Archives for category: OCD/Hoarding

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The condition of compulsive hoarding has become topical on TV. Not surprising perhaps, as the irrational acquisition of seemingly useless objects appeals to the ‘rational’ and voyeuristic viewer, who cannot understand the point of it all, yet is drawn, as humans are, to the tragedy and the suffering it engenders.

But, I was impressed, and very moved, by Jasmine Harman’s recent TV documentary on hoarding, and how it has impacted on her life as her mother suffers from the condition, as well as the sensitive portrayal of the lives of other sufferers, in Britain’s Biggest Hoarders (

Hoarding is a hidden, and as a result under-recognised and under-treated, condition, which isolates both the sufferer and those close to them. Whether or not it is a variant of OCD remains controversial. Recent research suggests that compulsive hoarding is a separate syndrome, although it can coexist with OCD (Pertusa et al. Compulsive Hoarding: OCD Symptoms, Distinct Clinical Syndrome, or Both? Am J Psychiatry 2008;165:1289-1298).

The critical issue is that hoarding needs to recognised as a condition that requires treatment. And the good news is that therapy can help, as we saw in the case of Jasmine Harman’s mother.

What struck me most about the documentary was, firstly, how much sufferers struggle alone, often for a very long time, and secondly, the extent to which those close to them also suffer. Many compulsive hoarders live alone, but not all. The loyalty and sheer endurance of those who live and care for sufferers is extraordinary. In effect they are also sufferers, silent sufferers, and compulsive hoarding tests love and caring to a degree that many of us have never had to experience.

This is particularly challenging as hoarders, and this is the major difference between compulsive hoarding and OCD, are often in denial. In the BBC programme sufferers blamed lack of sufficient storage space, house design…. and other ‘irrational’ explanations for the accumulation of objects such as VHS tapes in a house where the VHS machine could not be accessed anyway due to the sheer volume of obstacles in the way…

But rational thinking, and our perception of how things should be, cannot explain hoarding away. Living with a mother who was a compulsive hoarder, Harman, as she grew up, questioned whether her mother loved her possessions more than she loved her own daughter. In the end, it is not as simple, as ‘x’ or ‘y’, but more about looking beyond the ‘pointless’ acquisition of objects, and understanding the thinking behind the process. Why hoard? Why accumulate ‘worthless’ stuff that is never used, and that creates health, economic and social destruction? There is no simple answer, but, as we follow Harman’s mothers journey through therapy, we hear about the association between hoarding and loss, and the perhaps subconscious role that possessions play in filling that void.

I was left thinking about the silent suffering that happens behind closed doors, about the challenge of compulsive hoarding, not just for the sufferers, but also for those who live with them and care about them and love them, notwithstanding.

I was also reminded of the power of television as a medium that has the capacity, in the right hands, to go beyond voyeurism, thereby facilitating a sharing of something that is authentic and human and humbling.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Steph Bates’s first solo exhibition, Thursday’s Child has Far to Go, opened at The Bethlem Gallery on May 2.

I made the short train journey from Charing Cross on Saturday afternoon. I have been to the gallery and the museum in the grounds of the hospital before. A very long and very straight tree lined road leads to the hospital entrance. Auspicious.


When you arrive at the hospital gates,

you take a right turn, past the museum (which I visited on my way out, more another time), to the gallery, which, though relatively small, feels bright, and intimate, and reassuring somehow.

Steph Bates’s connection with BRH dates from the time she spent there for treatment of her OCD. In an article on display at the exhibition, we learn that Bates’s stay appears to have been hugely beneficial, particularly in terms of the positive effects of CBT, companionship, and art. Bates shares her belief that in BRH, you could be ‘human and vulnerable’, rather than ‘mad and bad’, and speaks of the positive effects of the hospital’s ethos ‘dare to be’.

Bates was an artist long before her involvement with BRH, having studied at both the University of the Arts, Chelsea, and Bristol Polytechnic. Although art appears to have rescued her, and to have given her a much-needed respite from the symptoms of OCD, at one point she felt that the condition negatively controlled her creativity. Now, this relationship, between OCD and art, appears to be a much more liberating one.

I loved this exhibition. Bates’ imaginative, playful and vibrant art does not underestimate or undermine the seriousness of the challenge of living with OCD. Rather, her paintings appear to position OCD where it is openly acknowledged, and reframed into something that is, perhaps, manageable.

Works such as Throw it Away and Take a Risk, reveal a self-belief, and an optimism. A visual enactment of ‘Dare to be’.

Go see.

The exhibition runs until June 2.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

To some extent I am approaching this from a personal perspective. As a child, my life was ruled by punishing and inescapable rituals. As an adult, I have to a large extent learnt how to live with obsessions and compulsions, and have developed strategies that can mostly accommodate them and their attendant emotional upheavals.

It has often struck me how unacknowledged OCD has been as a condition that in reality is relatively common, affecting approximately one in 50, a total of 1,000,000 sufferers in the UK.

Thus, not so insignificant.

Obsessive compulsive disorder has been a theme for many works of fiction, for example Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner. But I am most interested in the personal stories of those who suffer, and have been brave enough to share their experiences.

Over the next days I will talk about Steph Bates’s current exhibition Thursday’s Child has Far to Go at The Bethlem Gallery (, which includes an exploration of the challenge of living with OCD, Joanne Limberg’s recent memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much, and hoarding, allied to OCD and currently media topical.

The ‘retrospectoscope’ is rarely helpful, yet it is tempting to consider Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Michelangelo, hitherto ‘labelled’ as OCD sufferers, along the way…