When Bec and Lee Shuer were dating, she thought all of the stuff crammed into Lee’s house belonged to him and his roommates.
When they later moved into a studio apartment together in Massachusetts, she realized all of that stuff was Lee’s. Overflowing boxes, stacks of albums and games — the seemingly endless inventory filled not only their home but a storage unit and shed, as well.
Bec’s frustration mounted when, months into their marriage, she found herself climbing over piles of objects to access a kitchen gadget or get dressed for work.
“I was losing myself,” she said. “I couldn’t access my hobbies, my love of cooking. My home was a misery for me.”
The Shuers attended the International OCD Foundation’s annual conference in Chicago last year to talk about hoarding, a disorder characterized by excessive accumulation and an almost paralyzing inability to get rid of possessions.
Experts say people hoard for a variety of reasons. Items might carry emotional significance — a reminder of a happy time, for example. Or they may be thought of as being necessary at some point in the future. Holding onto these objects confers a sense of safety. Driven by an unrelenting urge to save things, people who hoard can feel extreme distress at the mere thought of throwing something away.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says the disorder — ranging from mild to severe — can appear on its own or be a symptom of another problem, like obsessive-compulsive disorder. An estimated 5 millions Americans have a hoarding disorder, says Fugen Neziroglu, a hoarding expert and clinical director of the Bio Behavioral Institute in Great Neck, N.Y.
Lee remembers his hoarding habits starting as early as age 3.
“I went from small things that could fit in my backpack to bigger stuff,” Lee said.
During college, collecting video games became a route to social interaction. Friends would invite him over to play Atari games.
“The things I was collecting gave me comfort,” he said. “It wasn’t just collecting things. It was collecting comfort.”
Support from his wife helped Lee begin untangling himself from his belongings. It eventually dawned on him: “I’m the treasure here,” he said. “I’m the most important thing in this house.”
The Shuers want hoarders — or finder/keepers, as they prefer to call themselves — to come to that same realization. They host workshops and offer home visits and consulting on the topic. Lee also wrote a handbook for mental health and human service providers and co-authored “The Buried in Treasures Workshop” facilitator’s guide to help others who hoard. (Request a free copy of the guide at www.mutual-support.com.)