The Joy and Pain of Things

Irene's attachments to things and the emotions tied up in them cost her a husband and, for the most part, a normal life.
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Our world is one dominated by possessions. For most of us, possessions are a source of comfort, convenience, and pleasure. But for Irene, one of the main characters in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, they have also become a living hell. Fifteen years ago, Irene called me desperate for help. Her husband told her to clear the clutter from their home or he would leave her. She couldn't. Now she feared he would take away her children because of the state of their home. Irene was tormented by her problem. She wept as she told me her story. A bright and enthusiastic child, Irene excelled at college. She went on to complete a graduate degree and start a family with her college sweetheart. But there were signs along the way of the trouble to come. In graduate school her tendency to carry things around with her led her classmates to call her "bag lady". The clutter in her room completely hid most of the furniture. During the first few years of their marriage, the house was cluttered, but livable. Things slowly got worse, however, and after 15 years, her husband had had enough.

At the time we met, I knew little about hoarding despite having spent my career researching obsessive compulsive disorder. Psychology had abandoned the topic in the 1940s, shortly after Eric Fromm drew a distinction between two fundamental orientations to the world - having versus being. People with the having orientation derive meaning from owning things, while those with the being orientation find meaning just from the fact that they exist. The distinction never caught on. Irene agreed to an unusual experiment that would reveal great deal about this unusual behavior. In exchange for my help, she agreed to open up her life to me, and her story formed the backbone of Stuff. I spent more than a year working with Irene on her hoarding problem. Although there were moments of joy, like when she found a bag full of bottle caps she admired for their shape and color, these were offset by the grief she experienced at parting with what felt to her like pieces of her soul. One day as she worked on a pile of papers, she discovered a 5-year-old ATM envelope. It was empty, but on the back she had written how she spent the money. It was nothing unusual, drug store items, groceries, and a few odds and ends. She put the envelope in the recycle box and began to cry. She looked at me pleadingly and said, "It feels like I'm losing that day in my life." A moment later she continued, "and if I throw too much away, there will be nothing left of me!" Her attachment to this envelope reflects something fundamental about our relationships to the things we own. They are tangible markers for life events, reminders of places, people, or times of importance in our personal history, and all of us have at least a few of them. But for Irene, and people like her, everything she owned became such a marker. Getting rid of anything meant giving up part of her life, or so it seemed to her, so she never tried. Since I was there and suggested it, however, she left the envelope in the recycle box. A few minutes later I asked how she felt about it. "It's not so bad now. You know, that really wasn't such a great day, and I'd rather not remember it." Only when she was willing to challenge her attachment to that object did she discover how little it meant to her, and that she had saved a day she didn't care about. The intensity of her original reaction to getting rid of the envelope was enough to cause her to avoid discarding it. Such avoidance is abundant in people who hoard.

Irene's attachments to things and the emotions tied up in them cost her a husband and, for the most part, a normal life. While at first glance, it is easy to dismiss people who hoard as lazy or simply messy, such characterizations don't do justice to a problem that is both layered and complex. What lies behind hoarding is at once surprising and familiar. You will see something of yourself and those around you in Stuff. At the same time you will see people who, astonishingly, give up being in order to have.

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