A Disorder That Went Undiagnosed for Decades

By Bruce Gale
March 2018

Bruce Gale at home with his camera

I am a recovering hoarder clutterer. I am 74 years old and have been in psychotherapy off and on since my sophomore year of college and given various diagnoses, from dysthymia to obsessive compulsive disorder. I was not properly diagnosed until about six years ago, when my wife was watching an A&E television program called “Hoarders.”In addition to hoarding useless items, I have many other symptoms:

  • chronic disorganization of my personal space
  • inability to keep my possessions clean
  • severe anxiety regarding making decisions
  • low tolerance for frustration
  • impulsive purchases online and at the grocery store
  • impatience with myself and others, often resulting in angry outbursts
  • chronic procrastination
  • avoidance of social intercourse
  • low self-esteem.

In 1996, prior to making a business trip to New York City from my home in Los Angeles, I obsessed over which winter coat I should buy, fearing the humiliation of making a mistake in purchasing the “wrong item.” My wife gave me the name of her psychiatrist, who subsequently diagnosed me with obsessive compulsive disorder. He gave me a prescription for the anti-depressant Zoloft, which I began taking during my trip to New York.

Within hours of taking the first pill, the angry, critical voices in my head disappeared and I no longer felt so rushed and frustrated. Unfortunately, the loss of inhibition also set loose in me a pattern of impulsive buying of sporting goods and other items online.

At the time, I did not have insight into the fundamental fact that I was a knowledge hoarder, compulsively buying books and magazines. Reading and accumulating knowledge gave me a false sense of empowerment. It was addictive in that it allowed me to avoid social interaction, which created in me a virtual estrangement from existential and emotional reality. The mastery of intellectual concerns took me away from the possibility of failure in the tangible world of human interaction. This caused difficulties in my professional work and in my relationship with my wife.

My wife recognized all of my symptoms, including the cluttering and hoarding. She’d seen similar behaviors in her father, born in 1906. He would never have been properly diagnosed save as a “pack rat” and loner although he was a successful Harvard-educated thoracic surgeon.

I realized that my father-in-law and I shared many traits, including excessive time spent reading and avoidance of taking care of our possessions and personal hygiene. We both experienced extreme variations between an almost monk-like existence and impulsive spending on things that gave us a narcotic-like high. It horrified me to recognize that both of us seemed to lack the ability to make emotional connections with the people closest to us.

About 2 percent to 5 percent of Americans may meet the criteria for being hoarders, says psychologist David Tolin, a hoarding specialist and author of “Buried in Treasures.” Unfortunately, many cases are only revealed when a minor is removed from a parent by Social Services, someone is evicted from an apartment or home, neighbors report unlivable conditions in a home nearby, or firefighters or police are unable to enter a residence. Hoarder cluttering can be co-morbid with other disorders such as bipolar disorder and can itself lead to depression. It also seems to run in families.

Early intervention is key, but often the hoarder or clutterer is ashamed to seek help or lacks insight. In worst-case scenarios, such individuals exhibit psychotic behaviors.

In 2012, when I acknowledged I was a hoarder clutterer, I began attending meetings sponsored by a 12-step group called Clutterers Anonymous (CLA) and dedicating my psychotherapy to dealing with this disorder. Based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, CLA meetings changed my life. Often, sharing with others who “get it” is the best form of therapy.

This is not to say that psychiatric treatment or therapy is unnecessary. Such treatments provide critical tools for self-awareness. But often, we ourselves must educate our medical providers about our conditions to some extent.

I now believe that hoarder cluttering is a disorder of shame, fear of failure, and the inability to actually “see” clutter and dirt that anyone else would recognize. By “coming out” as a hoarder clutterer and making amends to my wife and others I have hurt, I have gained confidence that I can overcome the destructive tendencies of cluttering. I do this by dealing with my problems daily, practicing mindfulness, and striving to get rid of excessive things and avoid discursive thinking.

Bruce Gale now wishes to share his journey and expertise in this disorder. So he has established a CLA self-help group in Ann Arbor, approved by Clutterers Anonymous and based on its model. For information or to join, contact Bruce at 323-371-5938. The group meets on Monday evenings at 6 p.m. at Journey of Faith Christian Church, 1900 Manchester Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48104.

Leave a Reply