Cape Cod Hoarding Network Workshop provides tips to dig out

Buried by Treasure?
Lee Shuer shares his personal experience with hoarding and Buried in Treasures group approach to the 90 attendees of the Cape and Islands Hoarding Taskforce workshop at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth. Photo by Teresa Martin.

Lee Shuer looks like any other intelligent young man you'd meet on the street. As he speaks about the topic of hoarding - the over-the-top acquisition and storing of stuff - you're pulled in by his well-thought and well-articulated knowledge.

And then he drops the kicker: he is a recovering hoarder.

First Cape Workshop

Shuer was speaking to some 90 attendees from around the Cape who had gathered at the Cape Cod Cultural Center in South Yarmouth for a day of presentations and workshops, sponsored by the Cape Cod Hoarding Task Force.

For many, the workshops offered professional continuing education credits. For others, the day provided a way to explore approaches that might help friends, relatives, or themselves regain control over a hoard of objects out of control.

Shuer, Director of Mutual Support Services at ServiceNet in Northampton, also serves as Buried in Treasurers Facilitator. Buried in Treasures, a self-help group approach, offers a model that may help people whose need to gather interferes with their ability to function in daily life.

TV Not Reality

TV shows like Hoarders and Buried Alive dramatize the syndrome, but rarely offer meaningful solutions, say members of the Cape Cod Hoarding Task Force.

"We are trying to beat the stigma reflected in the TV shows," said Lee Mannillo, who works with the Barnstable County Department of Health & Environment and helped coordinate the day.

"This is a disorder. Squalor is different from hoarding," she said, explaining that hoarding now appears as a mental health diagnosis within the obsessive-compulsion disorder (OCD) grouping.

Multi-disciplinary Involvement

Often, hoarding comes to light when a neighbor calls the health department, when emergency rescue responds to a call and can barely walk through the door, or when a concerned family member contacts senior services. The solutions involve multiple disciplines and multiple organizations - calling out a clear need for regional and functional collaboration.

The Task Force, created about a year ago, coordinates resources across public safety, mental health, health care, senior services, animal welfare, and other community organizations to address the cross-discipline needs of hoarding syndrome.

It recently received small grants from Cape Cod Health Care and the Cape Cod Foundation to grow and strengthen its regional cross-disciplinary approach, including educational workshops like this one.

Demystifying Hoarding

"Hoarding," Shuer told the group, "is not just about attachment to the things but what they represent."

He said that the relative "market" value of the collected objects rarely comes into play for collectors. Lead and gold have the same value in the eyes of the collector - and cause the same problems when they pile up so high the house door can barely open.

Unburying Stages

The solution - unlike the TV show drama of two-hour mass cleanouts - comes from a slower and less exotic approach.

The Buried in Treasure group recommends baby steps to address the need to gather, developing the skills to let go, and understanding why gathering and collecting have become an obsession.

The workshop made clear that the "bring in the backhauler" approach not only fails to resolve the underlying issues, but it can also be deeply traumatic to the person struggling with the disorder.

"Where is the learning? Where is the support?" asked Shuer rhetorically. "These shows are about trauma for ratings."

Faces of Collectors

The faces of those with a collection or hoarding issue don't match the TV stereotype either. As part of a panel during the day, four members of the western Massachusetts group shared their stories.

  • Karen talked about how she used stuff as a buffer from people - to the point where clothes piled on her bed and table reached so high she no longer used them and basically lived and slept and ate on one sofa ... then described how she realized she wanted people in her life not just stuff and how that turned out to be the first step of many small steps back from a hoarding disorder.
  • The oldest of the group at 89, Lil described how losses of her patients to AIDs in the 1980s started a cycle where she started holding onto "things" to the point where others can now no longer enter her home. She has recently stopped adding new objects and now works in small baby steps to give away and clear collected objects.
  • Carol calls herself a collector and confesses her challenges with getting rid of anything that has a personal meaning or represents who she is. "It may look like clutter to you, but I know where everything is!" she said. She has taken the first baby steps of sorting books, rocks, and other items into boxes to leave and boxes to stay.
  • Star moved over and over again as a child, never having a "space", and responded as an adult with a sense of needing to buy everything in the fear that if she didn't, she'd never have a chance again. She recently began focusing on a professional goal and baby step-by-baby step removing the items from her collection not related to her core professional focus.

Just Enough

In an effective summary, Shuer summed up the dilemma by reading a child's book and playing a self-composed violin piece to the theme of "when enough is just the right amount."

In Just Enough and Not Too Much

Simon the Fiddler loved his one chair and his one stuffed toy ... and learned why one was just enough.

That's the same happy ending that hoarders - and those who help them - look for too.

Resources: The Cape Cod Hoarding Network meets the second Thursday of the month at 9:30 am at the Dennis Public Safety Building. The book, Buried in Treasures, is available from various retailers.


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