Karen Lowe looks a little lost, even in her own apartment.
Board games and puzzles teeter over the hamster’s cage. A green metal desk spills toys and papers like a jackknifed truck in what should be the dining room. Upstairs, a computer shoots wires like kudzu around her bedroom.
Her daughter’s room down the hall? Don’t go there.
Lowe’s home convulses with clutter. The chaotic accumulation of stuff is more than a quirk in her otherwise orderly life as a software engineer.
The mess has become her shameful secret.
Most friends have never visited her apartment and she lives in fear someone might drop by. Worse yet, her daughter Elphey, 12, is developing the same unkempt habits.
An example for millions of Americans
Ashamed and seemingly paralyzed, Lowe finally hired experts to help get her unruly habitat under control.
Her story offers hope to the tens of millions of Americans like her who live under the anarchy of their possessions.
To many observers, clutter reflects the mind-set of the modern household — overburdened, disorganized and compulsive. To others, clutter is a broader symbol of a ravenous culture dependent on easy credit, piling up debt and consuming a lion’s share of the world’s resources without considering the consequences.
“People’s homes are a reflection of their lives,” says Los Angeles psychologist and organizational consultant Peter Walsh. “It is no accident that people have a huge weight problem in this country, and clutter is the same thing. Homes are an orgy of consumption.”
A biological need to save?
The obesity analogy isn’t a joke. While personal spending drives much of the U.S. economy, the resulting clutter from all that shopping is so pervasive that some researchers wonder if it might have a deeper, biological component, similar to overeating.
Their speculation borrows from evolutionary theory.
Modern humans developed some 100,000 years ago as hunters and gatherers living in fundamentally harsher circumstances. Today, we are surrounded by abundance, but our bodies have remained genetically programmed to eat everything in sight and store calories to survive winter, drought and famine. To some nutrition experts, it’s a primary reason two-thirds of Americans are overweight.
Similarly, our forebears saved anything that could be materially useful because they had to make everything from scratch.
Clutter emerged alongside industrial specialization and mass production in the 19th century, and it was then that the biological need to save everything morphed into a desire to acquire.
Suddenly, the rising middle class was buying items once reserved for royalty. Tea sets. Mantelpiece figurines. Forks used only to eat fish.
A problem hidden behind closed doors
And the opportunities to acquire have only skyrocketed. The old corner store stocked fewer than 1,000 items. Today, a Wal-Mart SuperCenter covers a quarter-million square feet — that’s nearly six acres — and carries 130,000 products.
Yet scientists have difficulty quantifying clutter. It is a private problem that most people — like Lowe — sweep under the bed and shove behind closed doors.
On cable TV, at least three reality shows are devoted to clutter management. On the Learning Channel, “Clean Sweep” employs psychologist Walsh; it has filmed more than 200 episodes unloading people’s junk.
Fifty cities in 17 states have chapters of Clutterers Anonymous, a 12-step recovery program.
For some, clutter results from more than rampant shopping. It suggests widespread social discontent.
“People hold onto stuff like their kids’ old clothing as a way of holding onto the past,” Walsh says. “Or they keep things they think they might need someday as a way to control the future.”
Doing anything but cleaning
“Might need someday” is a common refrain for the 35-year old Lowe.
Paperwork, toys, cookbooks and clothing spread from one room to the next.
“We put off housekeeping to spend time on just about anything that we like better than tidying up,” Lowe concedes.
The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, an association of professional organizers, has established a household clutter assessment scale.
At Levels 4 and 5, people face eviction for filling their refrigerators with old newspapers and blocking fire exits with rubbish. Often, these hoarders need psychological treatment.
Psychologists estimate that 3 million Americans never throw anything out — even old newspapers and yogurt cups — in a twisted logic of perfectionism and fear. These hoarders have a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Too often, they wind up entrapped and injured by their own junk.
Hoarders' brains resist discarding items
Hoarding research focuses on changes to a region of the brain connected with decision-making, problem-solving and anticipating rewards.
At UCLA, patients receive a radioactive form of the sugar glucose before being examined by positron emission tomography. The PET scanner’s color-coded images show which brain areas use the most glucose and are working hardest.
In this small experiment, the hoarders have lower activity in a certain part of the brain when compared to other patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. They also had lower activity in a related region of the brain when compared to healthy volunteers.
But how does the brain react at the moment of truth, when a person must decide whether to throw something away?
At Connecticut’s Hartford Hospital, patients reclined in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which images brain function by tracking blood flow.
On a video link, psychologist David Tolin held up their junk mail and asked whether to save it or run it through a document shredder. The hoarders’ brains showed activity spikes in one part of the brain.
“Their brains screamed that they were making an error,” Tolin said. “So they put down the mail and clutter builds up.”
Breaking a cycle
Not everyone who lives in a cluttered home is a compulsive hoarder and people who are messy might not need a brain scan. But increasingly they are seeking professional help.
Lowe contracted with Aricia LaFrance, a suburban Denver psychologist and organizational consultant. She describes Lowe as a Level 2 on the household clutter scale, but warns she could get worse.
“She says her mother is this way and now her daughter is this way. So there is a cycle that we need to break,” LaFrance says.
The purge requires three consecutive August weekends with Lowe doing “homework” on closets and junk piles during the week.
An entire afternoon is reserved for Elphey’s room. At 12, her Lil’ Bratz dolls mingle with teenage hip-hugger fashions that cascade in knee-deep waves from her bunk bed across the floor.
Elphey retreats to her top bunk and pulls a leopard-print blanket over her head. Her mother stands on the bottom bunk and, resting her chin on the top mattress, speaks quietly to the curled shape.
After several minutes, Lowe starts back downstairs. Elphey slams her bedroom door with such force that the banister shivers. Her mother winces.
“She’s going to work on her closet,” Lowe explains. “But she doesn’t want anyone to watch.”
Chief culprit: easy money
Social forces contribute to clutter, too.
The chief culprit: Easy money. Americans use 1.2 billion credit cards and carry an average total of $8,562 in consumer debt.
A surprising villain: Technology. Just consider how the entertainment industry has lurched from record players to 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, VCRs, DVDs and now digital downloads.
One area where technology should reduce clutter is documents, but the paperless office has not materialized. Lowe and LaFrance agree to combine file boxes and digital storage, and they banish the file cabinet to the alley along with the desk.
Cooking trends spawn drawerfuls of specialized gizmos. Does anybody really need both a tomato corer and a tomato slicer?
Lowe balks at discarding several bottles of fruit-flavored syrup — mango, kiwi, raspberry — that cost $10 apiece.
“I MIGHT make an Italian soda,” she protests.
Ready for guests
“Or,” LaFrance counters, “you COULD just go to Starbucks and buy one.”
By September, Lowe’s apartment is ready for company. The brown floral print sofa sports a snappy denim blue slipcover. The hamster has been moved. Monopoly and Clue rest neatly on the living room shelves. Instead of the monster desk, a blonde wood table and chairs gleam beneath the dining room chandelier.
Elphey has donated three huge trash bags of clothing. Together, she and her mother have hauled out dozens of bags and boxes.
They admire the front closet as if it was an oil painting. The coats hang straight. Snowboots are matched on a rack, ready for winter.
Suddenly, the gnarly mountain biker in Apartment 17 staggers past Lowe’s open front door, wrestling the hideous file cabinet with the faux oak veneer.
“Hey, look what I found out in the alley,” he announces. “Got to get organized.”