As hoarding gains attention as an official disorder, researchers explore the underlying reasons why people can’t let go.
Before (left) and after of Shuer’s home office.
Courtesy Lee Shuer
It began with a collection of baseball cards.
As a child of the ’80s, Lee Shuer had his share of collections: stickers, baseball cards, action figures, rocks or shells. He was just doing what all the kids were at the time.
“Except I was the one who never outgrew it,” he says.
Over the years, Shuer, a Massachusetts native, began acquiring more collections — from instruments to fliers promoting bands and even newspaper articles.
“I saw value in obscure items,” he says. “I considered myself an archivist. I also was very shy, so I used my collections as a social crutch.”
His collections turned into stacks upon stacks to the point he couldn’t tell what anything was anymore. Eventually his “collections” grew so much there was no room for anything or anyone else.
Most importantly, “There was no longer any room for me,” his wife, Becca, says.
After feeling overwhelmed and invisible for several months, Becca finally had enough.
“I told Lee it was either his collections or his wife — there was no longer any room for both.”
That was the wakeup call Shuer needed.
“I knew I had a lot of stuff,” he says. “I also knew I was very attached to my stuff — I couldn’t even bear to throw away a newspaper article — but at the same time, I was not ready to lose my wife.”
So, Shuer made the phone call that began his journey toward recovery.
Shuer suffers from hoarding disorder, a persistent difficulty parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.
The possessions begin to over take one’s life, cluttering and filling living spaces so they can no longer be used as intended (i.e., piles on kitchen counters, tables or even in bathtubs). This eventually causes distress or problems in one’s daily life.
“My ‘stuff’ was a part of my identity,” Shuer says. “It was incomprehensible for me to think of letting anything go.”
However, after years of working through his issues, Shuer travels the country giving talks and presenting seminars on hoarding. He came to Tulsa in 2014 to speak at the “Buried in Treasure” seminar arranged through the Tulsa Community Hoarding Task Force.
Compiled of professionals from the Mental Health Association Oklahoma, the Tulsa Fire Department, LIFE Senior Services, Department of Human Services Adult Protective Services, interested community members and other aging services organizations, it’s designed to help those living with the problem.
“It is estimated that approximately 35,000 people in Tulsa County deal with some degree of hoarding disorder,” says Mary Hardy, behavioral health consultant for LIFE Senior Services, “and people who suffer with hoarding behaviors frequently deal with other co-existing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or even ADHD.”
Hoarding has come into the spotlight recently through A&E’s popular reality show “Hoarders.” However, most of the cases on the show tend to be on the extreme side of someone with hoarding behaviors.
In fact, hoarding can be difficult to diagnose, according to Mike Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
“More often than not, hoarding behaviors are caused by underlying issues,” Brose says. “In order to help someone with hoarding issues, we have to first get to the root of their problem. A person can develop unhealthy attachments to their possessions, and they no longer have the ability to make decisions on discarding their own things.
“Defining hoarding is somewhat subjective,” Brose adds. “Where do you draw the line between someone who likes to collect things and has a messy house, and someone who really might have some issues?”
In most cases, hoarding becomes a problem when it begins to affect relationships.
“That’s usually when you see most cases brought to light,” Brose says. “A spouse, child or parent will begin to become distressed with their loved one’s behavior. And if that person isn’t willing to get help, it can destroy a marriage or alienate parents from children and vice versa.”
According to Hardy, even before the strain on relationships begins, there are other warning signs of hoarding behavior, including:
- Excessive saving or difficulty getting rid of items
- A large amount of clutter in the office, home, car or other spaces that makes it difficult to use furniture or appliances as intended or to move around easily
- Losing important items in the clutter
- Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff” that has taken over the home or workspace
- Feeling compelled (and unable to stop) taking free items, such as advertising fliers or sugar packets from restaurants
- Buying unneeded things just because they are “a bargain” or to “stock up”
- Not inviting family or friends into the home because of shame or embarrassment
- Refusing to let people into the home to make repairs
“But if your plan is to just swoop in and clean out, these efforts won’t be successful without treating the underlying problem,” Hardy says. “The hoarding problem will continue to recur, often within just a few months.”
If hoarding behaviors are not addressed, it can lead to a number of different problems.
“Severe clutter can threaten the health and safety of those living in or near the home,” Hardy says. “It also can attract rodents, causing health problems and structural damage to homes.
“In fact, two recent Tulsa fires were complicated by hoarding and put the lives of firefighters at even a greater risk.”
Hardy says she has read documented cases of people becoming trapped and dying when piles collapse upon them.
“Evictions and other court actions are expensive and emotionally devastating and can lead to hospitalizations and, in extreme cases, homelessness,” she says.
She adds that conflicts with family members and friends who are frustrated and concerned about the hoarding behaviors are common and also stressful.
There are effective treatments for people with hoarding behaviors; however, they must be willing to participate.
“If someone wants to end their hoarding tendencies, they have to be motivated to do so,” Brose says. “Usually treatment is a two-fold approach, using cognitive behavioral therapy along with medication.”
Brose advises that treatment must be with someone who is trained in treating hoarding disorders.
“During cognitive-behavioral therapy, individuals gradually learn to discard unnecessary possessions with less distress, diminishing their exaggerated perceived need or desire to save these possessions,” Brose says. “They also learn to improve skills, such as organization, decision-making and relaxation.”
For Shuer, the treatment process was similar.
“There wasn’t much being done in the way of treatment for hoarding behaviors back then,” Shuer says. “I found a study being conducted by one of the authors of ‘Buried in Treasure,’ and I signed up.”
Shuer’s first step was to get rid of something that was meaningful to him.
“I decided to get rid of a concert T-shirt that held sentimental value,” Shuer says of the shirt from his first live gig for him and his band. “It was awful at first. I was truly distressed about it.”
But then, it started to get better. As he learned how to let things go, he became much happier.
“I had to begin with stopping actively acquiring things,” he says. “Now I feel a huge victory every time I pass something without feeling the need to possess it.”
Shuer’s wife is his biggest supporter. But she has had her share of issues dealing with Shuer’s hoarding disorder.
“At first, it was extremely frustrating, as the treatment seemed to focus only on the person with the hoarding behaviors,” she says. “There was no focus on what happened to the others whose lives were also being affected.”
Becca encourages family members to find their own support system.
“Friends, church, therapy, social outings — find whatever works best for that person,” she says.
“I also tell them to focus on maintaining their identity while going through the process of their loved one getting help,” she says. “They need to make sure to also help themselves.”
The Tulsa Community Hoarding Task Force has launched several support groups for people with compulsive hoarding behaviors as well as groups for concerned families and friends.
“Probably the most significant benefit of these support groups is that participation is voluntary,” Hardy says. “No one in the group tells another group member what to do with their stuff. Group members report this is a very freeing and empowering approach.
“This approach also increases the likelihood that participants can move forward according to their individual readiness to change.”
Shuer finds gratitude in helping others deal with their hoarding issues.
“I keep in frequent contact with the groups I visit,” he says. “They support me as much as I support them.
“I’m ahead of the curve, but I’m still a work in progress.”
For information on the Tulsa Community Hoarding Task Force and available support groups, contact LIFE Senior Service’s SeniorLine at 918-664-9000.