Lark lives in a run-down subsidized apartment. As I walk up the creaky outside stairs, I am struck by the fact that paint is a luxury. It’s in short supply here, as in many low-income units. The wooden exterior, not just the staircase, is weathered by years of budget deficits and harsh winter weather. The building reflects the culture’s value of the people who live here: it provides the minimum: shelter, with heat and running water, and very little else.
Lark used to live at a retreat center. It provided more than the minimum: a Spartan bedroom and bath, but also delicious meals, opportunities for spiritual, physical, and intellectual development, beautiful grounds with gardens, hiking trails, and a pond. It offered social interaction: a community of like-minded residents and visitors who shared meals, dreams, adventures, and sorrows with one another in both informal and organized ways. Lark loved it there: she was safe, secure, and productive in the structure of the place. She had a routine, responsibilities, purpose. She belonged.
When the retreat abruptly closed, she was stunned. Unlike other residents, who went to family to grieve and regroup, she had nowhere to go. Her elderly parents were incapacitated, and died soon after she was displaced. With the energy and tenacity of a bee in search of nectar, Lark moved from family to family serving as nanny to young children. Just as she settled in to a position, the children would start school, and she would no longer be needed. After three upheavals, she couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t tolerate the tension of entering and exiting families, making attachments that broke again and again.
Fifteen years after the retreat center closed, she ended up at the local homeless shelter, where she stayed for almost a year. There was community there too: shared meals, AA meetings, GED classes, periodic support groups and meditation practice. She had her own room, and though the door didn’t lock, she felt safe enough in the women’s section of the building. She settled in.
One day, Lark met a charming man who introduced himself as Jack, an outreach worker whose job was to help homeless people find permanent homes. Would Lark be interested in finding an apartment of her own, with Jack’s help? Lark thought that she would like almost anything that featured Jack’s help.
She was happy to land in the apartment I am approaching on a creaky wooden staircase. Jack had given her my card, saying “If things get a little rocky and you need some support, give Elizabeth a call. She’s nice. She’ll come see you.” Five years later, things are a little rocky, and Lark decides to contact me.
Her voice on the phone is breezy: we talk about Jack, whom we both adore. She tells me where she lives, and mentions that she had been at the shelter a few years ago. When I ask if she can give me a little sense of what’s going on, so we can make sure I’m the right person to help her, there’s a pause on the other end of the line. After a moment I say, “It’s okay if you don’t want to say much now before we meet. I just want to tell you that I am not an expert in substance use and I believe very strongly that people with substance problems need to have more expertise than I can provide.” “Oh no,” she says, “that’s not an issue at all. I used to drink, but I don’t anymore. I’m totally okay about that.”
A pregnant pause, and then she says, “The annual apartment inspection is coming up.” Deep breath. “I have a lot of stuff.” Then rapidly, pushing it out into the space between us, “My apartment is very full. I need help making decisions about what to do with things.” Another briefer pause. “I have clutter. And I don’t like the word that begins with H.” My brain clicks. Fortunately, I do not burst out, “Oh, you mean hoarding?” Instead, I say, “Okay, thank you. It’s really helpful if you can give me information like that. It’s not so easy to do when you don’t know someone.” Lark replies immediately: “Oh, I can see already that Jack was right! You are easy to talk to.” My heart sinks a bit: I do love Jack, but he has also sent me some of my most challenging—and also rewarding—clients, and I suspect that Lark, like them, may be sweet, fragile, needy, and complicated.
We set an appointment time, and Lark gives me a lengthy series of instructions for my first visit to her: 1. Park in the visitor spot, nowhere else. 2. Ring the doorbell rather than knocking, so she’ll hear me. 3. She’ll come out and talk with me on the landing before I go into the apartment. Images of what I may be entering—the psychic space as well as the physical—tumble through my mind. But Lark keeps chirping, excited at the prospect of help, relieved to have broken the isolation, invigorated by validation.
I know very little about the psychological underpinnings of hoarding. I do know it’s not about the “clutter” itself, but about the symbolic meaning of the specific items. I do know that it often comes out of, and perpetuates, depression and anxiety. As I read a bit about it, I learn that it is more common in people with attention-deficit disorder. Because it is a relatively intractable syndrome, the focus of therapy typically becomes harm reduction: decreasing likelihood of fire, infestation, and falls, for example. And the primary mode of treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: helping clients increase their ability to make decisions about keeping or discarding things with greater efficiency and less emotional turmoil.
I read what I can before our appointment, but as I reach the top of the stairs I feel on the threshold of no man’s land. There are two small tables, a large basket, a planter, and a bag outside Lark’s door: all of them are full of things. On the door, there is a set of faded peace flags and a sign for emergency personnel announcing the presence of a cat in the apartment. I take a deep breath, and ring the bell.
“Coming!” I hear from a distance. There’s a small crash, “Oh, drat! Kit-Kat, get out of my way!” and then she opens the door just wide enough to let herself out. She stands before me and smiles: “Hello! I’m Lark.”
She is darling. She’s small, round, and beautiful, with luminous skin, gray-blue eyes, and a glorious profusion of shoulder-length wavy blonde hair. She’s wearing a bright red hat, a leopard-patterned fleece pullover, and faded navy sweatpants. I have no idea how old she is: 35? Or 60? My general impression is of a girl playing dress-up with abandon. I wonder what this woman is pretending, and for whom, and why.
Out onto the landing, Lark faces the yard to her right, effectively drawing my gaze away from the door and the clutter surrounding it. “Now, I want to tell you something before you come in,” she says. “You may feel a need to escape once you get inside.” My anxiety rises. “It’s not uncommon, and if you need to, we’ll come outside and take a deep breath, go for a walk if you need to. I have to do that myself sometimes!” She laughs, but doesn’t look at me, which is probably a good thing: I’m sure my expression isn’t neutral. I’m alarmed, and only her vulnerable presence keeps me from running down the stairs.
“The other thing,” she says, “is please don’t be critical if you can help it. I know it’s really bad in there, and I want to make it better, but criticism doesn’t help. It shames me, and I am already so ashamed—you can’t imagine how ashamed I am about the condition of my apartment.” Then she turns and faces me, and looks at me. “Wow!” she says. “That’s a really pretty necklace! And look at the fabric of that skirt! Beautiful! We like the same colors.” My skirt is maroon, nothing like any of the colors she is wearing. I later will learn that she loves all colors, except beige.
“Are you ready?” she asks, a bit of humor in her voice. “I’m ready!” I declare, smiling at her. “Okay, here we go! Be careful not to let the cat out. Kit-Kat occasionally bolts out.” And then she opens the door. As I step across the threshold into her prison, a wave of compassion washes over me. Childlike, Lark has set me up to love her, and I already do.
Source: Grap/wikimedia commons
~ Mark Twain