In My Own Write: Who's a hoarder?

At some point, accumulating 'stuff' becomes a serious psychological problem.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
Many years ago, when I was a member of the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir (mezzo soprano), I had a friend (baritone) who shared my Hungarian background. His mother lived in a senior citizens complex in Ramat Efal, and when she died, I agreed to go along there to help him sort out her things. The small apartment seemed obsessively tidy, an impression that was reinforced when I opened a kitchen cupboard and saw a stepladder wrapped in clear plastic. On a shelf above lay a rectangular box, similarly carefully protected. A slip of paper on the lid, under the plastic, read: Cipo˝ doboz - üres (shoe box - empty). This is not to judge or, heaven forbid, mock the compulsive behavior of an elderly woman who had gone through who knows what deprivations in wartime Europe before coming to Israel. Simply, I have never forgotten or ceased to wonder at this almost loving preservation of an item most of us would toss without a thought. When my own mother died, I hung onto armfuls of her suits and dresses - beautiful things, most of them, and beautifully kept - which part of me knew I would never wear. I was already living in Israel, and went to some trouble to find a kind friend in London who would store them for me until... well, that wasn't clear. Eventually, I internalized that the clothes were not my mother, that they wouldn't bring her back, and I gave them away. 'I'M A terrible hoarder," I've more than once heard people confess, usually with an embarrassed laugh, explaining how impossible it is for them to give away things they've accumulated, many of which they don't really need. Yet visit them and you will see a house or apartment in which nothing appears out of the ordinary. True hoarders occupy a sadly different reality. Psychologists believe hoarding to be a serious obsessive-compulsive disorder, often rooted in traumatic childhood experiences and associated with elevated anxiety, depression and a blurring of boundaries. They define it as the acquisition and subsequent failure to dispose of large quantities of items which are of little use or value. I was once brought up short by a newspaper photo of a British suburban home accompanying a feature on hoarding. The front door was ajar and the stairs leading upstairs were visible. That is, they would have been visible if there hadn't been a wide stream of what looked like rubbish cascading down them, reaching as far as the threshold. The neighbors had grown suspicious. There had been off-putting smells; the owner had consistently avoided answering the door. Finally they had called the authorities. When health officials arrived and ordered the householder to open up, they discovered a world of frightening chaos: mountains of jumbled clothing, torn bags, bottles, broken appliances and rotting food all mixed up with piles of yellowing newspapers, years-old junk mail and other detritus. Eviction was followed by fumigation. "People don't have a clue what hoarding looks like," a social worker told reporters. "I still remember the first time I saw it. I was in shock." IN lighter vein - perhaps - American TV celebrity psychologist Dr. Phil counseled a woman who had run out of room in her house because she "just had to buy" everything she saw that was purple: clothes, shoes, bags, household stuff, you name it. She admitted she had no use for many of the items, but couldn't stop herself from acquiring them. She said she didn't even particularly care for purple. I don't remember Dr. Phil's advice, though I do recall sympathetic laughter from the studio audience, in which the "purple lady" herself touchingly participated. But he did take her affliction seriously. MOST self-described hoarders, thankfully, aren't psychologically ill. But let's admit that Westerners, including Israelis, long ago lost the battle against a formidable opponent - consumerism - and its insidious, always-in-your-face weapon, the advertising industry. One of its great victories has been to turn shopping into a major leisure pursuit, even compulsion, for millions of people who buy and buy, then go out and buy some more. While the current recession may have some curbing effect, addicts will always find a way to get their "fix." Now in case there's any doubt, I am not above engaging in a little - or even a lot of - retail therapy. As any woman will attest, there's nothing like some new clothes to boost the female spirit, at least temporarily. But could persistent shopping (I'm obviously not referring to necessities like food) be an addictive substitute via which many of us, some desperately, are trying to fill a less tangible need? AN intriguing letter arrived in the wake of a recent column I wrote called "Who put the 'die' in dieting?" It came from a reader in Sweden who runs life-enhancing workshops offering a "smorgasbord" of dance, story-writing and meditation. "Feeling fed up with all the counterproductive messages about dieting," she told me, "I created a course about women's hunger." Then she said something I feel might apply as much to rampant shopping as it does to yo-yo dieting: "Something is going on, some underlying source... Woman has an enormous appetite that cannot just be fed with food... I support women's staying hungry, listening to what it says, understanding it and not giving up until they have found the right 'food' to feed themselves." I take these words to mean that women who eat unrestrainedly - or fill their lives with "shop till you drop" - might be doing themselves a huge favor by first saying "Stop"; then looking inside themselves to try and identify the true hunger they are attempting to assuage. Is it for more love from partner, children or friends? More appreciation from colleagues or boss? A hunger for more meaning, or meaningful people, in their lives? This kind of self-probing takes courage, undoubtedly. And persistence. And, probably, practice. And I do think we are mainly talking about women here. But the benefits of recognizing one's real "hunger," and taking steps to feed it, could be considerable. For a start, think of the money saved. IN a Washington Post article last month titled "His anti-consumer challenge: Live with only 100 things," Julia Feldmeier wrote about San Diego resident Dave Bruno, "who decided to whittle his way down to 100 personal possessions. "Gone was the iPod. The baseball jersey signed by Pete Rose. The dress pants and the sport coat and the nose-hair trimmer. Purged, all of them. "Bruno, a 37-year-old Web editor, officially began his challenge Nov. 12, and plans to continue it for one year." I can only say: "Bravo," and wonder what Dave will do when his year is up. I SUPPOSE, in the interest of full disclosure, I should confess that I too have a cherished shoe box. It isn't labeled, but it's been with me - empty and taking up valuable space - for years. The reason I've hung onto it is that it's a particularly lovely shade of pale pink - and, I ask you: How can one throw something like that away?