When Our Stuff Begins to Own Us

Upon my friend Cindy’s suggestion, I finally finished reading the book “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things” by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee.  I found it so fascinating, and seriously, after reading it, you will want to de-clutter and un-hoard anything unnecessary in your house, and think twice about purchasing any new items!

Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College, and Steketee, dean of the social work school at my alma mater, Boston University, gather lots of anecdotal material from conversations with extreme hoarders and present their environments, backgrounds, and issues very vividly in this book.

What’s interesting is, don’t assume you can pinpoint a hoarder – they come in different shapes and forms.  This problem afflicts men and women, rich and poor, young and old, as well as very intelligent people.  Many that suffer from ADD, OCD and perfectionism, tend to have this tendency.

Not everyone hoards in the same way:  Some shop for the love of shopping and the happiness, power or status they believe it gives them, purchasing things that they do not need and will never use.  Others save mementos that have sentimental meaning; unfortunately, in the extreme hoarder’s case, just about everything falls into this category!  Still others collect and amass old newspapers and magazines because of the information they think they may need (even though these publications could be several months, or even years old, and most information is readily available via the Internet.)  As one hoarding client noted, “Without these things, I am nothing.”

Additionally, the authors profile individuals who collect so many cats that they are overwhelmed with the responsibility and can no longer function.  So interesting!  Unfortunately, as clearly noted by the several case studies, the effects of hoarding on the hoarder’s spouse, parents, and children can be very debilitating.

Although the problem of hoarding can be found as far back as the 14th century, it has never been as visible as it is today in westernized societies.  At the end of the 1990s, a PBS program called Affluenza documented the American culture of materialism and overconsumption and defined affluenza as a contagious social affliction in which possessions take over our lives and drain us of the very things we seek by acquiring them.

Another interesting fact:  40 years ago, facilities for storing unused personal possessions were virtually non-existent.  Now nearly two billion square feet of space can be rented for storage in more than 45,000 facilities.  In March 2007, The New York Times reported that self-storage unit rentals had increased by 90% since 1995 and more than 11 million American households rented outside storage space.  Alongside this growth for rented storage space, the average house size had increased by 60% since 1970.  The book even posits, “perhaps we are becoming a nation of hoarders.” UGH!  I hope not!  I was on a mission to streamline, and now I am even more inspired.

I’ve never watched the A&E show, “Hoarders,” but I assume it is a visual representation of this book.  I will definitely have to check it out.

In the meantime, I really enjoyed reading this book and found it very enlightening. For the six million sufferers, their relatives and friends, and all the rest of us with complicated relationships to our things, Stuff truly highlights the problem of what happens when our possessions start to own us.

Check out these hoarding scenarios below.  The first one is a mild (!) case; the second one is an extreme case, but not the MOST extreme scenario.

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