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The Stuff of Life: New Book Looks at Hoarding and Humanity

What compels a person to keep and collect every scrap of paper they come in contact with? Don’t we all have odd, sentimental collections – things we simply can’t part with, even though they have no practical use? What’s the difference between someone who collects and someone who hoards? Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee explore these issues in their book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

Throughout Stuff, we meet several people whose homes are packed with items they can’t bear to part with with. The issue isn’t necessarily with the “stuff,” but rather, the emotional connection to each scrap of paper, bag of clothes, or rusty bucket collected and treasured by their owners. Frost and Steketee outline many of the reasons why hoarders do what they do. Some hoard to archive information, such as the stacks of newspapers and magazines that pile up in an entryway, some because of the emotional attachment they feel to each object, and some hoard because every object they come across has a potential, currently unfulfilled, use.

Hoarding seems to be closely linked with anxiety disorders and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Throwing away an object that might have a future use, or even the decision of what to keep and what to discard can create debilitating anxiety to people who struggle with hoarding. Most of us want to avoid stressful, anxiety filled situations, and the people in Stuff are no different. They hoard to avoid making these decisions. Several of those outlined in Stuff also have problems with perfectionism, specifically when it comes to waste. In order to avoid waste, objects must be kept because there must be an undiscovered, potential use.

While reading Stuff, it was very easy to see a part of myself in the people Frost and Steketee worked with. I’ve held on to threadbare t-shirts, random buttons, and broken jewelry gifted to me by my grandmother. I see potential uses in each case, and in specific ones, there’s emotional attachment. We all keep wedding invitations, thousands of mp3s on our hard drives, or books we haven’t read in years, for all the same reasons people who hoard fill their homes with items until there are only small paths leading from room to room.

The stigma, shame, and potential for a violating “cleaning session” made all the people presented in the book hesitant to seek treatment. The authors emphasize the importance of working with those struggling with hoarding to reach a place of recovery. One marathon cleaning session does not cure people who hoard, and often houses and apartments will fill up quickly. The person is also less likely to seek assistance in the future, which puts their health at risk should an infestation occur, a pile fall, or a fire start.

Stuff gives us complete portraits of people who struggle with hoarding and the years-long process it takes to overcome the disorder. All of those presented are wildly intelligent and creative people, and most want to stop their collecting and saving. The book does not offer a spectacle that’s easily solved in 60 minutes. Frost and Steketee emphasize the humanity of their subjects and the causes for their compulsion to collect and save during their long journey to not only a safe and usable home, but to having the means of coping with anxiety and perfectionism that led them to hoarding in the first place.

Dr. Randy O. Frost will be at the Lawrence Public Library auditorium on Saturday, August 5, at 3 PM to talk about Stuff and his work studying hoarding and helping those who struggle with it. The KU Bookstore will be on hand selling copies of Stuff for Frost to sign.

-Kristin Soper is the Programs & Events Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.

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