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State task force, workshops help hoarders cut the clutter

  • Lee Shuer’s home office – before clutter-clearing. Contributed photo/Lee Shuer

  • Lee Shuer’s basement, before clearing out clutter. Contributed photo/Lee Shuer

  • Lee Shuer in his reorganized office, keeping the things he loves, but with a place for each. A peer-led program that Shuer helped to create, called “Buried in Treasures,” gradually takes participants through a step-by-step assessment of how they got so much and why, how the excess affects them, and how to make room for what they really want to have in their lives. Recorder photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO

  • Glimpses of Lee Shuer's basement after clutter-clearing, although many things are still to be put out this summer in tag sales. Recorder photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, April 24, 2018

“You’re meeting me 13 years after I first let something go,” said Lee Shuer, in his clean, sparsely furnished living room, where the only clutter was a cat toy. When asked what he let go of 13 years ago, he answered, “A shirt. But things got better after that.”

Between then and now, Shuer has shed about 80 percent of his possessions, saving his marriage and serving as an example to his “fellow finders-keepers” who want better control over their lives and their possessions.

A peer-led program that Shuer helped to create, called “Buried in Treasures,” will be held in Greenfield for 16 weeks, beginning May 8. Sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Hoarding Task Force, the program gradually takes participants through a step-by-step assessment of how they got so much and why, how the excess affects them, and how to make room for what they really want to have in their lives.

A former ServiceNet mental health counselor, Shuer co-authored a facilitator’s manual with Smith College Professor Randy Frost for the “Buried in Treasures” self-help work groups that Frost, a renowned authority on hoarding disorders, developed for people with clutter issues. He has also developed a “WRAP for Clutter” workshop for a program known as the Wellness Recovery Action Plan.

The facilitator’s manual notes that “overcoming hoarding is not just a change of lifestyle,” but a “change of life.”

“Too much of anything, no matter how special and unique, is a problem,” the manual reads. “Prioritizing what to let go of means that the person is left with only their favorite possessions and the room needed to enjoy and use them.”

Lee and his wife, Bec Belofsky Shuer, run their own consulting business, Mutual Support Consulting, and they offer training for service providers who work with people who have clutter/hoarding problems. They have been leading recovery groups since 2005, and clutter groups since 2009.

Their work has been featured on ABCNews.com, NBCNews.com, Canadian Public Radio, CBS Sunday Morning and the Seoul Broadcasting System, as well as in Scientific American and The New York Times.

The root of the problem

Shuer said he started collecting baseball cards and “cool things” as a shy child, whose colorful collections made him seem cooler to others.

“I was socially awkward, but I could engage them through my things,” he said. “But there was a point where it was no longer cool and I was just embarrassed. These things that brought comfort started to bring distress. I could not let them go and I could not stop myself from getting more.”

“I thought it was all about acquiring, but it was more about keeping,” he said.

In 2000, he met his future wife, Bec Belofsky Shuer, and while they were dating, she called his crowded apartment “the rock boys’ apartment,” because it was inhabited by four young musician roommates, with a long hallway narrowed by boxes of comics, superhero collectibles and items she assumed belonged to all the roommates. But when she and Shuer married and got their own apartment, she discovered all that “stuff” was her husband’s.

“I was shocked,” Belofsky Shuer said. “There wasn’t even room on the floor for the cat to play.”

For instance, Shuer had a box of 8-track tapes that weren’t being played. When his wife asked about them, he told her someone had given him the box, although he had only wanted a few of the music tapes.

“I love (Lee), but I knew he had a problem, and I was resentful,” she said. “The fact is, I realized I had no life in my house ... I couldn’t even get dressed (easily) — there wasn’t any room. There wasn’t room for me to be myself.”

One factor that helped Shuer was the realization that he loved his wife more than his stuff. The other was that he signed up, as a mental health worker, to be in a study run by Smith College professor Randy Frost.

Frost is a co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” and a co-author of “Buried in Treasures,” a book that has inspired the “Buried in Treasures” (BIT) workshops.

Shuer went on to run one of the first BIT groups and said “the best help I got was running that group.” He would run the group on Monday nights, take notes and review the outcome with Frost once a week.

“By the time that six groups were run, we had clinical evidence that the approach worked,” he said.

Stereotypes

Another thing Shuer learned is that hoarding behavior is more complicated than the stereotyped assumption that it’s about laziness.

“‘Hoarders’ is a word we’ve moved away from,” he said. “Hoarding represents just holding onto things; but that’s not the whole experience ... People are ashamed because of the associations people make with what they see on TV.”

In the BIT workshops, Shuer said, people look at “what’s strong with you, instead of what’s wrong with you,” to get participants thinking about what they want to make space for in their lives. Shuer said many people who have too much stuff are very creative and see beauty in everything. In culling through their possessions, they are advised to find a place for the stuff they really love by eliminating what they don’t need.

That shirt Shuer first got rid of was one he had worn on stage in October 2001, when he played a Jimi Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” on his electric violin, in tribute to victims of the World Trade Center bombing.

“I kept it because it reminded me of a time that I felt ‘cool’ — thought that maybe I was on track to be a famous musician some day, so it would hang in a Hard Rock Cafe display case,” he said. “Or that I would wear it from strength when there were tragedies.”

“Parting with it was a challenge because I had to accept that keeping it for those ‘what if’ scenarios was not as important as beginning my recovery,” said Shuer.

When he first gave it up, he was asked how he felt about letting it go. On a scale of one-to-10, with 10 being “the worst,” Shuer said he ranked himself “11.” But a few days later, he was about an “8.” As the days went on, his feelings about losing the shirt became less sharp, and he saw that change as a way to let go of other things.

“Our relationship with stuff is complicated, even if it’s interfering with our life,” Shuer said. “No one thinks this is fun ... It’s tough, but it’s worth it. Never mind what the stuff is. Is it starting to become a health or safety hazard? Is the thought of letting things go so distressing that it’s not worth dealing with it? That’s when someone may be diagnosed with hoarding disorder.”

Shuer noted that it has taken him years to shed unnecessary belongings — and he still has possessions in the basement, ready to be gotten rid off at tag sales this summer.

“After the first year (of de-cluttering), it really felt like we were not going to get divorced over this,” he said. “After two years, it was okay, maybe. We could have friends over. Having a home we could let people into and feel proud of was what we always wanted.”

Shuer said hoarders “are people who cannot let go and get the healthy, safe balance back in their environment. People are now diagnosed with hoarding disorder; before that, it was considered a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There is no peer support group for this, but peer support groups like “Buried in Treasures” have been shown to be as effective as anything there has ever been. We’re really proud of it.”

He said studies at Smith College, Columbia University, Stanford University and at other colleges and housing agencies have reported successful outcomes. The online “Buried in Treasurers” facilitator manual has been shared with other groups throughout the world.

Public health concerns

Glen Ayers, regional health agent for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, has been a member of the Western Massaschusetts Hoarding Task Force and its predecessors for 10 years. Shuer and Frost are also members, he noted.

The task force primarily works with social service providers and health professionals to provide resources and referral services for people with compulsive hoarding problems. This summer, the task force held a conference on hoarding for professionals, which drew 240 participants. The conference proceeds are being used to sponsor “Buried in Treasures” workshops in Franklin, Hampshire, Berkshire and Hampden counties this spring.

As the health agent for eight Franklin County towns, Ayers has been giving slide show presentations on clutter and hoarding to police and fire departments within those towns. Firefighters and medical responders are often the first “outsiders” to see the interior of a home with a clutter/hoarding problem when they are responding to an emergency. Sometimes the rescue of a person within the cluttered home is hampered by the amount of clutter — especially if there is not enough room to carry a stretcher.

“This is a community problem that needs a community response,” he said. “If we work to reduce the impairment, we reduce the problem for community response. Boards of health need to have a plan in place.”

“I’ve gotten a lot of referrals from police and fire for intervention,” he said.

Ayers believes at least 5 percent of people have serious problems with clutter and/or hoarding.

“It is more frequent as they get older because they have had more time to collect things,” he said. “There may be cognitive and physical decline, (or) they can’t manage things as well as they get older. There have been cases where people have had to move to another house.

“There can be layers of issues,” Ayers continued. “There could be hoarding (combined with) depression, social phobias or compulsive/obsessive behavior.”

Recently, Ayers participated in a workshop for health board officials on what procedures can be put in place to enforce the state sanitary code, and remediate unsanitary homes and neglected buildings that have an impact on the neighborhood and the environment.

Ayers and Shuer both said that forcing someone to get help — or intervening to clean up their property — can backfire.

“You’re not going to change unless there is something inside you that wants to make this change,” he said.

Ayers said the “Buried in Treasures” workshop is a very successful model.

“We’re trying to come up with something that is affordable, accessible and very un-intimidating,” he said. “It’s a peer support-based model, with less shame, more shared experiences.”

The “Buried in Treasures” workshop in Greenfield will be held for 16 Tuesdays, from May 8 through Aug. 21 from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. at the Salasin Center, 474 Main St. The workshop is free, but space is limited to 12 people.

The workshop will be run by Beryl Singer and Isabella Gabrielson. Those who want to participate should contact Singer by phone at 413-587-9050, ext. 1183, or by email at: bsinger@servicenet.org.