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The Spiritual Side of ADHD and Hoarding

I interviewed Dr. Melva Green of the TV show “Hoarders,” who told me why we stockpile our stuff and how we can let go of it.

I had the opportunity to have lunch with psychiatrist Dr. Melva Green, an anxiety disorder specialist on the A&E TV show Hoarders. Have you seen it? There is something particularly frightening about this show to anyone who has the cluttery-type of ADHD. (I just made that up. Are there any other types?)

When I ask Dr. Green about the connection between ADHD and hoarding disorder (which was recently designated as a distinct form of mental disorder instead of a type of OCD), she says, “Many, many hoarders have ADHD, and all with ADHD are at risk of becoming hoarders.”

When I ask her why that is, she explains, “those with ADHD become hoarders by losing focus and moving on to the next thing before finishing the last one. This problem becomes pathological when their perception becomes so distorted they can’t see the whole picture. They may be focused on a lamp, a piece of clothing, a painting, and lose track of their supportive relationships.”

I ruminate, as we share French fries, about my own closets, shelves, and basement. Without children around, the house now seems full of, well, just stuff. A lifetime — three lifetimes — of memories, collections, current and former passions are stacked or stuffed on bookshelves, in drawers, in boxes, and sometimes in dreaded piles. Yet all of these things are full of meaning and will take a certain strength to part with. I mention my confusion.

“It’s OK,” Green says compassionately. “It makes sense. Cognitive disorganization leads to physical disorganization.” She dips into the barbecue sauce and continues. “You have to be honest with yourself. Don’t take it personally that you have problems. We all need to learn what we do well, and get help with what we don’t know. The only difference between hoarding and collecting is… staying organized!” Which is not easy for those with ADHD.

Green acknowledges the difficulty and talks about how those with ADHD need to connect with others who see them as whole people, and who get their difference without pathologizing them. “Medical treatment doesn’t acknowledge the spiritual side of the disorder.” When I press Dr. Green — who has been intuitively gifted since she was a child — about the spiritual side, she talks about the “aha” moments when we begin to see the connection between our internal and external states.

“But there is a difference between a breakthrough and a transformation,” she says.  “A breakthrough is when the light bulb goes off and you get perspective on your problem, whatever it is. But actually creating sustainable change in your life happens step by step, one thing at a time.”

When you watch the TV show, the psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors appear for just a few minutes to help hoarders get to the breakthrough that allows movers to clear the junk out—but the true challenge comes after the show is over. Transformation doesn’t always happen because, she says, “It is a practice. A spiritual practice.” I ask her what makes it spiritual, and she says, “Spiritual, in that you find room to breathe.”

Dr. Green co-authored the book Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home, which is full of tools to address the spiritual side of clutter. In the book, she talks about the difference between hoarders and regular clutterers, in that hoarders can’t prioritize which objects are of greater value than the others. “When faced with a decision to choose between a tangle of wire hangers and a childhood photo album, a hoarder will panic. It’s a near-impossible decision for them to make.”

The ADHD connection is clear here; prioritizing does not come naturally to us, and choosing can be agony. But sometimes we do know how we feel. When we are clear about what we want, our strength of focus flows through us and we can move mountains.

Dr. Green’s last bit of advice is scientifically proven. “Meditation is crucial. It helps us be clear.”

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