their homes. This has been some of the most interesting, challenging and thought-provoking work I have ever done. It is also an area that, I think, highlights all of the issues that challenge us in helping people who feel overwhelmed, for whatever reason.

The people I meet have come to realize, or they have been told, that they have a problem with clutter in their homes. They mostly have one thing in common. Nearly all of them say to me, “I have watched those hoarding programmes on the TV, and that is not me!” They are terrified of what they see on their screens, and the very thought of that process happening to them triggers many more overwhelming feelings. My experience is that they are usually right — the people that they see on the screen are not them.

There is always, of course, a reality that centres on people’s relationships with possessions. It may not always be that there is a large quantity of things, as much as it is that there are always things by which the person has become overwhelmed. For some, being overwhelmed can be related to the sheer quantity of the possessions, and the dilemma that comes from fitting them all into their home. More often, however, being overwhelmed is related to feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, frustration, anger and a profound loss of self-esteem and self-worth. These feelings are related to issues that have happened in their lives, issues that are then reflected in their specific feelings towards their things.

Each person’s story is unique but there are always life issues, traumas and events that relate to what is happening with their belongings. The people are unique, their situations are unique, and failing to understand and respond to them as such is, ultimately, a failure to really see them. To call them hoarders or to say that they are suffering from a disorder alienates the individual and reduces them to a broad classification, taking them out of the narrative from which they emerged.

When I meet professionals from a range of services they tell me that they have a “hoarder” on their caseload, or that there is a problem with “hoarders”. I am told by experts in the field of “hoarding” that the fact that the DSM V (Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5) has recognised Compulsive Hoarding Disorder in its own right is a good thing as treatment can now be anticipated to follow. I am told that this is a chronic problem affecting up to 5% of the population and that “hoarders” lack insight and are hard to engage, therefore making this work for “specialists” only.

Having met many people now who would be talked about in this way, I wonder what their response to this might be. How would any of us feel? Please imagine someone coming to your home after receiving a referral stating concern with the state of your living quarters.  Imagine that they look around your home and ask you about your relationship with your possessions and then diagnose you with a Compulsive Hoarding Disorder. Much like the response from the TV shows, you may (I know I would) tell them that they are wrong and that, while you know things aren’t great,  this “disorder” is not the problem. The professional may then tell you, or perhaps they would imply, that you therefore lack insight. Again, as is common and something I think I would do, you might ask them to leave or perhaps never let them back in your house.

After this, of course, the “specialist” may confirm to themselves and those around them that “hoarders” are difficult, lack insight and are hard to engage! This is a professional set up that I have experienced many times throughout my career, most notably when working with people referred to by Assertive Outreach as “hard to engage”. The people I met were not “hard to engage” if you had time to listen, understand and attempt to help them in a meaningful way. However, if you ignore them and try to impose yourself and your opinions on them, they, like anyone else, will resist.

So for people overwhelmed with their possessions in their homes, a familiar process has taken place that distorts what is really going on because the system lacks the ability, or the insight, to look only at the person, their unique situation and their relationships. A familiar irony is that this response often comes from professionals and services that promote themselves as “person centred”. It appears that this approach is so often conditioned upon the person first accepting the opinion of the “specialist”!

What I see is people trying desperately hard to survive the many difficulties that they are currently experiencing or that they and their families have gone through in the past. What is so often the case for the people I meet, as with people who are distressed by hearing voices, people who injure themselves, or people who display many of the other manifestations of distress, is that these reactions are crucial survival strategies that then get medicalised. They feel that professionals are less interested in what has happened to them and more concerned with fixing the immediate concerns that may be distressing to others.

I do understand the arguments and feelings that make people want to classify others, and I understand that people will see someone overwhelmed by their possessions and think that the possessions are the problem. I know that people will meet people distressed by voices and will want to take the voices away. I can see that when someone you care about is injuring themselves, you will want this to stop. Likewise, I can see that profound sadness and crippling worries and fears are tremendously difficult, and we would all wish for suffering to be gone.

However, what I also see when I meet people experiencing all of these, is that the suffering is related to what has happened to them, who they are, how they see their world and what resources they have to overcome what is happening. That the belongings, the voices, the injuries, sadness and worry are understandable responses and often desperate and successful attempts to survive. That the feelings that people have, while painful and difficult, are often an understandable response to what is happening or has happened.  That rather than anything being wrong with the person, everything about the way they feel is an adaptation to their circumstances.

So, perhaps if we can acknowledge that these are natural human responses and not symptoms of a disorder, we can just accept and support people, and not call them names and then try to get them to accept the names that we use, reserving labels such as “lacking insight” and “hard to engage” for those who dare to disagree.

If we can employ our natural human skills of love, compassion, and empathy. If we listen, if we are curious, if we accept people and their stories as truly unique, complex and inspiring, if we can marvel at people’s resilience, if we can truly accept difference and tolerate uncertainty, then maybe we can strip away the disorders, we can change the language to words that unite us as human beings, and perhaps then we can be more helpful to ourselves and to others. Perhaps then we can see through the clutter, in whatever form it takes, and see a person.

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Matthew Morris
Matthew is the Operational Director for Stepping Stones Community Outreach, which is based in Ipswich in the UK. Stepping Stones Community Outreach is part of the Stepping Stones Community of services that provide housing with support, help for people overwhelmed by clutter in their homes, training designed to encourage new thinking and practice, and are registered with the Care Quality Commission to provide help for people that can be an alternative or complementary to mainstream services. Matthew has worked for 30 years in a variety of settings and always as part of new initiatives and trying to implement new ideas. His approach is one of trying to encourage people to harness natural human attributes and abilities in a skilful yet simple way.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for what I think is a first on MIA: Hoarding. As an “antiques” collector, I walk a fine line between being a collector and being a hoarder. I’m more familiar with the downside of hoarding through friends who have strained (awful) relationships with their aging parents and spouses because of what they see as denial as to the reality of their problems. Hoarding takes a huge toll on relationships.

  2. I watched that show Hoarders on A&E and got upset when the kept making threats at people of CPS and Adult so called Protective Services.

    A&E can go to hell.

    I am a hoarder but before you imagine a huge pile of stuff let me tell you its not like that, I don’t have that much stuff at all but I hate throwing out stuff that I might be able to use for something. Its a self sufficiency survival thing and yes it gives me anxiety to put something in the trash that still has good parts or a possible future use.. The sense of loss as it goes into the dumpster, only a hoarder would get it.

    It looks like junk to you but to me its a hardware store full of free stuff so leave it the hell alone. And remember who you call when something electro-mechanical or internal combustion of yours doesn’t work.

    Here is my suggestion to help hoarders

    Industrial Shipping Containers | eBay http://www.ebay.com/sch/Shipping-Containers-/92079/i.html These things are cheap !

    Imagine all the drama and abuse that people subjected to the A&E team would be spared if they showed up with a 40×8 shipping container and told the person we can put all your stuff safely in here so you have room in your home.

    I haven’t watched A&E hoarders in a wile but the last few were just major disgusting slobs and were not real hoarders. The behaviors of a hoarder were not present at all.

    • ‘Hoarders’: Suicide Attempt During Filming After Child Protective Services Removes Children From Grandparents’ Home (VIDEO)

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/23/hoarders-suicide-attempt-video_n_2004236.html

      What A&E doesn’t mention wile advocating calling police on your own family is that once CPS takes peoples kids they are sent for mental health screening and with that comes psychiatric drugging.

      http://www.google.com/search?q=foster+children+psychotropic+drug

      I thought I was too harsh in my original post but no.

  3. Brill work there Matthew.

    Local authorities do not know what to do about hoarders. They get complaints from nieghbours and then there might be a fire service assesement. Then it gets more difficult.

    I have had a couple of clients who are hoarders. I am a gardener. One was in contact with social services and they had no idea of what to do.

    What you are saying is just get to know the person. That at the very least is the place to start.

  4. I’d say I’m kind of the opposite of a hoarder, I hate clutter. I used to rent dumpsters, periodically, to declutter my home because my husband did not like to throw things away.

    And I absolutely agree, “perhaps if we can acknowledge that these are natural human responses and not symptoms of a disorder, we can just accept and support people, and not call them names and then try to get them to accept the names that we use, reserving labels such as ‘lacking insight’ and ‘hard to engage’ for those who dare to disagree.”

    Especially now that it’s been confessed that none of the DSM disorders has any scientific validity whatsoever, I’m quite certain this is in order.

    “If we can employ our natural human skills of love, compassion, and empathy. If we listen, if we are curious, if we accept people and their stories as truly unique, complex and inspiring, if we can marvel at people’s resilience, if we can truly accept difference and tolerate uncertainty, then maybe we can strip away the disorders, we can change the language to words that unite us as human beings, and perhaps then we can be more helpful to ourselves and to others, perhaps then we can see through the clutter, in whatever form it takes, and see a person.”

    Today’s “mental health” industry is a divisive, defamatory, gas lighting industry, not a “mental health” industry. My psychiatrist, when confronted with all the misinformation written into his medical records and the fact the medical evidence of the abuse of my child had been handed over. He’d drugged me based upon lies from child molesters initially, literally declared my entire life a ‘credible fictional story,’ wanted to put me back on antipsychotics, and wanted to also drug my child. How disrespectful, ignorant, and unethical can today’s psychiatrists get?

    And absolutely, the “voices” one gets from being poisoned with psych drugs, are very relevant to one’s concerns. I had the “voices” of the child molesters, whose lies were used to get me misdiagnosed and drugged up initially, according to my medical records, in my head. Bragging about their abuse of my child, the entire time I was being poisoned with the psych drugs. Psychiatry is 100% incorrect in their belief that “voices” are irrelevant to one’s real life concerns.

    And they also claim ignorance of the reality that combining the antidepressants with the antipsychotics does cause “psychosis,” via anticholinergic toxidrome poisoning, which is not a DSM disorder. It’s a medically known way for unethical psychiatrists to make people “psychotic,” while they profiteer off of covering up sexual abuse of small children, for the paternalistic religions.

  5. Thank you for this clear statement about listening and valuing each other. I resonate with your perspective that people and our responses and relationship to overwhelm applies to far more than the appearance of specific “behaviors.” Sometimes I miss important messages out of a reflexive reaction to words referencing “hoarding” and media and medicine’s designed formulas for “defining” and controlling people’s experiences. I’m very grateful for you and your message.
    Berta Britz

  6. Thank you Matthew. My husband is a collector of many things. We have had many arguments about his collecting. We have watched the TV shows as well and agree that he is not like those people who collect junk and don’t take out their trash. But it is difficult and expensive to live with someone who is so obsessed with his possessions. Thank you for writing this article and showing some insight into this problem. I will try to be more understanding when he continues to bring home more stuff and struggles to let go of anything at all. You sound like an extremely kind and empathetic person. Thank you for reminding me to accept my husband’s differences and tolerate the uncertainty caused by his behaviour.