Cleaning out clutter is difficult process for some

Sunday, December 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Individuals with compulsive hoarding tendencies are unable to get rid of unnecessary possessions; they often have years of accumulated clutter. The family of an elderly woman who used to own this house spent many months trying to clean it out and make it organized. The basement of the house is pictured in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — When Hank Landry's mother-in-law moved out of her two-story East Campus house in the autumn of 2008, she asked her family to help clean out the clutter.

After dozens of trips to Goodwill, a pickup load to the chemical recycling center and two packed construction trash bins, the work was finally finished


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Well, not quite. The basement is still full of old furniture, dishes and hobby projects. 

"It's a very familiar refrain, I think, for many, many people," Landry said.

Clutter has become a morbid fascination in American culture. The subject moved to the forefront of the nation's attention after extreme examples of hoarding appeared in the media.  

Oprah Winfrey has dedicated a number of programs to packrats who have stuffed their homes to the point where they can no longer live in them.

A&E's TV series, "Hoarders," which provides a look at how compulsive hoarders behave when faced with de-cluttering their homes. The show's Web site offers viewers a chance to speak to hoarders and professionals from the program.

Author E.L. Doctorow recently published "Homer & Langley," an historical novel based on two real brothers in New York City who were found dead in their home in 1947, smothered under piles of newspapers.

These are unhealthy examples of the tendency to keep possessions past their usefulness.

Why do people continue to hoard? Is it a sign of thrift, a desire to preserve memories, a compulsion to stockpile for the future? When does it become an illness?

To some, the refusal to throw things away is just being frugal. They argue that the items might eventually be useful, and tossing them is wasteful.

Some collect because they see their possessions as family souvenirs. Others can't pass up a bargain, especially in bulk.

But at some point, psychologists say, extreme hoarding can lead to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Landry describes his in-laws as educated people who had shelves of books, souvenirs from various travels, several eras of clothing too good to part with and various collections of rocks and plants.

They may not have crossed the line, but Landry said cleaning out their house was a long, tedious process that took eight months. He describes his in-laws as clean, tidy and thrifty, but their stuff still accumulated. 

After Landry's mother-in-law lost her husband, she decided to move into a retirement home. She had lived on William Street in Columbia for 43 years, raised an active family of four children and accumulated a number of hobbies and collections. Over time, it added up.

The family made some difficult choices about what to keep and what to give away.

"You come across the things that clearly you have sentimental reasons for keeping," Hank Landry said. "Or you think, this is just too good to throw away."

The family discovered utility bills that dated from the 1960s and scrap lumber used in hobby projects years ago. But they also found an old Boy Scout uniform that belonged to Landry's father-in-law. It was just too sentimental to give up.

"One of my observations was that the precious things you first dealt with were much more likely to be preserved than the thirtieth precious thing you dealt with that day," Landry said. "I just think that's human nature."

Steve Hudson of Columbia owns Simply Organize! a company that specializes in custom closets and organizational services.

Hudson said he has seen clients from one extreme to the other, from packrats to tossers. He thinks organization is a behavioral trait. When a client hesitates to take Hudson's advice and throw unused items out, he gives them options.

"There are plenty of places you can donate to or put on consignment and change somebody's life for very little," he said.

This isn't the first time Landry needed to clear out a home. He went through similar experiences with an aunt and his parents.

"We live in a society where we collect stuff," he said.

Columbia psychologist John Small said hoarding can run the gamut, from buying extra supplies during a sale to what he refers to as "piles and aisles" — where a home is so cluttered, there is almost no room for movement. 

"We could say it was compulsive, and that would describe some of it, but it begs the question of what's under the compulsion," Small said. "It could be fear or anxiety."

He believes hoarding behavior goes deep into the unconscious and is different for each person.

Hudson offers concrete reasons for staying organized, no matter how much a person owns. Staying organized, he said, saves time, reduces stress, is safer and provides more space in a home.

Even a collector needs to keep possessions from becoming cluttered. The key is periodic maintenance and frequent organization, he said.

Small advises hoarders to schedule therapy in order to uncover the behavior behind the actions.

For Landry, the hardest part of cleaning out his in-laws' home wasn't the physical labor. It was the deep, emotional experience of parting with items that are connected to memories.

"Parting is kind of tough," he said. "Are you giving away a part of yourself? By giving it away, is it an act of disloyalty to your father or to your grandmother?" 

The Landrys decided not to have an estate sale because it would require another layer of parting.

"It reminds you that there is an end to good things," he said. "It reminds you sometimes of things you left incomplete, and wished maybe you hadn't."

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Berk Cla December 27, 2009 | 12:33 p.m.

Thank you for calling attention to this serious problem, that can be life threatening. Clearly it is difficult for anyone who does not suffer from a cluttering problem to understand what it is like to be paralyzed emotionally and unable to let go of things that appear to be trash to others. Thank god there is a 12 step group, Clutterers Anonymous, that helps people to help themselves through fellowship, action and provides tools to let go of things one day at a time. More information at Clutterers Anonymous

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