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Tunnel (made) of (something other than) Love

March 29, 2009
A junk funk flunk. Inclusion of second photo this week of a Jesus statue is mostly a coincidence, but anyway, this is not my house, but a basement in a partly-condemned school in north Dublin city.

A junk funk flunk. Inclusion of second photo this week of a Jesus statue is mostly a coincidence, but anyway, this is not my house, but a basement in a partly-condemned school in north Dublin city.

My recent piece on being a slob was just a bit of fun-poking at my own expense, although I do have a terrible and serious fear of ending up like this poor guy in Aylesbury, whose extreme hoarding caused him eventually to meet his end, possibly on purpose, which is even sadder, given how long and considered the process would have been, how his daily life would have been a quotidian project toward his end, its purpose renewed every morning. The story of this guy’s life and death is a bit of a kick in the stomach, and it would be nice if it were a wake-up call to people who judge neighbours based on the cleanliness of their window dressings, on their aesthetic contribution to the cul-de-sac and not on the relationship between their needs and potential contribution to the community.

Gordon Stewart walled himself in with junk and rubbish, essentially creating his own mausoleum. Ironic maybe that I’ve always thought about the need for hoarding as a fear of death, as a return to some womb-like state where everything you need is within reach. That sense of mortality at once being acknowledged, but also fended off: if I put off cleaning up just one more day, it will give me some sense of purpose. Because if I tidy up, then what happens? It probably goes along with a fear of finishing stuff, the terror at the mini-apocalypse that comes with any sense of closure.

And because I am selfish and always looking for justification and validation for my slovenly habits, I make more of this bit than I should:

Of course, Gordon Stewart wasn’t alone. His hobby/obsession/condition is common enough to have a number of names: compulsive hoarding syndrome, disposophobia, Diogenes syndrome, Collyer brothers syndrome. The disposophobia website states that “disposophobics are generally very smart people who can’t, don’t or won’t make fast value judgments about their ‘stuff’, so their solution is to keep everything”

And equally selfish of me, I read this piece in the context of checking the accuracy of a story I just wrote (I write extremely rubbish fiction that no one will ever see in print because it is so appallingly awful, as I learned last week, but had already known anyway) about a newspaper hoarder who just decides to give up.

I hadn’t heard about the hoarding syndrome until I was in my late teens, when I did a sort of internship/work experience in a state department of Elderly Affairs. A social worker handed me a stack of manila folders from the ‘self-neglect’ cabinet, and told me to go through them to familiarise myself with some of the issues the office dealt with. It was people who hadn’t thrown away a newspaper since 1970, bought new dishes instead of washing the dirty ones, were living in houses with the remains of pets long-dead. I remember thinking that ‘self-neglect’ was an unfair name for this category of human. It was folder after folder of house after house of old papers and magazines, descriptions of the mingling of a host of overpowering odors, people using these fundamentally social objects for the opposite purpose, which just made it sadder. They didn’t neglect themselves, their neglect by others caused them to lose sight of any reason to look after themselves, to keep company with stuff because we give meaning to objects based on how they mediate our relationships with others.

Newspaper-hoarding is so interesting because the act of buying the paper is normally a social one, and the contents connect us with the world outside, and yet this hoarding syndrome is expressed by people whose social needs are not being met. They don’t just feel their needs aren’t fulfilled, they have lost some sense of purpose, like no one needs anything from them anymore, but at least they can provide a home for all this otherwise unwanted stuff. Or, in the case of animals, these pets, with animal-hoarding first really recognised in the early 1980s. It was generally seen as an animal welfare issue, and only recently has it also been recognised as a sign of a human in some distress.

The hoarding phenomenon of this type seems to be concentrated in urban areas. Maybe it’s an expression of an anxiety that’s part of the experience of living in a densely populated area, where there is less space for our markers of social participation, or where we might feel loneliness and neglect more acutely. Where we feel we have less control over our lives, and where, especially for those who live alone, and especially for older people or those who’ve had some tragedy or trauma that makes close relationships difficult, people might often find themselves feeling at the mercy of an urban social life that feels constantly on the brink of chaos. Just as a hyperactive cleaning disorder signifies a fear of loss of control, so perhaps, does the hoarder: different manifestations of a similar fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of being out of control. Alone in a crowd, but not with your stuff.

We only really hear about these situations after it’s too late, after the tragedy has been realised, which leads me to wonder: at what point would you start to worry about someone? How late is too late? And note to clean freaks: using someone else’s mess as an opportunity to sit on your high horse and judge people is not going to work. Your love for scrubbing skirting boards does not make you a superior human being. People need to feel needed and valued, not judged, and their embarrassment about their mess is thought to contribute to the spiralling of their problem. It also gives me a good reason to threaten calls to the authorities if someone won’t stop cleaning around me as I sit on his or her sofa. Seriously, sit the fuck down and shut up about how I should learn to throw stuff away because I think you should learn to relax a little.

This piece from the New Yorker in 2004 describes a guy who was trapped in his apartment by all his magazines and newspapers, some of the same magazines and newspapers to whom he expressed gratitude for their coverage of his predicament, in the event he might be able to use the publicity to launch his rap career. This piece describes the experience of a guy whose job is to unclutter the homes of hoarders, and goes a little into what he thinks of the phenomenon, what happens when the otherwise fairly normal habit of not throwing stuff away crosses the line into OCD.

And compulsive hoarding to the extreme degree goes back some time. The Collyer Brothers are some of the most famous hoarders, who, like Gordon Stewart, died amongst their collected junk. One of them had gone blind, and the other started saving newspapers for him, in the hope that the presence of so much reading material would inspire his sight to return. They died in the 1940s, and the place where their house was is now The Collyer Brothers Park. It’s impossible to find one of these stories that doesn’t rip your guts out, usually because we hear about the most dramatic ones, and only after it’s too late, but the phenomenon itself is pretty fascinating.

I can only assume that hoarding like this is a post-industrial condition, but I wonder what underpins it, and what earlier manifestations of this psychology might have looked like, if there were any?

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