Hoarding and endless grief for lost things
August 5, 2013 6:58 AM   Subscribe

I have major hoarding problems, co-morbid with depression and anxiety, for extra fun and challenge. This is further complicated by the fact that I often grieve for lost, broken or discarded things endlessly, and the feelings never seem to heal. These feelings add to my depression and inhibit dealing with the hoarding issues. Can anyone offer advice not so much on how to get rid of items but on how to deal with sustained distress from having done so?

I have hoarding problems that go back to early childhood. I can’t remember a time when I was comfortable getting rid of stuff. I have also suffered severe depression and anxiety since my early teens (I’m now in my mid-30s), which complicate the hoarding tendencies. I am on medication and currently in long-term therapy for the depression and I have discussed hoarding issues. However, it’s not my therapist’s specialty and I think non-hoarders find it difficult to even imagine how deep the feelings go. I don’t buy many things – I’m generally very frugal – but items I already own and free stuff are a major problem.

I have read Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, which I thought was extremely insightful, but failed to help me with the grief I experience over things already lost.

One of the points made in the book was that hoarders often over-estimate the grief or distress that they will feel once they have got rid of an item. The implication is that if they can actually decide to part with something, they will either find that the process was not as painful as they anticipated, or that the distress diminishes over time. My problem is that I often grieve things for years and years after they are gone, and the grief only seems to grow. As someone with depression, my negative feelings are very, very resilient – I did not have a single good day between October 2009 and about February 2012, so the idea that “you’ll feel bad but it will pass” does not really work for me.

I remember being pressured to get rid of things as a child – and all those things still haunt me. Everyday items (like household china) that got broken haunt me. A few years ago, my ex got into difficulties while moving house, and had to leave all his old college work and poems behind. When I found out, even though the things were not mine, I was distraught. And now, every time I think of the lost things, I can go into a spiral of misery that lasts hours or days. The emotion always feels fresh and raw. This particularly applies to things that were taken from me, but I also regret many things I chose at the time to get rid of.

I feel as if I am bearing the weight not only of the things I currently hoard but that I am dragging behind me all these ghost items that are physically lost but emotionally still present. My memory is too good – and my mind is always running over and over the loss, like probing the space left by a missing tooth. I don’t try to evoke these thoughts but other things remind me, and then I can’t get rid of them. Both the hoarding and the emotional reaction to parting with items are extremely debilitating.

It sounds terrible, but in some ways I grieve the loss of things more than people, partly because I think I could have saved them and I didn’t. There was little I could have done to save my grandmother’s life, but I feel if I had done more or cared more or tried harder, I could have saved all these other things from being lost. The loss is bound up with guilt. Do I love these things? Sometimes yes – in many other cases, no. They feel… indefinably important. I worry more about what will happen to them than to me.

I am aware that I am *severely* emotionally messed up and that disproportionate attachments to things are likely related to my fear of people (including my own family) and inability to bond with them. I generally regret and blame myself for most things I’ve done or not done in my life, and the losses are also connected to this. I have had multiple breakdowns and been hospitalised for depression, and I am trying to get to the root of my overall problems, but I feel I need specific help for the hoarding aspects too, which so far has been hard to come by.

Clearly, knowing that the pain of getting rid of something might follow you around for years and grow, is a massive disincentive to parting with anything. I was just wondering if anyone else experiences the same problems of unprocessed or extended grief for lost items (or knows someone else who does), and if they might possibly have any advice for me? Or advice for dealing with my underlying turbulent headsoup that might help with the hoarding problems?

Sorry for the monstrously long post… Thank you if you’ve made it this far. I wasn't sure where this question should go, but I was thinking Health (in terms of obvious shaky mental health implications).
posted by beyondthepale to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
This is not a problem you're going to be able to fix with some hacks or reading books. You may have a serious chemical imbalance in your brain that's causing you to react this way.

Have you seen a doctor to discuss this? Just a GP to start with. You may have a varient of OCD, and it may be partially treatable with medication. Would you be open to that?

Clearly, therapy is warranted as this situation is impacting your life in a significant way.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:16 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mother is a hoarder, and I grew up in her home. She has poor emotional coping skills and her hoard is how she deals with life. Having spent my life up close and personal with hoarding, I feel like you really need to work with someone who has experience and training working with hoarders. My mother has no interest in learning new ways of coping, but if she had, I would have contacted Hartford Hospital's Institute for Living to see if they could recommend someone closer to where we live.
posted by crankylex at 7:29 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Compulsive Hoarding is a very difficult mental illness to deal with, and generally requires intensive, long-term therapy with a good therapist who knows you very well. You should start looking around for a therapist who specializes in obsessive compulsive disorders and commit to the process.
posted by xingcat at 7:30 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a neuroscientist by profession, and (with the caveat that neuroscience is largely an unknown field of study), it sounds like you probably have a wiring problem with your brain. Many if not most people do respond to losses like you do. Just not losses of things. It has to do (maybe?) with the fact that the amygdala, the part of the brain that is involved in certain types of emotional processing, never really heals. In some animals (not well understood in humans b/c we can't test them the same way), changes in the amygdala after trauma, fear, etc., are irreversible, for a lifetime. Or at least, for months and months and months, for as long as the experiments have been done. It's rather impressive how long the amygdala can remember things. The amygdala does forget but it's not easy or complete, and requires certain types of interventions, and is situation specific.

It sounds like you are having similar amygdala changes for objects instead of people, which could be the result of a miswiring. And it so happens that the amygdala has a really long memory. Just my guess.

The bad news -- there isn't a cure. That is, there isn't a chemical cure. However, if you do have an amygdala problem, you might benefit from the same types of treatments (not cures) that have been used and developed for decades for people who suffer from PTSD and trauma. Finding a therapist who can actually help you is going to be a challenge, but maybe look for someone with a PhD and many years of specific experience. I would look for therapists that specialize in either hoarding or trauma, who have PhDs, and who have been practicing for a while. You should interview ~5-10 prospects before choosing one for yourself. You can print this if you like.

Basically what exists in the canon of amygdala cures is: exposure therapy, mindfulness meditation, yoga, storytelling where you can get outside support, EMDR, and recently there is some evidence of low dose psychedelics (psilocybin) helping in ptsd. You might also need huge lifestyle changes in your future to avoid more trauma for yourself, which basically amount to finding ways to a) bring fewer objects into your life that you'll lose, and b) finding a good home for objects when you have to part with them, or maybe even using some kind of ritual or ceremony, to minimize the trauma.

PS, this is probably not a "chemical imbalance." "Chemical imbalance" is a term pharma companies have invented to sell us chemicals. Some problems are not "chemical" in that you have some chemicals that can be imbalanced. You probably have a physical wiring problem where way too many areas of your brain are connected to your amygdala than should be. Chemicals might soothe some of the effects of that, but they probably cannot be "rebalanced" in any way, just like if you grew an arm in the wrong place on your body, there isn't any chemical that could put it back where it belongs. (Sorry for the unpleasant analogy.)

If everyone were wired the way you are, the world would look much different. We would probably have cultures designed around caring for "stuff" just like we care for people. So you are different from most people, it sounds like, even if it's invisible, and it's your challenge to find a place for yourself when you are different from the norm. I hope that's not too harsh of a thing to write.

Your task is probably coping with your past losses in some of the imperfect ways that exist for other sorts of trauma, which will probably help ~40-75% with your feelings if done diligently. Though maybe you can get complete relief, it really depends on your own brain. Then (super important) working to minimize trauma in your future. Learning to say "no" to new stuff that you can't part with, for example. It sounds like a life-long challenge, probably, because if you continue to behave like regular people and accumulate stuff and throw it away, you will continue to traumatize yourself. So you'd need to find a way to manage in our world with your particular brain. And wait for scientists like me to discover better cures. I'm sorry that sounds bleak, but that's just my completely non medical opinion as a research scientist on the brain.
posted by htid at 7:30 AM on August 5, 2013 [44 favorites]

Sorry for the double post, forgot to add this and the editing time ended. Your challenge is not just to deal with traumas, and avoid future ones, it's of course to find a way to operate in the world with the corollary problems of hoarding - hygiene problems, professional problems related to that, financial problems, social and relationship problems, etc. If you can get your living space to approximate that of a non hoarder, even if your brain is wired differently and it's difficult, then you'll do better in the world. There are also challenges around money, work and relationships when a) you have these living space problems, and b) a lot of your mental and emotional energy goes to these emotional issues that many other people don't have. It's a challenge, and you definitely could use professional help.
posted by htid at 7:42 AM on August 5, 2013

This is slightly off the wall, but could you try taking photos of the item to be discarded? Perhaps from a few angles, well-lit, the files named and stored? Try this with several items that are on the Pitch List, then see how you cope by looking at the pictures when you miss the items. Think of it as an experiment you can try.
posted by adipocere at 7:45 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The OP has said that they're on medication and in therapy.

Reading your question reminded me of a story I'd encountered a few times in books about Buddhist meditation:

The Buddha told his student, ‘Every morning I drink from my favorite teacup. I hold it in my hands and feel the warmth of the cup from the hot liquid it contains. I breathe in the aroma of my tea and enjoy my mornings in this way. But in my mind the teacup is already broken.

Students are often encouraged to meditate on the brokenness of the cup, or to think intently about the inherent transience of the objects around them. I wonder whether this would help you, although you might want to seek out courses in meditation for people who suffer from depression, as meditation can be hard to do if you're depressed. This book talks a lot about meditating when you're suffering, and discusses the cup story - I found it helpful, and maybe you will too.

I struggle with guilt, too, and my therapist encouraged me to think of it as something I could separate myself from - as in, I can say that I'm feeling guilt right now, and I can acknowledge to myself that it's not actually valid, even if I can't stop myself feeling it. Just pulling a few millimetres away from the experience of guilt can be helpful. Doing this is something that improves with practice, I think.

I don't actually think that your experiences are completely different in kind to other people's. You might want to search Metafilter for 'crouton petter' to read some examples of people's inappropriately emotional responses to objects. I'm not a hoarder, but I have a camera that has a scratched lens. It actually doesn't make any difference to the pictures, but I feel a real sense of guilt when I use the camera. But as I've said, I'm a bit loopy, too, in different ways.

Young children are particularly prone to this kind of thinking, and writing that makes me wonder whether psychoanalysis wouldn't be a particularly fruitful modality for you to explore if/when you are done with your current therapist.
posted by Acheman at 7:50 AM on August 5, 2013 [9 favorites]

This is meant as an addition to all of the above, not a substitution. I'm not a medical or mental health professional, and this should not be used instead of seeing someone. I see you are working with a mental health professional, but as others have mentioned above, you may want to find someone who works directly with hoarding or OCD disorders.

I used to have issues getting rid of things related to my family, especially once they all moved 2000 miles away. I had our kitchen table from growing up, for instance - how could I get rid of those memories? What finally helped was realizing:

- I wasn't getting rid of the memories, just the table. I wrote down several stories that I thought of when I looked at the table. That way, the table wasn't needed as a trigger to remember the stories.
- I took several pictures of it. This way, I could look at it whenever I wanted
- I made sure I gave it to someone I liked who could use it. This helped with the portion that you seem to have issues with; the personification of the item. Investing the item with a version of ... maybe not feelings, but somethingness. I imagine that reading the Velveteen Rabbit was a terrible experience for you. It was for me. If you haven't read it, don't. Anyways, by giving it to someone who I liked who also liked the table, I could tell myself it was in a good home. I could also continue to tell myself stories about the things that happened afterwards. The woman who took the table said she was going to use it for crafts. So when I think of the table now, I think of the woman sitting at the table making a necklace.

As for items lost: if I were in your situation, I would think of the lost items. For instance, think of the broken teacup. Yes, it went in the rubbish bin. But I would think of it as laying in wait in the trash heap; laying in wait for future anthropologists to discover. "Ah, here we have an excellent example of 20th century teacup. What lovely flowers!" and then imagine the teacup being examined for information about us as a people. "There is a residue of sugar, this family must have liked their tea sweet." That sort of thing. It's a form of redirection, but it has a positive connotation.

The pain of loss, I understand, but beyond what I offered above, I can't help. I feel for you though, and hope you are able to find the peace you seek.
posted by RogueTech at 8:04 AM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

This might sound stupid, but maybe it would be easier if you imagined those objects in happy new homes with people who loved them. Like your ex's poems, maybe they were found by a young aspiring writer who really cherishes them and looks to them for inspiration. Or broken stuff that got thrown away, now it gets to be friends with all the other broken things. Or maybe a trash-picker came across it and used the peices to make art.

Maybe recycling stuff would be easier because instead of it getting thrown away, it's just getting changed into something new and fresh.

Maybe giving things away will feel ok because you know it's going to a new home with someone who wants it. So it's not being discarded. It's just going to a new home and will be taken care of.

Do you anthropomorphise the items? Or is your guilt about yourself, being wasteful or something similar? If it's about yourself, all I can think of is to be kind to yourself. It's not your responsibility to save everything. And sometimes things, like people, just wear out or break or get lost and there's nothing you could have done to prevent it. Even if it seems like your fault, that object's time was just up. Nothing lasts forever, not even things!
posted by windykites at 8:11 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to post to say that you're not severely emotionally messed up, or that if you are, then most of us are. So many people experience depression in its many glorious (!) manifestations, so please don't add any feelings of shame to what you're already dealing with.

I have a generalized anxiety disorder and have experienced a lot of the same feelings you talk about and form intense emotional attachments to objects. I have nightmares about moving house and not being able to pack everything in time! (I also get really upset when people tell me about losing childhood pets and that story about the ex's schoolwork would distress me too)

I wonder whether a therapist specialising in OCD might be able to help. IANAT but I have some symptoms of OCD where the compulsion is seeking reassurance, either from people or online. It seems a bit to me (as an amateur) that you are having obsessive thoughts about losing things or giving them away and how this reflects on you as a person (you talk of feelings of regret and blame, "I could have saved them and I didn't"), and your compulsion is to punish yourself by thinking over and over again about these things "probing the space left by a missing tooth". I've found framing my various issues in terms of obsessive thinking really useful in dealing with them, and also the idea that it is uncertainty that is at the root of all my fears.

I hope this help somewhat.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 8:17 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're going through this. As a practical matter, I think you should ask your therapist about a referral to someone who also specializes in hoarding disorders and continue therapy with both of them for as long as it takes.

I recently read Allen Carr's Easyway to Stop Smoking. He talked a lot about not approaching quitting smoking as quitting or stopping but as starting and gaining a better lifestyle. To adapt that little mind trick for you is to try to think of Things That Are Gone not as losses but as wins. You seem to know and accept that you have a problem and you certainly seem to wish that your life were different. So every time you get rid of a Thing (because it's broken or just because you can), think of it as a win towards the lifestyle that you want to live.

Old you: "Oh, this doodad thingy broke." You feel intense sadness and just can't part with the broken bits.
New you: "Oh, this doodad thingy broke. Well, it was kind of taking up space anyway. If I throw it out now, there will be more space in my house. I want more space in my house because I don't want to be a hoarder. See! I threw it out and I'm winning."

Old you: "Oh man, I remember That Thing. I can't believe it's gone, I wish I hadn't lost / broke / donated it." You feel a spiral starting.
New you: "Oh man, I remember That Thing. Man, that was a cool thing to have had. I had good times with That Thing. Oh, but here's This Thing that I have right now, I'm going to sit down and enjoy This Thing. This Thing is the present and I'm living in it, which is where I want to be."

This is a very, very basic, unscientific and not-at-all final solution to your problem. But maybe, I hope, it will help you muddle through while you find the professional solutions that you need. Good luck!
posted by mibo at 8:53 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would strongly consider getting a second opinion from a psychiatrist who has extensive experience with hoarding and who is familiar with newer approaches and treatments of it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:56 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

What else do you have to occupy your mind?
posted by amtho at 9:22 AM on August 5, 2013

What does your everyday life consist of? i find myself slipping into states of memory and regret much more easily when I do not have a) enough social interaction and b) enough work / important stuff to do.

From my experience, both personal and those of friends, people have tendencies toward issues that never go away, but the degree of power those issues have over their lives is much more driven by environment (including light, weather, attitude of locals), social connection, meaningful purpose / job, having a routine (especially a social routine - i.e., don't work from home, or at least stop by the same coffee shop every day- and an active routine - i.e., get out of the house for a regular walk) and stuff like that, than it is by prescriptions.
posted by mdn at 9:24 AM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to add that in addition to the hoarding, the problem could be with the grief itself. Maybe you have lots of unexpressed / unfelt grief that is only "allowed" to come out for objects but not for what they really stem from (relationships?). What could you do to process the grief without marinating in it? Like, actually feel the grief due to the true source for once and for all, and not re-poke the wound via objects.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:46 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

"All pro­ducts are infor­ma­tion. The mole­cu­les are secon­dary." - Hugh Mac­Leod
Do you have an object that you would logically want to get rid of, but emotionally can't. Maybe try photographing and making a virtual model of it, then put it away as though you've gotten rid of it. If being able to refer to the virtual object relieves your sense of loss, try actually throwing it away. If this works, then try it with many more objects. And keep good backups of your files
posted by Sophont at 6:18 PM on August 5, 2013

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