By Lee Shuer
Recently, a mother and daughter were killed in a house fire in Westfield. News reports pointed to a lack of functioning smoke detectors in the home as a contributing factor in this tragedy. Another contributing factor mentioned was clutter, likely due to hoarding. It appears firefighters had difficulty bringing hoses into the home due to the accumulation of clutter inside.
To help our community draw something constructive from this tragedy, I want to share some information about hoarding disorder (HD), which is a struggle that I myself have experienced. The American Psychiatric Assoc. defines HD as a persistent difficulty discarding items regardless of value. The overwhelming distress caused by letting things go leads to areas of the home being filled and rendered unusable. Despite the prospect of potentially devastating consequences, such as the fire in Westfield, the fear of letting go is still too great to overcome.
Those of us with HD may feel safer surrounded by the things we cherish, but we may actually be putting ourselves in greater danger. Clutter may create fire and tripping hazards, violate health codes, and strain relationships. HD can cause problems in professional settings, too, leading to less productive work environments and ultimately, unemployment. Overwhelming clutter can also lead to isolation and loneliness.
However, contrary to negative portrayals on television shows like Hoarders, people with HD tend to be creative, intelligent, and resourceful. We tend to avoid throwing things away because we want to keep stuff out of the landfill. We want to hold on to things that remind us of good times and make us feel better. We want to save things to give to others, not just to keep.
I call myself a ‘finder/keeper’ because the ‘H word’ has become such a derogatory label. People like 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. But hoarding disorder is real, and so is recovery.
For individuals to heal, there needs to be a sense that their community supports them, and has hope for their success. The Western MA Hoarding Task Force, of which I am a member, is a great example, and just one of many across the state. We have brought together peers, mental-health counselors, public-health officials, police and firefighters, elder-services counselors, housing and animal-safety experts, and code enforcers to promote understanding and solutions that aid healing.
Our latest initiative is a conference that we’re calling “Hoarding Disorder: Recover Is Real.” It will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 18 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Hadley Farms Meeting House, 41 Russell St., Hadley. Jesse Edsell-Vetter, stabilization case manager with the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP) hoarding team, will be the keynote speaker.
Anyone wanting to learn more or get help for hoarding and excessive finding/keeping can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lee Shuer is the founder of Mutual Support Consulting in Easthampton.