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In Pursuit of a Life Less Cluttered

Older gentleman with stacks of used booksContrary to negative pop culture portrayals, people who have accumulated a problematic amount of possessions tend to be creative, intelligent, and resourceful; perhaps only unsuccessful in the pursuit of moderation. Those of us who acquire and keep too much stuff are stuck, hung-up on something emotional, something unseen beneath the surface of life. What can be seen is merely the tip of the iceberg. It’s complicated.

Some people call us the “H” word: hoarders. I call myself a “finder/keeper in recovery” because hoarding has become such a derogatory label, helped in no small part by sensational reality TV shows.

Our difficulty decluttering isn’t really about the stuff; it’s about what the possessions represent to us. Our collections are disorganized piles of memories and responsibilities stacked to the ceiling in plastic bins, cardboard boxes, and plastic bags.

We save stuff for many reasons, but don’t necessarily have time to figure those reasons out. Many of us are under pressure, by law or love, to clean-up. We’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter whether we collect lead or gold—too much of anything is a problem.

My own curiosity and eye for the unusual led me to begin saving things when I was very young, around three years old. I remember asking my grandfather, “Do you have anything old you don’t need?” He gave me a leather-working tool and some stamps. My neighbor gave me an old lawn mower. Next, I built collections of baseball cards, minerals, shells, pocket knives, and comic books. My stockpiling of possessions continued gradually throughout my adolescence but became extreme in my twenties. It wasn’t until 2005 when my wife said, “There isn’t enough room for both of us here,” just one year into our marriage, that I found the will to change. I was thirty years old. She’s helped me through it; it’s something we continue to work on together. Fourteen years later, there’s enough room for both of us, and life is much better.

Millions of people’s lives are affected in negative ways by the volume of stuff that they’ve acquired. Isolation, frustration, loss of hope…eviction, divorce, debt, fire. The potential is there to lose everything.

“It wasn’t until my wife said, ‘There isn’t enough room for both of us here,’ that I found the will to change.”

The potential is also there to enjoy a sense of sanctuary, safety, and companionship. I’ve shared my lived experience and worked with hundreds of people who have taken a grand reappraisal of their own living situation and said, “I’ve had enough. I want my life back.”

The programs I’ve helped develop are informed by my lived experience. I collaborated with Dr. Randy O. Frost to create The Buried in Treasures Workshop (BIT), based on the book Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding (Frost, Tolin, Steketee, Oxford University Press, 2013). I collaborated with Dr. Mary Ellen Copeland to create WRAP® for Reducing Clutter (WRAP® for Life, Peach Press, 2014). These programs are skill-building and empowerment groups for people committed to decluttering, organizing, and limiting acquiring.*

The BIT Workshop has shown symptom reduction on par with therapist-led Group CBT (GCBT), while being less expensive and more accessible. In a 2010 study, 78% of participants in these peer-led groups (Frost, 2010) had overall symptom reduction (distress due to clutter, desire to acquire, and difficulty discarding objects). Overall improvement was 28% (Matthews, 2018) in these peer-led groups, compared with 30% in therapist-led GCBT groups (Muroff, 2012). The effectiveness, accessibility and low cost of peer-led Buried in Treasures Workshops makes these an attractive option for people with Hoarding Disorder, which was officially added as a diagnosis to the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Positive outcomes have driven the popularity of BIT Workshops globally. My wife Becca and I have crisscrossed the US and Australia training people to facilitate BIT groups and busting stigma.

For individuals and families to heal, they need a sense that their community supports them and has hope for their success. This support is best demonstrated when communities form Hoarding Disorder and Clutter Resource Networks (also known as Hoarding Task Forces). These networks bring together peers, mental health counselors, health department representatives, firefighters, elder services counselors, housing experts, law enforcement, and code enforcers. When state/federal funding is provided to support the HD Resource Networks’ initiatives, and when clinicians and peers come together to explore and provide innovative partnerships, healing happens.

Education, outreach, compassion, and positivity can move mountains.

*For more information about the resources listed, or to inquire about getting involved, visit the Western Mass HD Resource Network or call 413-961-9264.