Thursday, December 15, 2011

America: Land of the Free, Home of the Hoarder

Below is the final essay for my English class; I'm not satisfied with it. I should have planned better and used my time more efficiently. I seem to become ineffective in certain situations. I'm so glad the semester is over!

America: Land of the Free, Home of the Hoarder

Every citizen of the United States requires nearly 24 acres of land to support their lifestyle (Withgott and Brennan 19). This number represents an estimate of the total area of the Earth that each of us negatively impacts because it must be used to grow our food, clothing, or paper; be mined for the minerals and metals we use or for the petroleum we turn into gasoline, plastics, fertilizers and countless other products; be used to contain the many forms of waste we produce; or be set aside for our infamously large American homes.

The largest footprint (upper left) belongs to the good ole US of A.

As a result of our increasing patterns of consumption, individuals living in the United States produce 72% more waste now than they did in 1960; every person in the US makes nearly 1 ton of garbage each year (Withgott and Brennan 380). Meanwhile, the average global citizen uses less than six acres of land for the needs of their life (Withgott and Brennan 19).

American consumers use almost a quarter of the world’s energy, though we are less than 5% of her people (Withgott and Brennan 331). Coal, natural gas and petroleum power our many industries, light our streets, fuel our transportation and provide countless other luxuries that we consider commonplace.

Air pollution is just one of the many unpleasant side-effects of American culture; there are only six air pollutants monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US added 129 million tons of these pollutants to our own air in 2007, alone (Withgott and Brennan 290). Though scientists urge US policy makers to reform how much of a negative impact we make on the environment, officials frequently opt out of making such difficult and unpopular decisions (Withgott and Brennan 322). Though it causes great amounts of pollution, the American people are accustomed to a certain level of comfort and control of the environment thanks to the luxury of indiscriminate resource consumption.  

Our culture exhibits such extreme behavior; often I have marveled at how the United States is obsessed with fossil fuels, unable to control its compulsive consumerism and therefore unwilling to confront its responsibility in the resulting production of garbage and pollution. However, a comparison of psychological terms indicates that obsession is not what afflicts American culture.

When the definition of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is examined against current US attitudes about these public health concerns, our culture seems to lack the signature self-insight possessed by those diagnosed with OCD. Gilliam and Tolin assess that “most individuals with OCD recognize that their obsessions and compulsions are illogical and are distressed by them” (5). Rather, the US widely disregards our responsibility in these troubling issues; in fact, many deny they exist at all. Upon closer examination, the US more closely fits the profile of a compulsive hoarder when it comes to our behavior and attitudes concerning oil consumption, consumerism and the resulting production of garbage and pollution.

Clinical hoarding may occur in the general public as commonly as 5 in every 100 people; there are possibly twice as many hoarders as people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Gilliam and Tolin 1). The cable television network A&E has a popular, Emmy-nominated reality program called “Hoarders” (Lepselter 1) The people featured on this show appear to be average Americans of the middle-class; they do not seem unusual until how they live is shown.

The interiors of their residences are often filled to the ceiling with consumer goods, garbage, accumulated dirt and household pests. Human gagging sounds are often audible as the cluttered and filthy homes are filmed for broadcast. Each episode typically features two individuals afflicted with compulsive hoarding, one older hoarding person and another that is younger. Often these people are under public order to clean their dwellings or face eviction.

Viewers observe as mental health professionals and organization specialists attempt to work with the hoarders to clear out their homes; sometimes distraught family members are added to the situation. After watching several episodes of “Hoarders” a recognizable pattern emerges. Most often, the older individual resists the suggestions made by the professional team and is sadly unable to recover their living space. Many of these senior citizens are then forced from their homes by authorities and must find other places to live.

However, typical episodes also feature resilient younger hoarders that struggle through and learn new thought patterns and behaviors, and show some improvement. Pictures of their originally cluttered rooms are juxtaposed with “after” photos showing cleared out living spaces, giving viewers hope for the futures of these people, as they start a new, uncluttered chapter of their lives.

Keeping their homes and lives free of clutter is a difficult task for Americans, indeed. Ever-present advertising imposes the acquisition and consumption of products and natural resources. The commercials featured between the segments of “Hoarders” ironically advertise that we should buy more items for our homes, eat more fast food, buy this automobile, use this cell phone and purchase countless other consumer goods common to our daily lives.

Roughly a third to a quarter of US households have less than $500 in the bank (Weston) so clearly a great deal of our earnings go towards buying these advertised things. With all that we purchase and consume, it is safe to say that any American home could look like the homes featured on “Hoarders” if nothing was ever thrown away.

While people that suffer from compulsive hoarding behavior exhibit a shocking manifestation of the value of consumption held by our mainstream culture, their most serious deviation is their refusal to discard. Hoarders are victims of their own faulty belief systems regarding the acquisition and possession of things; but in a way, people that hoard are more conscientious than the average American about where the items they acquire will eventually end up.

In their paper “Investigating the Mechanisms of Hoarding from an Experimental Perspective” Preston, et al. write, “Even nonclinical consumerism negatively impacts the environment by increasing pollution, waste, and financial and health disparities between high- and low-income groups” (12). The typical US-er goes shopping, even if they already have what they seek, and then they throw away their excess stuff.

The phrase “throw away” has a misleading finality to it, though. Does any garbage really go away? While recycling efforts are increasing, our country’s production of waste is also going up (Withgott and Brennan 382). Many hoarders are keenly sensitive to the concept of wasting being bad (Gilliam and Tolin 10) unlike average Americans.

Of course, it is ridiculous to keep garbage in our homes as some hoarders do, but it is just as senseless to produce so much waste in the first place. This is not the way our culture has always behaved, but it seems as though we do not recall the frugal and sustainable values that Americans once maintained. Problems with memory are common amongst hoarders (Gilliam and Tolin 7). Americans once lived modest yet independent lifestyles nearly void of consumerism.

Asian-American farming family, circa 1930s.
In her paper “The Disorder of Things: Hoarding Narratives in Popular Media” Susan Lepsetler writes, “the word consumption attained its contemporary sense…in the 18th century as the opposite of ‘production’…” (Lepselter 3). Perhaps now that the American people are no longer involved in the direct production of goods, we are less conscientious of how much we consume?

Many hoarders are not aware of how bad their situations have become, nor do they experience negative feelings related to their polluted living situations (Gilliam and Tolin 5-6). Clinical studies have even observed different patterns of blood flow in the brains of hoarders (Ohtsuchi 1). In fact, if no intervention is made, hoarders can continue to contaminate their living spaces until they are no longer habitable, or alive. 

Severely hoarded homes have even been documented as the cause of the death of their owners, who were not able to leave the premises and perished or were buried by avalanches of trash (Maycroft 5). Hoarding behavior only gets worse with time, but early recognition and help have promising implications of recovery (Ayers 7). Is there hope for the hoarding culture of America to reform its behaviors and beliefs before our own living spaces are polluted beyond livability?

            In their seminal study of 95 individuals exhibiting hoarding behavior entitled “Cognitive Aspects of Compulsive Hoarding,” Gail Steketee, Randy O. Frost and Michael Kyrios examine the cluttered mind. They write:

Hoarding of possessions is thought to be influenced by deficits in information processing, emotional attachments, and erroneous beliefs about possessions…people acquire and keep objects because they believe they must control how they are used, thereby controlling their environment…[researchers] have speculated that saving allows hoarders to avoid difficult decisions about what to keep or discard in order to prevent potentially important mistakes…participants described even the thought of changing their behavior as traumatic...discarding an item was ‘like losing part of my life’ and ‘abandoning [a] loved one’…beliefs about possessions play an important role in the development and maintenance of hoarding problems” (1-13).

The notion of changing our patterns of consumerism, use of petroleum products and production of wastes may causes very similar feelings in the average American. This sort of change may not be easily accomplished.

In a 2010 clinical study by Gail Steketee, Ph.D., et al., individuals afflicted with compulsive hoarding responded well to cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) and showed significant improvement compared to a control group of compulsive hoarders that were given the placebo version of this treatment and simply told they were placed on a waitlist to receive therapy (“Waitlist Controlled Trail” 1).

Steketee’s study shows that people who hoard need help to develop new ways of thinking and behaving and that recovery is not an accident that just happens. Similar to the methods used by Alcoholics Anonymous, cognitive behavioral therapy advises “to change one's routines, repertoires, and actions” (Lazarus). Indeed, for the hoarding-like behavior of American consumerism to change, a shift in thought patterns must come first.

We must reexamine what we value. Do we want a new cell phone every year, or do we want groundwater uncontaminated by heavy metals that are leached from the cell phones we dispose of in landfills? (Withgott and Brennan).

            American consumers are not likely to want to confront changing their behavior. Hoarders often avoid experiencing distressing situations where they are faced with change (Timpano et al. 2). If the population of the US joins together, perhaps the experience would be less traumatic and have a better chance of success? Research shows that hoarders are not more likely to have “interpersonal difficulties” (Grisham, Steketee, and Frost 7).

However, one cannot force a hoarder to take action and expect successful results. Individuals that are coerced into treatment before they have decided they are ready will typically discontinue or only half-heartedly participate (Tolin, et al. "Family…” 1).  Unfortunately, compulsive hoarders are also notorious for their “indecisiveness, perfectionism, disorganization, procrastination, and avoidance” (“Helping…” 2) and have “significant planning and organization problems” (Hartl, et al. 8).

            Many ecological groups urge Americans to consider the future when the topic of “to change or not to change” is addressed. We are asked to consider what kind of planet we hope to leave to our children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, the family-angle may not be the most successful when approaching the hoarding mentality, as “compulsive hoarding seems to be associated with high rates of stressful or traumatic life events in childhood and adulthood” (Tolin, et al. “Course…” 3). Hoarding tends to cause a great deal of family problems, in fact. It has been observed that “family functioning became incrementally compromised, as clutter increased and spread over time” (Wilbram, Kellett and Beail 12) in the homes of hoarders.

            As a recovering hoarder, I know the very real challenge of changing thought and behavior patterns. It is difficult and painful at first because old habits die hard. A major change in our American culture of consumption and waste will affect the lives of millions in a negative way, at first. Because of our extravagant lifestyles, our home, our planet has become polluted and our weather patterns have changed as a result (Withgott and Brennan).

Will we choose to be like the older hoarder, who obstinately refuses to see the unsafe levels of contaminate they have allowed into their home? There is no other planet we can move to, unfortunately. I hope the American people will choose to follow the younger hoarders that allow themselves to feel the pain of change and growth. I hope we, too, can look towards a promising future of social justice, a clean planet and a modest life free of the ugly implications of consumerism.

Works Cited
Ayers, Catherine R., et al. "Age At Onset And Clinical Features Of Late Life Compulsive Hoarding." International Journal Of Geriatric Psychiatry 25.2 (2010): 142-149. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Frost, Randy O., and Gail Steketee. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Print.
Gilliam, Christina M., and David F. Tolin. "Compulsive Hoarding." Bulletin Of The Menninger Clinic 74.2 (2010): 93-121. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Grisham, Jessica R., Gail Steketee, and Randy O. Frost. "Interpersonal Problems And Emotional Intelligence In Compulsive Hoarding." Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269) 25.9 (2008): E63-E71. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Hartl, Tamara L., et al. "Actual And Perceived Memory Deficits In Individuals With Compulsive Hoarding." Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269) 20.2 (2004): 59-69. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
"Helping Compulsive Hoarders." Harvard Mental Health Letter 26.6 (2009): 6-7. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Lazarus, Clifford N. "Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work Because It's a Form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?” Psychology Today. 20 July 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2011.
Lepselter, Susan. "The Disorder Of Things: Hoarding Narratives In Popular Media." Anthropological Quarterly 84.4 (2011): 919-947. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Maycroft, Neil. "Not Moving Things Along: Hoarding, Clutter And Other Ambiguous Matter." Journal Of Consumer Behaviour 8.6 (2009): 354-364. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Ohtsuchi, Hiromasa, et al. "Fronto-Limbic Abnormalities In A Patient With Compulsive Hoarding: A 99Mtc-ECD SPECT Study." Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences 64.5 (2010): 580-583. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Preston, Stephanie D., Jordana R. Muroff, and Steven M. Wengrovitz. "Investigating The Mechanisms Of Hoarding From An Experimental Perspective." Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269) 26.5 (2009): 425-437. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Steketee, Gail., et al. "Waitlist-Controlled Trial Of Cognitive Behavior Therapy For Hoarding Disorder." Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269) 27.5 (2010): 476-484. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Steketee, Gail, Randy O. Frost, and Michael Kyrios. "Cognitive Aspects Of Compulsive Hoarding." Cognitive Therapy & Research 27.4 (2003): 463. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Timpano, Kiara R., et al. "Exploration Of Anxiety Sensitivity And Distress Tolerance As Vulnerability Factors For Hoarding Behaviors." Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269) 26.4 (2009): 343-353. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Tolin, David F., et al. "Course Of Compulsive Hoarding And Its Relationship To Life Events." Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269) 27.9 (2010): 829-838. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Tolin, David F., et al. "Family Informants’ Perceptions Of Insight In Compulsive Hoarding." Cognitive Therapy & Research 34.1 (2010): 69-81. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
Tompkins, Michael A., and Tamara L. Hartl. Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding & Compulsive Acquiring. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009. Print.
Weston, Liz P. "Why You Need $500 in the Bank." Bundle. 8 Jan. 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.
Wilbram, Mark, Stephen Kellette, and Nigel Beail. "Compulsive Hoarding: A Qualitative Investigation Of Partner And Carer Perspectives." British Journal Of Clinical Psychology 47.1 (2008): 59-73. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
                         Withgott, Jay, and Scott Brennan. Essential Environment: the Science Behind the
               Stories. Third ed. San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings, 2009. Print.


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