Till 2008, clutter blindness was considered to be a sub-type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But today, it is an independent problem very difficult to cure because the patient does not believe that he or she is sick. In medical terms, this is often known as Pathological or Compulsive Hoarding.
The first major research paper on compulsive hoarding was published 1987 by D Greenberg. It was not until the early 1990s that major empirical studies and research were beginning to be conducted. These were primarily by Randy O Frost, Gail Sketekee, David F Tolin and Tamara L Hartl. In 1996 the definition of compulsive hoarding, still in use, was created by Randy O Frost and Tamara L Hartl.
Do you hate to throw rubbish away like counterfoils of bus and movie tickets, old newspaper, bread wrappers, exhausted pens and cast-away envelopes? Do you retain them simply because you hate to throw them away or do you do this for emotional reasons? Are you overly nostalgic about the candles that were placed on your 1st, 2nd, 3rd and all birthdays? Has your home become a huge wastepaper basket you hold so dear that you hate people to visit because they might throw things away? In fact, guests will turn around and leave because of the smells they get attacked by.
If your answers to all these questions is ‘yes’ then you are in serious trouble and need urgent psychiatric help. You are suffering from a specific kind of disorder known as ‘clutter blindness’.
Acquiring things and refusing to let go till the collector begins to lose all sense of logic and cohesion is traced back to emotional anxiety that comes of depending on people because they consider objects and things to be more reliable than human beings. Things, unlike people never change and are always there so for the random collector, they become fixed deposit accounts in his/her emotional bank that bring satisfaction of all kinds.
A victim of clutter blindness gets pleasure being surrounded by things that temporarily eases his or her anxiety. When people and events have hurt us, gathering and collecting things can be a natural, albeit problematic, response. The person’s emotional attachment to possessions becomes so great it prevents him/her from seeing the difference between what is important and what is not. Finally, the person finds it difficult to let go of obsolete possessions that have appropriated not only all space and energy but more importantly, life and relationships.
A woman, who we will call D, lived with her two children aged 11 and 14. She described her hoarding behaviour as a “small problem that mushroomed” many years ago alongside corresponding marital difficulties.
She said her father was a hoarder adding that when she was a child the volume of clutter took up around 70% of total living space in the house. Excepting the bathroom, none of the rooms in the house were functional in any sense. Two exit doors were blocked and members had to enter through the garage and the kitchen. Tables and chairs across the flat were covered with papers, newspapers, bills, books, half-eaten bags of chips, her children’s school papers, etc. going back to ten long years! This also proves the theory established by some researchers that compulsive hoarding can be genetic and can run through the family but not all.
7 Dumpsters and A Corpse, a documentary film written and produced by Mirjam von Arx, we learn of Thomas Haemmerdli who hears of his mother’s demise while he is preparing to celebrate his 40th birthday. He and his brother Erik rush to her apartment only to find it filthy and bursting with junk. It takes the brothers an entire month to clean out the place. Among the chaos, they find films going back to the 1930s, photos and other memorabilia. Gradually they piece together a strange and unique family saga, in which baronesses and counts, Latin Lovers and Nazi officers play a role, and even the young Kofi Annan makes an appearance.
My Mother’s Garden is a painful autobiographical account by Cynthia Lester who directed the film, about her experience with her mother Eugenia Lester whose hoarding disorder had entered a dangerous and life threatening stage. The film documents how one family comes together to cope with their mother’s disorder and rebuild a lost sense of family.
A few years back, a newspaper article shocked us all with the story of a senior engineer with the State government caught with thousands of currency notes he had accepted reportedly as bribes in exchange for favours. The family, comprised of this man, his wife and a grown-up son plus a girl in high school, did not communicate with anyone in the neighbourhood. When the income tax department along with the police came to raid the house, they discovered currency notes stacked everywhere – the mattresses, the pillows, the cupboards, the drawers, false ceilings and even inside a commode in the spare bathroom which was never used. They led a Spartan life so God Alone Knows why they accumulated so much money.
The fact probably is that along the way, all these currency notes for them, turned into ‘clutter’ which they could not use, give away or throw away. The very gathering of volumes and volumes of currency notes became an end unto itself and the bribe taker had probably forgotten why he was taking bribes at all!
Randy Frost and Gail Sketekee have shed light on this disastrous but little known mental illness in their book Stuff. Man is a social animal. So, it is natural for men and women to cling on to things they feel very nostalgic about such as a deceased father’s reading glasses or a mother’s prayer book. This is perfectly normal. The problem becomes scary when some of us begin to cling on to everything that is there around the home and we do not even realise that we are steadily sinking into this huge ocean called clutter blindness. Stuff illustrates in full, shocking detail, the degree to which people become obsessed with possessions through a sort of ‘clutter blindness’. We learn about people whose intense connection to possessions holds them hostage to a shrinking world of space. Hoarding and out-of control accumulating share a surprising similarity in the emotional, physical and psychological justifications for accumulating things. There are specific hoarders and there are general hoarders.
Specific hoarders have the inclination towards hoarding a single object such as old newspapers that no longer have any use for them and should be thrown away. They cannot be called collectors because their hoarding is disorganized and always in a situation of clutter. General hoarding is more serious because the hoarder does not discriminate between and among objects. One crime serial demonstrated how a woman refused to bury the dead and kept their corpses inspite of the stink!
Though various clinical treatments and medicinal support are available to treat the disease today, it is difficult because firstly the patient does not recognise her illness and secondly it takes time even for the family to realise the gravity of the problem.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is said to be a commonly implemented therapeutic intervention for these patients. The therapist can help the patient to (a) discover why he or she is compelled to collect and keep, (b) learn to organize the possessions and decide what to discard, (c) develop decision making skills, (d) declutter the home during in-home visits by a therapist or professional organizer, (e) gain and perform relaxation skills, (f) attend family and group therapy, (g) be open to trying psychiatric hospitalization if the hoarding is serious, and (g) make periodic visits and consultations for follow-ups to sustain a healthy and normal lifestyle.
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time