When too much is not enough

I recently worked with a team of professional organizers to help a woman who was forced to leave her home because of an extreme condition she had called “Hoarding Disorder.” Her home was declared inhabitable because of the amount of clutter she acquired.

According to the proposed revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, (DSMV-proposed), Hoarding Disorder is a condition marked by a “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions regardless of their actual value… leading to a large accumulation of possessions that fill up active living areas of the home or workplace so that their intended use is no longer possible.

She lived in a quiet residential neighborhood just outside of San Francisco. Unbeknownst to her neighbors, every inch of her home was filled, much of it in plastic bags piled to the ceiling.  She couldn’t move from one room to the next without having to climb over literally thousands of possessions, much of it soiled by dirt, animals and mold.

When her house was condemned, she moved in with a friend.  Her family had long given up on trying to help her.  Her friend persuaded her that it was time to deal with her “hoarding”  after watching a show about others like her. It was hard to believe that she needed to be convinced. Its not that it didn’t matter to her that she had lost her home; it was the idea of letting anything go that was so too painful.  When she spotted a broken, plastic souvenir baseball cup, inadvertently thrown away by one of my colleagues, she became so angry she threatened to “fire” us all.  The only thing she bear to remove from her home was herself.

When I’m working with clients who I consider more “situationally” disorganized, as opposed to “chronically” disorganized, that is, people for whom disorganization is more related to existing circumstances, stress or learned behaviors, not an underlying psychological condition, I think about the fine line between them and this woman.

Many of us have an inexplicable attachment to objects, behaviors, ideas, memories and even people that don’t serve us (or no longer serve us) and yet we can’t seem to free ourselves of them. It’s not until the pain of these attachments exceeds the pain of letting them go that we begin to find the readiness to open ourselves up to the possibility of something better.

Despite the pain of losing her home, this woman had an enormously high threshold for the pain caused by her own behaviors. Her attachment to her objects, the memories they evoked, even the parts of herself they represented were more important to her than the possibility of a life filled with meaning rather than things.  It was the things themselves that gave her meaning, or more accurately, she gave them meaning. She could not let go of her possessions because they were the symbols (both real and imagined) of a life she once had and probably lost.

So if you are reading this and thinking, “I’m nothing like this woman,” ask yourself, “What are the things, behaviors, ideas, memories or people in my life that are holding me back?” Are you ready to shed them to make room in your life for something more meaningful, a greater connection to yourself perhaps? If so, consider yourself fortunate. You may want to reflect on  feeling gratitude for having more than you need. It’s unlikely that this woman will ever feel that way.

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