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
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.