Commentary: 'A crushing sensation' - decluttering sparks heartache, distress in hoarders
After experiencing loss, many fill the void in their hearts with stuff, says Dr Kelvin Ng Lin Chieh at the Institute of Mental Health.
SINGAPORE: In the lead-up to the Lunar New Year, many of us were likely pre-occupied finding time amidst a hectic schedule to spring clean and get our homes in order before relatives and friends descend for the reunion dinner and visits.
After Netflix sensation Marie Kondo took the world by storm, no doubt most of us found an extra spring in our step in decluttering this year.
Marie Kondo’s almost infallible method of deciding whether our most treasured possessions still spark joy must have surely helped many of us discard unwanted items in that valiant effort to purge our homes of junk.
But this effort of tidying is not as straightforward for many we think of as "hoarders".
‘TEARING UP A HOLE IN THEIR HEART’
For this group of people, clearing away their things collected over years and decades, is akin to tearing a hole in their heart.
Having to decide whether to toss out items involves opening up long buried, forgotten but unresolved issues. Leaving these items in the bin creates an emotional vacuum in their lives, which was previously spatially filled by their hoard.
From my experience dealing with hoarders, many of them have said it would be easier to cut off their hands than ask them to throw away these seemingly useless items, as the distress, frustrations and anxieties evoked are so much more painful and debilitating.
In extreme cases, some are paralysed by so much fear and doubt, that even a simple decision of throwing away an item when they already have so many of the same sort of things, can be monumentally difficult, because they fear regretting throwing away the "wrong" item.
It’s like asking them to die, patients with some of the worst cases of hoarding I have seen say. Some have described how their minds went blank, rendering them unable to think or decide what to throw away.
Others say that they experience difficulty breathing and feeling as though their hearts will stop beating, as if a crushing sensation is coming over their chest, and a myriad extremely distressing physical symptoms that only go away if they are left alone with their hoard.
And if the hoard was forcibly decluttered, I have found that as a vacuum demands to be filled, so too will the emptiness in the hoarder's heart and home demand to be filled with even more stuff.
To these hoarders, their hoard has become a way to fill the emptiness in their lives, where they tenaciously cling on to past glories, achievements and relationships through their trove.
A NEW LEASE OF LIFE FOR THEMSELVES
I recall an electrical engineer who started hoarding old CRT television sets, claiming that he would repair them and get them working again, and then sell or donate them, so that they would have a new lease of life.
However, he never got around to fixing these TV sets, but remained obsessed with their collection. After spending some time with him, we realised he only started hoarding after he retired. It wasn’t the television sets he was trying to give a new lease of life but himself, in proving that he was still useful.
Other hoarders I know continue to hoard as their clutter becomes the only physical link to a past already lost. To discard the hoarded items would be be the final "nail in the coffin" for that relationship.
An auntie I came across resisted vehemently the clearing away of a dining table set, which she had bought from a neighbourhood furniture store.
The store, however, had since closed down many years ago but keeping this dining table kept the furniture store going in her mind, despite her not being particularly close to the people who ran that furniture store.
Another patient I came across was an elderly widow, who would dutifully collect the newspaper every morning and keep them, even though she was illiterate, and could not read the newspapers herself.
She resisted greatly clearing them away, because it was her husband's habit to read the newspapers every morning, and this was her usual routine for the past many years. And in maintaining this routine of hers, she was trying to maintain her relationship with her departed husband.
However, not all hoarders collect stuff for sentimental reasons. Most hoard items which they feel are still useful, or can be useful if they just put some work into them.
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Others say they wish to avoid creating waste, often remarking how wasteful it is to throw such a good item away, even though it may be damaged beyond repair. In fact, many hoarders do not really have a reason why they hoard.
Another hindrance that prevents hoarders from decluttering is this: That over the years, they have gone to extremes to maintain their hoard that they may have caused seemingly irreparable rifts with their family and loved ones. To ask them to give up their hoard would be impossible, as the hoarder had sacrificed ties with family and friends for this hoard.
Hoarding affects not only the person who hoards, but also the relationships of the hoarder as well.
One of my patients was depressed and had a low sense of self-esteem and self-worth. It was only after therapy and treatment that I found out her mother was a hoarder, and that she had been punished by her mother when she was young for throwing away plastic bags. So my patient felt that her value in her mother’s eyes was worse than a few dirty plastic bags.
NOT ONLY THE OLD HOARDS
It might seem like only seniors hoard, going by media reports and television shows of cases involving elderly folks. That is not so. Based on the Institute of Mental Health’s cases, hoarding has no age preponderance, and start outs when patients are young.
But with time, the longer you hoard, the bigger and more spectacular your hoard becomes, thus garnering some negative publicity that seems to indicate that hoarding is more prevalent in the elderly.
A COMMUNITY NEEDED
Hoarding is particularly difficult to handle, as it is a protracted and chronic condition, which we know very little about. The most important advice Marie Kondo gives with regards to clearing stuff is not to buy so much stuff, in an age of plenty and excess, but this is an inclination many of us have.
For the hoarders however, the problem is not excess, but rather, loss, and the hoarding of items to fill that loss. So it is not enough to give them some pills or send them for counselling and believe they will miraculously stop their hoarding behaviour.
An entire community needs to be involved, to be more understanding, to be more tolerant, to engage and mend these rifts between friends and family, so that the emotional support for the hoarder can be present.
An entire community must be there to assist in the decluttering, and fill up the vacuum that is created when the hoard is decluttered, by engaging the person in more meaningful activities so that he or she will have less time to go out and collect items, by accepting the person back into the community, so that their self-worth is not determined by their hoard, but rather, by who they really are.
Dr Kelvin Ng Lin Chieh is a consultant at the Department of Psychosis at the Institute of Mental Health.