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Greenfield Community College

Former hoarders share experiences

GREENFIELD — Before Lee Shuer led support groups to help hoarders change their behaviors, he was one himself.

His Easthampton home was filled with things like his prized video game collection — which included not just one copy of each game, but sometimes two or three, “or four or five if I was lucky enough,” he said.

Shuer — speaking Wednesday to a crowd of about 200 attendees at a “Hoarding: Motivation for Change” conference at Greenfield Community College — said his belongings had begun to pile up and were threatening his personal relationships, which forced him to get help, he said.

But simply clearing the items out wouldn’t have made things better, he said. Real behavioral changes needed to occur.

It wasn’t until he sought help in 2005 that he realized his real reasons for acquiring the video games and not being able to part with them.

“(It) wasn’t because they were going to be worth a lot of money or because they looked cool on the shelves. ... It was about identity,” said Shuer, who said he came to depend on the video games as an icebreaker to boost his low self-esteem.

It was just one of the lessons that Shuer, the peer services coordinator for regional behavioral health agency ServiceNet, has tried to impart on others during the past two years.

Shuer and Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost have led “Buried in Treasures” support groups in Greenfield, Northampton and Springfield. The pair has now created a facilitator guide, which is available for free online and provides a blueprint for others around the country to start a group of their own.

During the Wednesday conference — which was organized by the Western Massachusetts Hoarding Task Force — speakers expressed a desire in wanting to get the ball rolling on offering more hoarding treatment and support.

Frost said that the support groups combine discussion and physical action to help people who acquire more and more items, often creating uninhabitable environments in the household.

One exercise, called “non-shopping trips,” involves driving by a store where a person would go and compulsively purchase items. Eventually, the person is asked to enter the store but not buy something — an action designed to condition “people to tolerate the urge ... and not give in to it,” said Frost.

Shuer, who said he loves shopping at tag sales, avoided them for three summers because he was afraid of the temptation they would provide. But during the fourth summer, not wanting to miss out on them any longer, he decided to attend them in search of one particular item: a $2 fire poker.

Karen Lowe — a ServiceNet employee who works with Shuer to lead “Unburied in Treasures,” a follow-up support group for people who complete “Buried in Treasures” — hoarded items for most of her life.

Lowe’s inspiration for change was wanting to make room for others, both in her home and in her life.

Change can occur over time through a series of small goals, she said.

During “Unburied in Treasures” meetings, attendees set goals for themselves to chip away at their hoarding or cluttering problems. It could be easy as vacuuming a rug, or removing papers out of a car and organizing them, she said.

Sometimes the goals are successful, sometimes not — but the group is there to support each other, regardless of the outcome, said Lowe.

Frost acknowledged that there isn’t a lot of money available to pay for hoarding therapy or research.

Still, he said he has worked with others to develop ideas for additional support groups, which would look at the hoarding problem in different ways to target a broader audience.

One group, a “Don’t Get Evicted” workshop, would aim to help people who don’t want to be helped but realize that they may have no other choice.

And he is hopeful that the online facilitator guide will allow support groups to blossom elsewhere, even with a low budget. It is available at: http://ocfoundation.org/hoarding/self_help.aspx#buried.

The conference also discussed the latest developments in hoarding research and treatment, including therapy sessions. And it provided information on the housing, health and legal issues that accompany hoarding.

Money from the all-day conference will help pay for future support groups in the area.

For information on when upcoming ones will be available, email the Franklin County Hoarding Task Force at: FCHoardingTaskForce@gmail.com.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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