Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hoarding Survey for Anxiety Disorders Center

I got this letter in the e-mail today and figured if you're reading my blog you might be interested.  FWIW, the book, Buried in Treasures, is awesome, should you win it.

September 15, 2009


I am writing to you because you have contacted me in the past regarding compulsive hoarding.  Hopefully you found the information we sent you to be helpful, and that you received a copy of the Hoarding Newsletter from the New England Hoarding Consortium.

My colleagues and I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to participate in an exciting new research study on compulsive hoarding.  We hope this internet-based study will help improve our understanding and treatment of compulsive hoarding.

Who can participate?
We would like to invite everyone whose life has been affected by hoarding.  If you are a person who suffers from compulsive hoarding, or if you have a family member or friend with a hoarding problem, we would like you to participate.  If you are a mental health worker or service worker who regularly comes into contact with people who hoard, we'd also like to invite you to participate.

How long will it take?
The questionnaire will take approximately 60 minutes to complete.  Of course, individual times may vary due to differences in speed of reading and writing.  Because this is on the internet, you can take a break at any time and come back to it.  Just be sure not to close the webpage.

Will my answers be anonymous?
Yes.  We won't ask you for your name or any other personally identifying information.  Our program won't install cookies or other software on your computer.  We won't give out any information about your participation to other parties.  Therefore, you can rest assured that your responses will be completely private.

How will my participation help?  Right now, scientists and therapists know relatively little about compulsive hoarding.  Your participation will go a long way toward helping us understand the scope and impact of this problem.  That, in turn, will help us design better research studies and treatments for hoarding.

What will I get in return for my participation?
At the end of the survey, we will invite you to enter a raffle to receive one of 10 autographed copies of the new book Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding (Oxford University Press, 2007).  You can also feel good about the fact that you are helping us learn more about hoarding, which in turn will help us develop more effective research and treatment.

How do I participate?
Participating is simple.  Just go to www.surveymonkey.com/hoarding and answer the questions on the page.

Can I invite my family or friends to participate too?
Absolutely.  Please feel free to forward this letter to anyone who you think might be interested in helping us learn more about hoarding.  In addition, if anyone is reading this letter and has not received a copy of our email Hoarding Newsletter, please send an email to adcresearch@harthosp.org so that we can add you to our mailing list.

If you have any questions about this research, please feel free to contact Diana Harrington at 860-545-7039 or dharrington@harthosp.org.

Thank you in advance for your help and we look forward to learning more about your experiences.


David F. Tolin, Ph.D.
Director, Anxiety Disorders Center
The Institute of Living

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Toilet Now Works

Somewhere in a post long long ago, I mentioned the toilet.

This is the toiled a child clogged back before they were potty trained. This child is now a teenager.

Those many years ago, the child clogged two toilets. I fixed one, but was adamant that the spouse had to fix the other one.

It had become a symbol of my frustration. How, I asked, could a toilet go unreplaced or unrepaired for weeks, months, years?

Well, as of last night the symbol is gone. It flushes, it doesn't leak, it is clean. And spouse did it himself.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Found Poem

This is a poem I found while de-cluttering before Easter.  It was written the day my spouse proposed to me:

To my partner in the body,
 Whose gaze fills me with love,
 In whose arms I am blessed with peace;

To my partner in the heart,
 With whom I share the delights of life,
 With whom my voice and feelings sing;

To my partner in the mind,
 Who can understand, share, and
 spur on my ponderings;

To my partner in the spirit,
 In whom my own spirit rejoices,
 To find a soul with whom I may
 Love and serve our God;

I now pledge to be your partner,
Until death and throughout eternity.
I look forward to having you
as a partner through the dance of life,
growing, teaching, learning,
mourning, celebrating, rejoicing,
    mind and body,
    heart and spirit,

Until we meet with our loved ones
at our Father's and our Savior's feet.

All my love...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mission #4 - Defragging the house

It's so amazing having the house back again!  It's still messy, but it's messy like a normal, lived-in place.

I've got a dual track going now:

On the first track I'm starting to do normal home maintenance and repair - like patching holes in drywall and painting.  I can take an afternoon once a month and knock out a major room redo of that nature and have the whole house freshly painted by the end of the summer.  So cool.

On the second track I'm about to "defrag" the boxes in the erstwhile family room (aka storage room now).  There are over 200 boxes there now.

Some of you may remember the old days, when we would be asked to defrag our hard drives - a task that took about an hour, during which the tech support on the other end of the line would be collecting some kind of pay.  It was a great deal for them.  And defragging (defragmenting) a disk did usually help performance, even if it wasn't the primary cause of whatever problem caused us to call tech support in the first place.

When you first started to defrag the disk, the screen would show you a map of your hard drive, with the hard drive map colored according to the type of file segment found in the portion of the drive represented by each pixel.  At the beginning it would be a mess of different colors filling the whole screen.

Over time the bits and bytes would get shifted around, until each section of the hard drive contained similar "colors" of files. Best of all, there would appear a large chuck of white, representing hard drive space that was free and "available for tasking."

Along those lines, I now have these 200+ boxes.  Some of them are full of books.  Those boxes I will label as "books" and collect together.  Other boxes are full of my spouses papers or precious items (games).  Those I will label as his papers and set together.  Then there are the boxes filled with random stuff.  Those are like the confetti-colored bits of hard drive.  I will sort those boxes into "keep/fix," "donate/freecycle," and "recycle/trash," and dispose of the contents accordingly.

By the end of the process, I expect to be left with just under 100 boxes that can remain full of books or my spouses papers.  I've set a goal to get through 5 boxes a week, so it will take about 20 weeks to get to that point.

For today, I freecycled three items and located the first five boxes of books in the temporary holding area.  I'm on my way!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mission #3.5 - I see light at the end of the tunnel

Mission #3 (arrange the family room for accepting boxes from all the
other rooms) has spilled over into getting the last two-three bastions
of random stuff boxed and cleared out.

So, to recap:

Mission #1 was to clear out my basement bathroom and basement
"bedroom" (not legally a bedroom because it lacks a window). So far so

Mission #2 was to organize my utility closet - now that this is
complete, I have a place to store my tools, know when I actually have
too many of any given tool, and have a place to put cleaning supplies
and toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, etc.

Mission #3 was to box the random junk in the basement family room so
that I could transform the total floor covering or random junk into
compartmented, boxed junk that could be stacked, making room to
receive the random junk (to be boxed) from other parts of the house.

Once I had the family room pretty clear, I moved naturally into
shifting the random boxes from the laundry/storage room over. My
vision is to have the laundry/storage room house laundry and "food
storage." There used to be a fridge and a 14" wide metal shelving
unit for food storage, with the 18" wide metal shelving unit that was
supposed to be for food only half assembled and piled with junk boxes.
I used to think of this like cancer - junk displacing the good stuff I
wanted to store there. Now both halves of the 18" wide metal shelving
unit are assembled, and all the food storage we have is neatly stacked
there. I figure I'll have room for 320 #10 cans on those shelves
eventually. The extra boxes have been removed from the room, although
I did leave a couple on the shelves since they aren't displacing any
food (as was previously the case).

For what it's worth, I understand the word "prepper" is now being used
to describe folks who store food or otherwise try to prepare for
emergencies. The "main" prepper website is somewhat hokey and half the
links don't work yet, but here it is: http://prepper.org/ . I'm all
for definition #1 for a prepper: "A person who grows and /or stores
food, water, and other supplies in preparation for disasters of all
types, i.e., economic collapse, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes
etc." It's the following definition about "A patriot who is against...
governments [that] lead to oppression and death of innocent people"
that starts losing me. At least it doesn't actively talk about

With the basement clear (enough) it was then time to tackle the
upstairs. I moved my spouse and myself out of the master bedroom a
while back because there was too much space. Since the spouse tended
to fill every available space with random stuff, I hoped to curb this
behavior by restricting him to a more limited space, arranged so his
tendency to pile wouldn't disrupt my access to clothes and bed. In
order to do this I relegated myself to hanging my clothes on a
temporary rack and it generally was cramped.

The master bedroom was a mess. My married daughter and son-in-law use
the futon when they visit, but that's merely a testament to the
unflappable nature of my son-in-law. We recently had our front windows
replaced, so there was a temporary clear area in front of the windows.

After much effort, the master bedroom is predominantly clear, and the
walls behind the dresser and headboard have been painted. The spouse
was very happy to be repatriated to his own bedroom.

The room we were using as a bedroom has been converted to a music
room. My youngest child is particularly pleased. Besides creating a
pleasant place for music and study, this has the added benefit of
getting the piano out of my dining room (hooray!). The piano and
computer desks and mail station around the perimeter of the dining
room were reducing the size of the room when used for dining, and each
of these outer areas collected it's own pile of stuff. I do like
having the computer stations in the dining room overall, but now they
and their paraphernalia will occupy a single wall.

So the end state will be a home full of rooms that can be used for
their intended purpose, with one room (the family room) that will
primarily serve as a storage area over the extended period of time
while I go through boxes, one at a time. I went through two of the
boxes yesterday, so the conversion from boxed junk to order has

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mission #3: Progress!

I've found this business of digging out from the pile that was the
basement family room to be awesome.

The only problem is that folks in my family have poor memories, so
they tend not to remember what it used to look like... That's what
the pictures are for.

I didn't do a lot of dejunking, this week was mainly arranging the
contents of the room into standardized boxes which could be stacked.
In the process I labeled each box with a sticky indicating the nature
of the contents.

I remember hearing that Andy Warhol created a collection of boxes
across the course of his life, sweeping the items on top of his desk
into a box on a periodic basis. Warhol, being famous, was able to
effectively fob his hoarding off onto an adoring world. I was
listening to NPR once when they talked about Warhol's boxes and
actually *opened* one. Amongst the various historic items was a piece
of Caroline Kennedy's birthday cake. Cake, yellow, greasy, piled in
with his papers. Saved lovingly for decades.

This weekend I'll be clearing out the upstairs master bedroom, which
has been serving as a stash pile. I see lots of painting and moving
in my future... Yeah!

At the end of this week, I will have a home where almost all the rooms
are usable for their proper purpose, with a downstairs family room
that has 200-300 nicely stacked boxes of stuff, which I'll then be
going through one at a time.

I never would have guessed I could get this far this quickly. Wow.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mission #3: Consolidating

Phew! It's been a busy weekend!

The utility closet and basement hallway are nicely clear and organized
now, thank you. I have taken pretty pictures and will eventually
figure out how to post them.

The next challenge I've set is to consolidate the clutter in the
family room. On Saturday the room was very cluttered and
disorganized, despite past efforts to build "box shelves," a honeycomb
of spaces where individual boxes could be stored.

Three walls in the family room have these "box shelves," each of which
is 8 feet long and at least 6 feet high. They can hold 49 boxes each,
so that means this room already has almost 150 boxes. Then there is
clutter in the middle of the floor.

I'm not aiming to clean this room, per se, but organize it so that the
clutter is neatly contained and there is room for the boxes and
clutter from the other two rooms that are effectively unusable (the
former master bedroom and the laundry room).

Tonight I bought 36 "economy" storage boxes from Staples. Based on
what I found online I was expecting to pay $2 per box. But the actual
price in the store was 6 boxes for $9.99, and when I went to leave
there was a special (buy 2 sets of boxes, get one set free). I left
the store with 36 boxes, spending just $40 (less than $1.15 a box).
Awesome. These are nicer than moving boxes because they don't require
strapping tape, the ends are double strength, and they have lids.

The link to the Staples boxes is here: http://is.gd/pZHx

Off to pack stuff into the boxes...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mission #2 Update

The utility closet is almost organized.

I've been freecycling a lot of items. It's nice, because lots of
people tend to be interested in items you typically find in a utility
closet, particularly when I post a picture I've found on the internet
so they can see what they'd be driving over to pick up.

The other nice thing about posting the pictures is that I usually find
out where I could buy the item again, if I ever needed to replace the
thing I'd given away.

On the other hand, I once read a horror story where a "packrat" was
reacquiring the "retro" kitsch from their childhood through online
sites (e.g., eBay). That was a scary story. A very scary story.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mission 2: Progress

Awesome progress in just a couple of days. The hallway is now clear,
all shelves are now mounted to walls, and the amazing abundance of
light bulbs of all shapes, sizes; both burned out and brand new, are
now consolidated into two bins on a single shelf.

I'm using a system I learned from an organizer who used to work for
Don Aslett, author of many, many cleaning books, including "Who Says
It's a Woman's Job to Clean?"

You bring up a small pile/box of stuff. Sort it into three categories:

Don't Know.

Put the "Keep" away. Put the Toss into the proper bin(s).

Go through the "Don't Know pile and sort into the above three categories.

Rinse and repeat.

On the third and final go round, you must make a decision on every
item, to either keep it or toss it.

Now off to freecycle some of my "Toss" that I don't want going to a landfill.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mission #2 - The Utility Closet

This is a space that has gone through various organizing efforts.

A few years ago it was near-impossible to find tools.

Currently we have a system.  But there are two shelves that have never been connected to the wall, and there are boxes of tools and utility items that have been left in the vicinity of the utility closet without being put away.

Mission #1 - The Game Room

I don't have a good "before" picture on this one.  Back when I took pictures of the entire house, this downstairs room was being used by my then teen aged daughter.

After she got married, the room became available for other use.  The hope was it could be a guest bedroom.  But I also decided this was a place where I could get my spouse to put his board games, which previously were tucked at random around the entire house (and attic and in shelves in other people's homes).

You'll have to take my word on this that the floor was covered with random stuff.

Now the floor is clear and games are contained in shelves along two walls and in boxes under the lower of the two "bunk" beds.

There are still several boxes in this room I need to go through at some point in the future, but at least for now they are neatly stacked to the side.


In March 2009 I'd fallen a bit off the decluttering wagon.

The obvious reason is I had three weeks worth of business trips.

Plus the "fun" part was over.  The first hundred and more Freecycle items were easily plucked from the surface of the clutter in our main living areas.  Now I would actually have to go through the rooms that have served as storage/dump areas.

Around this time a friend on another forum offered to coach a couple of folks on motivation for free in preparation for a project of his own.  I waited for a few days, then put my name on the list.

The first telecon clarified my goal.  I have other pursuits in my life, but the more I considered, the "organization" goal is the one that is most important at this time.

During that first telecon, I committed to clear out the basement bathroom and guest room.  Despite unexpected time sinks over the week, I was able to accomplish enough to claim victory.

During the second telecon, we talked about what motivates me.

It isn't usually sufficient for me to set a goal for myself in isolation.  But give me a person I care about to whom I am responsible for an outcome, and I'll do what it takes to redeem my word.

So that is the reason for this blog.  To document the process of digging out.

I don't mind if this is of use to someone else, but altruism isn't why I'm doing this.

I'm blogging my process of digging out to gain human energy from interaction with others to help see me through to the goal - a home that is not consumed by the cancer of unwanted clutter.


Now that we all had a context for the "treasure" in which we were buried, slow progress ensued.

Then a miracle occurred. Freecycle.

The Freecycle Network™ [http://www.freecycle.org/] is a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It's all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. There are thousands of Freecycle groups, each with thousands of members (over 6 million members at this time all told).

I signed up, but didn't figure out how to offer my own stuff to the local Freecycle community until December 2008.

I set myself a goal - to freecycle at least one thing for every day in 2009.

I knew that merely assigning myself to go through boxes was doomed to failure - at least it had always failed in the past.

But with a goal of freecycling items, I had an initial spurt of energy. The spouse and the kids were emotionally supportive of this, even if they didn't actively participate.

Knowing that "valuable" stuff was going to a recipient who wanted it, rather than being thrown away, made a big difference to all of us.

When I'd get the multiple e-mails from folks hopefully asking for items, it validated our feeling that the stuff had worth. We hadn't been wrong to consider it better than trash.

Then there were the items that we wouldn't want to offer, and this too helped. If I wouldn't even be willing to offer something for free, then maybe it really was trash.

We installed a hook on our front door to hold the Freecycle bags. It has been so fun. We offer an item. We select a "winner." We put the item in a bag labeled with the winner's name and place it on the hook. Then the item effectively evaporates.


Buried in Treasure

Fast forward many more months.

First, a daughter got married. She and her new husband are college students. So she and her husband were delighted to pick through our holdings to furnish her new home. We packed up a 17' U-Haul with enough furniture to fill their two-bedroom apartment.

A challenge my spouse had experienced previously when asked to part with belongings was his emotional attachment to the items. But since the items going with our daughter were still "in the family," he didn't mind as much.

We were still buried in masses of stuff, however.

Then I came across the book "Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding." [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0195300580/bookstorenow79-20]

The spouse did not share my enthusiasm about this new book as I read passages aloud to my visiting daughter and my younger children. When it got to the "quiz" to determine the particular factors contributing to having too much stuff, my spouse was at least willing to give his
answers as well.

To my surprise I learned that all three of us who were adults (me, my spouse, and our married daughter) had factors that contribute to accumulating more than we discard.

For my daughter, it is her love of free or bargain acquisitions.

For me, it is my belief that I will get around to fixing things.

For my spouse it is a love of collecting combined with concern about adding to landfills and avoidance of the resulting clutter in our own home.

By the end of the book, my spouse's resistance to discussion of clutter was (mostly) gone.

I've seen worse

Within minutes, maybe seconds, of entering the doctor's office, the OCHD diagnosis was confirmed.

Curse ADD.  My spouse had merely not paid attention during the previous visit.

I handed the doctor the stack of picture cards, showing the state of affairs.  The doctor flipped through them and stated, "I've seen worse."

The important thing about the visit, though, was that my spouse finally accepted he had a problem.  I had not been making this up.

However, we still faced the challenge of what to do to overcome the challenge.

I no longer faced hostility when I talked about the OCHD.  But my spouse was essentially passive.  He neither attempted to face the mass of clutter, not did he significantly curb his accumulation of items.

"Why are you obsessing about OCHD?"

Several months went by after the diagnosis.  Nothing much changed, and the spouse was resistant to any attempt I made to research or discuss the matter.

It came to a head when I printed out the article about the Collyer brothers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collyer_brothers).  The Collyers were two eccentric brothers who were famously found dead in 1947.  Their formerly upscale Harlem brownstone was filled with tons of junk they had hoarded.

"Stop it!" my spouse demanded.  So I did.

The medicine helped my spouse with his previously undiagnosed depression, though with the typical side effects.

But the nature of OCHD is to accumulate more than is discarded.  Mere medication does not magically make a hoarder start dejunking.

Six months went by.  Then I saw a note on a community bulletin board about a group meeting for those suffering from OCHD.  I called the contact lady and told my spouse we were going.

After meeting with the support group, the spouse again asked, "Why are you obsessing about OCHD?"  Turned out he had not heard the doctor pronounce this as a diagnosis, despite the fact that the discussion of OCHD had occupied more than half of the therapy appointment.

That's also when I learned there had not been any visits to the therapist in the six months since that time.

Cursing lost time and frustrated, I went through the house and documented the state of our spaces with a digital camera.  I printed the pictures and mounted them on cards.

My spouse willingly made another appointment with the doctor, for a time when I could also attend.  But he still thought I was wrong about the OCHD diagnosis.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

So that's what's been going on...

I love my spouse. But as the years passed, I became ever more frustrated with the number of boxes that moved with us. These were boxes that contained all manner of magazines and books and knick-knacks and junk mail.

"Honey," I would say, having identified a box that seemed full of particularly useless stuff. "Could you go through this box?"

"Do we have to do this now?" was the predictable response.

Over the years new boxes were added - boxes full of our own mail and papers, swept into boxes when company was coming over or we were clearing a room for a project. I knew nothing had been thrown away, but these items became lost in the mountain of unlabeled boxes shoved into rooms at random.

About a decade into our marriage, the possibility of ADD arose. The spouse began getting both therapeutic and medicinal help for this, but little changed.

Then came a session my spouse had asked me to attend (he expressed difficulty knowing whether the medication was making any difference). I was hot about the situation and told the doctor all about what life was like at home.

"Sounds like we may be dealing with OCHD." And the doctor proceeded to explain Obsessive Compulsive Hoarding Disorder.

Since the spouse was also apparently suffering from depression, an anti-depressant was prescribed and we went home.