Seeking Help for Hoarding Disorder

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. But that’s only part of the story; unfortunately, that’s the only part we tend to hear.

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 don’t want to be wasteful and 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. We want to do good — but our good intentions can go awry.

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 and families to heal, there needs to be a sense that their community supports them, and has hope for their success. One way that municipalities demonstrate their support is by developing a task force to address the concerns. 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: Recovery 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.

The conference will also feature stories of recovery by local community members who are working on reducing their clutter, and hoarding expert Dr. Randy Frost will share the latest information and research on the subject. We will also provide education about family dynamics, peer support, animal safety, and housing issues. The funds we raise will go back into the community to fund recovery opportunities like Buried in Treasures Workshops so that people can learn to overcome their excessive finding and keeping. CEUs will be offered for licensed professionals.

Anyone wanting to learn more or get help for hoarding and excessive finding/keeping can contact me at lee@mutual-support.com.

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