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Understanding Hoarding: An Interview with Melinda Beck

posted by Beyond Blue

I’m a huge fan of Wall Street Journal columnist Melinda Beck. I follow her insightful “Health Journal,” and was especially intrigued by her two-part series on hoarding: how to help the hoarder and how to deal with it as a family member or friend. Beck’s perspective is unique because she combines her journalism skills with her life experience of dealing with her brother’s hoarding, and the crash course she got while helping him move in 2009, due to a foreclosure of his house.

“We filled up five driveway-sized dumpsters with garbage and moved the stuff he would part with to two big storage units and a new apartment—all in five days,” she explained to me. “I was desperate to understand why he was doing this and how I could help so I read everything I could about hoarding.” In her research, she discovered the large population that is affected by hoarding and decided to write about it in her column. She did not disclose her brother’s hoarding at the time the pieces were published; however, since his death last year, at the tender age of 58, she is doing what she can to educate the public on this health issue.

I have the privilege of conducting an exclusive interview with her on this important topic.

1. Can you go over the difference between hoarding and collecting? You say in your article that “collectors are discerning and display their treasures proudly; clutterers and chronically disorganized people are willing and able to clean up and welcome assistance. Hoarders often strenuously resist help and turn a blind eye to the chaos.” I ask this because I would define myself as a collector: I love books, magazine, all sources of information; however, my husband (somewhat jokingly, somewhat not) calls me an information hoarder. I do resist. I know that. But I’m also not like the folks on “Hoarders” or “Oprah.” Are there any lines that can be drawn?

Melinda: I think there’s a spectrum of behavior when it comes to saving stuff. At one end are people who have messy desks and closets and never get around to cleaning them (guilty, guilty and guilty). At the other end are the serious hoarders who have a sea of stuff spilling over every surface and every corner and can’t walk through their homes. That’s where experts draw the line, by the way: when you can no longer use rooms for their intended purpose or reach exits because of the clutter, that’s hoarding. I also think letting rotten food pile up goes over the line. What makes some people move from just messy to the more serious problem, I don’t know … there’s some break with reality, some emptiness they are trying to fill. But the situation gets worse so gradually that family members don’t speak up until it’s really out of hand.

Collecting is tangled up in there too. I think a lot of hoarders think that’s what they’re doing or rationalize it that way. My brother had dozens of candles in glass jars and piles of books on locomotives and fighter planes that he’d never opened and probably 150 large knives, which really scared me. He said he was collecting them, but it seemed more like an excuse to amass things.

As for saving books and magazines and newspapers, I think that’s a sign of high intelligence and curiosity. ? But if they’re piled up all over the house and posing a fire hazard, that’s might be problematic.

2. Why do people hoard?

Melinda: That’s the question that haunts me and fascinates me at the same time. I found something called “107 Reasons Why,” on a Web site called Understanding Hoarding. A lot of the reasons are written by hoarders themselves. Most of the reasons are submitted by hoarders themselves and they say things like: “Maybe I’m hiding from life behind all this chaos & clutter” and “People can walk out of your life…things don’t” and “I don’t want to know that I CAN’T improve my life, and I’m afraid of finding out. So by not trying, I will never have to know.”

A lot of people can’t articulate it, but you can find some clues in the kinds of things they hoard. Some people are terrified of change and are trying to hold onto all the trappings of past lives or loved ones or visions of themselves they prefer to what they’ve become. My brother had most of the contents of our (deceased) parents’ much-bigger house crammed into his, along with stuff he’d amassed on his own.

Some people also get caught up in thinking that things have feelings and will be sad if they’re thrown away. It’s creepy, I know, but I catch myself thinking that way sometimes… If I had some setbacks in my life, it might not take much to send me into this kind of behavior… I think a lot of people who have hoarders in their families have that secret fear.

3. Animals. I don’t understand why some people hoard cats or dogs or bunnies. The whole thing freaks me out a little. Is this a separate kind of illness than, say, stacking up your newspapers in the bathroom? Why animals?

Melinda: I think people hoard animals out of loneliness or because they need to be needed. I’ve heard that animal hoarders genuinely think they are providing good homes for these cats or dogs or birds or whatever, and it gives them a purpose in life they might otherwise lack. But like other forms of hoarding, it gets out of hand and they turn a blind eye to the smell and the squalor and that pushes them further and further from reality.

4. I know that many professionals say that cleaning out a hoarder’s house feels like a violation to the hoarder and does little to help the cycle. But what if the mess is literally a health hazard? I know a woman who was caught between her bed and dresser and social services had to come in and rescue her. Doesn’t the family have a right, at that point, to intervene?

Melinda: Speaking as a family member and not a psychologist, I’d say yes, I think family has a right to intervene then – or even sooner if other people are living in the same house with the hoarder.

After I wrote that first hoarding column, I got a lot of mail of readers who had grown up with hoarding parents and said their lives were miserable. They could never invite friends over. They never knew if there would be laundry or food or a place to even sit and eat it. I also heard about elderly spouses of hoarders with no place to sleep or unable to maneuver a walker through the mess.

My heart goes out to hoarders. But it is simply not fair to force other people to live that way too, particularly if it’s gotten to be dangerous. And I think the sooner somebody intervenes, the better.

5. You mention a few ways that family members and friends can help a hoarder: by hiring a professional organizer, and by helping the hoarder to learn how to prioritize her stuff. But what if the person resists any help and continuously repeats the cycle. What does the family (or friends) do then? Can you mention a few things that the family and friends can do to help?

Melinda: There are no easy answers to this, which is why so many families of hoarders give up trying to change them. Some experts advocate “harm reduction” – just making sure the papers aren’t piled in front of the space heater and there’s a path to the door and the bathroom is useable. If you can get the hoarder to accept the need for that and throw away a few things, they may realize that it’s not so traumatizing and it might be a wedge to go further. You might try cleaning out just one room and seeing how that goes.

In some ways, being forced to move out quickly like my brother was can be a blessing. You can blame the bank or the sheriff — it’s not the sensible family against the nut case. It’s true that people often start hoarding again in a new setting, but at least it will take awhile to build up to a dangerous level again.

Working on the underlying emotional issues may be the best approach. Antidepressants might numb the pain enough to let them realize that the clutter isn’t serving the purpose they want it to. I really love the advice to create “shrines” or memory boxes if they are still grieving for lost loved ones or lost parts of themselves, with a few important things they can focus on, rather than a big disorganized pile. If you can honor the emotion they’re feeling, rather than denying it, they might be more willing to cooperate.

And if feeling abandoned or lonely or purposeless is fueling this behavior, see if you can find something else for them to do to fill up that emptiness—even if it’s volunteer job. I didn’t have the chance to try that with my brother, but if I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d try.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Maria

    I can relate to that. My problem is that I’m exhausted when I get back from work, and it seems that I can’t do anything about it. My central area kitchen and bathroom are clean, but rest of the apartment is out of order. But when I try to clean usually on weekend, I could only do four 3-4 hrs the most with a snail speed (pushing myself since I don’t feel rested when I get up) I don’t know what to do with my things where should I put them, my mind is not working at all, so that’s why they are all over the place. I DON’T KNOW WHERE TO PUT ALL THE THINGS I HAVE, I know it sounds stupid, if someone would tell me that, I would look at her that she she is lazy (that was in the past.) I was thinking about for a very long time and still have the same trouble, and can’t get to any conclusion how to help me. I know I’m depressed with my Fibro (now for years) and my mind feels over tired with everything. I don’t know how to over come that part, any suggestions. I would love to be normal for few days, but what’s normal I don’t know anymore. I have only my mom, sister and son that all of them need help from me too. I don’t associate with anyone, my friends are long gone, they think I don’t want to be friends with them, which is not true, just becasu my house is not clean and I’m exhausted to have them over or to go out.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment irma

    Dear friend,
    You will stop feeling exhausted if you spend more time outside and take a serious look at your diet.
    Your diet could be affecting your mood, your quality of sleep and the feeling of exhaustion that comes with the lack of sleep. I would take a full physical and meet with a nutritionist to help you change your diet.

    Next, it’s a trip to the Container store. Look on line to see where the nearest one is. If there’s no store near you, try Home Depot, Kmart, any of the big home stores. Buy as many storage containers as you can and of all sizes. The best ones are with lids.

    Then the hard part is to execute the plan. Get rid of stuff in three distinct piles. Keep, Throw away and Maybe. It might take you about 3 hours to sort stuff but it makes a big dent, you’ll see. Call the Salvation army and ask them to pick up your giveaway stuff. Whatever you are keeping, put in plastic bins and label with a sharpie pen. Think of categories first : books, clothes, paperwork, tools, linens, cleaning agents, knick knacks, photos, etc. Label the containers with these names first, then sort. This might take a few weekends. Play music, dance, go out for walk in the park, get a manicure. Run to Home Depot to get more containers! lol

    When all the” keeps” are stored away in the right containers, it’s time to look at the Maybe pile (a hard look). Invite a friend or family member to help you with items you are undecided about. I go by the rule “when in doubt, throw it out” or just if I havent used it or worn it in the last year then it’s time to give it away. Or… organize a garage sale.

    If this is not enough to motivate you, plan a dinner party in two weeks. YOu want your place to be neat for that occassion (even if it’s take out food). Sometimes that motivates me to finish house projects, knowing that friends are coming over…

    I hope these suggestions help you get started. Most importantly, start with YOU. Without the right health, you wont be able to do any of this. Right health means good sleep, good for you food, enough time outdoors being active. The rest will follow (including friends). You will feel more confident and attract more people if you take care of yourself.

    Best of luck!
    I.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Razz2

    (((Maria))) <- these brackets indicate hugs by the way

    I totally understand where you're coming from. It's the fatigue and lack of motivation that we are in a constant fight with. When you're depressed some days just getting out of bed is cause for celebration! I'm sure that putting in your time at work is at this point the most you can muster. I understand that. For me it's the mental fatigue that gets me down. Yet we still have those so called "obligations" of life to fulfil and one of them is "tidying up". Looking at whole picture will merely overwhelm you and you'll not be able to even start to tackle this job.

    Irma has some great suggestions on how to get organized and get rid of stuff but before you get to that point I think you may want to break things down into doable small pieces. This isn't a race and if you can accomplish just one small thing each day you'll feel that much better. For example I have a bad case of the "piles"!!! Piles of papers, books, mail, clothes…. you name it I probably have a pile of it. About once a week I pick one pile to tackle. I also bless a dear friend of mine who told me that it's all about "clean surfaces"…. if your surfaces are clear the rest of the place will look great. She was big on "hidding" stuff and I confess I use that technique often when I can't stand looking at the mess any longer.

    Get a box… maybe a "banker's box" and walk around the house grabbing all the "papers" that are laying about (not newspapers – they go into the recycling. If you were going to finish reading them you would have done that already. Besides they're just full of old news now). Bills, receipts, warranty papers, important letters, even old recipes if you're the type that cuts them out. Keep throwing them in the box. Try to get them all if you can but stop if you're starting to feel tired. Put the lid on the box and label "IMPORTANT PAPERS". There you're done for the day.

    Next another box for a group of similar objects…. just put them in, don't decide anything yet… just dump them in the box. Put the lid on it and there… you're done for the day. Try to find a place where you can stack these boxes together and they are not in the way. Use your imagination if you have to and cover them with a table cloth and make them into a coffee table.

    Now you'll start to feel better. You've done the sorting and moved the stuff into groupings. This is where your mom, son or anyone else that you can think of can help. If you can afford it hire a someone to assist with this. Call your local volunteer center they may be able to help you. Then pick a box and start going through… your helper can be the one that does the chucking… or moving to a recycle box. Visualize that you have to get this done in a hurry 'cause you're moving out or something. Don't spend a lot of time pondering over things but make a quick decision… yes or no.

    Remember that this is a process and will take time. If you get more things that would fit in one of the boxes you have already set up… put it in there. At least you'll have a good guess where it might be. Write as much as you can on the outside box if it's a mix of things. But keep it to one box at a time….. that's all you need to fuss about, just one box. It may surprise you how quickly things will clear up over time.

    Do not feel guilty. Quilt does not serve any purpose here. It's what it is and you should feel good about the fact that you're making attempts to clear it up.

    I wish you well with this, I really do. When my mother had to move out of her apartment last year we had 3 days to sort through 45 years of accumulated stuff … that according to her was all good stuff and important. It turned out that she could do without 85% of it.

    Razz2

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Razz2

    ps – actually the more I think about it the more I think that if at all possible try to get a community volunteer to help you. Unlike family, they don’t have any emotional attachment to your things or you.

    Razz2

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cynthia

    I know Irma means well with her advice to head first to the Container Store, but PLEASE don’t do that! Buying organizers doesn’t make you organized any more than picking up a scalpel makes you a surgeon. Declutter first – then organize what is left. Even if you have to simply start with piles of Keep, Toss and Donate, that is far better than wasting money – and time – getting sidetracked buying lots of pretty plastic organizers that won’t help the problem. Just another distraction and even more ‘stuff’ to add to your life. You can tell I say this from experience… good luck to you on your path! Baby steps are fine – you will still get there eventually. :)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Barbara Bowman

    Irma — your suggestions make sense…to someone who isn’t a hoarder. Hoarding is a symptom of a deeper problem. Even if the place gets cleaned up, but the underlying problem isn’t addressed, the piles and filth will return. My sister was a hoarder, and I’ve never seen anyone come even close to the hell she lived in. She died nine years ago at age 47, and it still breaks my heart that she lived in such squalor. There were interventions, she had people from her church trying to keep her on track, but…she never would see a therapist because she didn’t want to face the crap that shaped her life. So instead of dealing with it, she lived with it every miserable day.

    I don’t think there is anything lonelier than being a hoarder.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Gen

    I agree with Barbara that no amount of organising will cure a hoarder. It’s definitely a symptom of a deeper problem – but what is the problem exactly? I’ve seen “Hoarders”, the TV show and my sister and her husband are both hoarders. My sister is also a compulsive shopper and I wonder if anyone has any knowledge about how often these two problems are linked.

    I feel very sorry for my young niece and nephew who are stuck in a house which is filthy and in which they can barely move and have no room to play. I know that on “Hoarders” people have lost their children due to their hoarding, but I’m not sure how common that is in the US. I’m writing from Australia where hoarding would simply never be considered a good enough reason to take someone’s children away.

    Thanks for raising this all too common problem, Therese.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jean

    I think we’re just now learning what a total dilemma hoarding can be for families everywhere. I have spent years cleaning out a 100-yr-old home that my deceased parents owned for over 40 years. They were big time dumpster-divers and garage-salers….and always claimed they were going to sell the stuff. When sale day rolled around, they would price the stuff outrageously high or not want to part with it, at all. I have tackled it, a bit at a time, throwing out much of it, and donating usable items to rummage sales or thrift shops. Frankly, it is an exhausting process. For awhile, every bed had boxes and boxes of unwearble clothing stored underneath. And, yes, there were extreme insect problems as a result of this. My dream is to someday have all my ‘stuff’ fit in a small Uhaul trailer, so I can drive away from my old life to a new locale. ‘Stuff’ can hold us prisoner, for sure.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jean

    I read this article with interest since I am married to a hoarder. I didn’t realize the extent of the problem until after the marriage and now struggle with whether or not to stay in it. The stuff just keeps accumulating and any efforts to help clean out or get counseling are met with massive resistance. Ironically, I am a minimalist neat-nik, which makes it even more difficult.

    My husband is a smart, kind, and caring person but this one issue may be the “irreconcilable difference” that breaks us apart. I refuse to live like this!

    I do think OCD and depression and unresolved issues from childhood play a part. He will do ANYTHING else besides spend time addressing this problem. In his eyes, I am the one who has a problem–he is perfectly fine with it! When we have done some clean up together, like some of the previous posters, he also goes into slow motion and has a ‘fatigue attack’ that requires him to stop and lie down. Although I have seen a few small steps of progress (mainly around keeping old mail), overall the picture is bleak.

    Since this is such a prevalent and potentially serious problem, I’m surprised there isn’t more research done about it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mary

    I do not think the woman being interviewed has an inkling of what it means to be a hoarder. Her using the term “nutcase” tells it all. She has no sympathy for hoarders. (Therese gets to use the term nutcase or nut job because she is referring to herself.) The psychiatric community does not have a diagnosis or way of treating hoarding behavior at this time, but it is agreed that fear and depression play a large part. As for Irma thinking it takes 3 hours to divide out the items in a hoarder’s home-it can take 10 people three or four days just to do this, let alone get rid of anything. Yes, I work in the psychological field, so I know a lot of hoarders. Right now, we use multiple visits to a hoarder’s home, several are just getting to know the hoarder so we know how they feel. We speak to the families if they are in the picture, but quite frankly, most of the hoarders I have worked with are all alone. Then we take things one step at a time. And no, the family has no legal right to interfere unless they go to court and the judge gives them power of attorney. This is very rare. The family should go to social services and work as a team that truly cares about the hoarder. And it takes a lot of patience, like as one other on this thread mentioned, some hoarders will start again. That’s why we keep visiting them to help them before things get bad again.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment HannahB

    I’m a daughter of a hard-core hoarder. I ended up a being a hoarder myself for awhile when life delivered too many curves at once. My brother, his daughters and their husbands moved me out of my house and into a storage unit and my Mom’s screened porch (since her house was full). While trying to return to the “normal me” I found a PBS video at the public library by Julie Morgenstern with the same title as her book, ORGANIZING FROM THE INSIDE OUT. [Having reminded myself of the inspiration I got from the video, I just ordered the dvd used through Amazon for $12.00.] Her book is excellent, but that video presentation is SO funny, non-judgmental and practical, I recommend watching it first. She has a live audience and, at one point in her presentation, she asks for a show of hands of all who went and purchased a second something that they knew they already owned but couldn’t find. Everyone in the audience raised a hand. But I had to pause the video because I was laughing so hard. I had mislaid and purchased a second copy of HER BOOK. She also has a step-by-step approach to decluttering, argues against buying containers until you see what you have left after tossing and donating, and states that the model for an organized home is the same as that of a kindergarten classroom – an obvious, specific and easy to access place for everything.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Joyce

    Lots of good comments here about getting rid of “stuff.” As for Maria’s situation, tho, nobody seemed to catch that one very important word: FIBRO. I deal with fibro, and believe me, we don’t have the energy to “run out to the store” for groceries after working, much less to a different store to buy something that’s going to make us work, lol.

    Maria, I think one of the best things I’ve ever read about getting rid of “stuff” was on the FlyLady site: She calls it the “21-Fling Boogie.” Take a garbage bag, and walk thru your home(and you can do this slowly, at your own pace)and find 21 things to throw away. Do this every day, over and over and over, and tho it will take a while, eventually you’ll have gotten rid of a lot of “stuff.” For the time being, don’t even worry about whether or not someone else could use it, or if it could be donated to a thrift store: That’s too much hassle, and believe me, I understand completely. Just throw it away. Period.

    Someone here suggested hiring someone to come in and help, and if you can afford it…I can’t…do it. I’m not a hoarder, and have finally learned to keep things neat on a regular basis and to not bring too much new stuff into the house, but I’d still love to have someone come in and do the heavy stuff: The vacuuming, sweeping and mopping, windows, etc. But.

    Anyway, you have my best wishes, so just take it slow, and start with 21 things to toss on a daily basis. Good luck to ya.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Arman

    I love this. I’ve just come back from visiting with a friend who I now realize is probably a “hoarder”, in line with all the above comments / insights, yes, my friend lives alone, does not have much of a social life and loathes to throw away anything it seems. I’m no expert but I do agree that hoarding is probably a way of trying to fill up empty spaces, trying to compensate for lack of things in their lives, also, IMO, hoarders are just afraid of never having enough.

    I come from a family where we re-use and recycle and my grandmother & mother are definite hoarders but they also have OCD which meant that they were so obsessive about having a clean house that the hoarding didn’t get the chance to become a serious hazard. What this means for me now in my early 30′s is that if I bring anything into the house, something else has to go. I refuse to use chipped china’s / glasswares just because they are still usable. I refuse to hold on to clothes or shoes I haven’t worn in a year. But I wasn’t always like this, the beginning of the journey is difficult but its possible to get there with help & willingness.

    I love how when I get rid of stuff now, its almost like setting my soul free. I refuse to let ‘stuff’ have a hold on me, to weight me down so to speak.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment irma

    Hello to all,

    After reading Maria’s first post I did not get the feeling that she was a clinical hoarder. She actually admits that she has some problems and wants to fix the situation by asking for ideas and suggestions. She is exhausted from Fibro and as a result her home had cluttered up. Her biggest question was “where do I put all my stuff’ Her other concerns revolved around level of energy due to Fibro, and lack of a social life.

    I know that if I am too tired for months (due to illness, stress, too busy at work) to throw out my junk mail and put away everything that I and my kids bring to the house, my house would be a cluttery mess too but I would not be considered a hoarder.

    I do really like the idea of going around with a trash bag and doing “21 items” and I also go by the practice of “if I purchase one more pair of shoes, blouse… one must go.” This keeps things under control. Another thing I do is get a laundry basket and walk the rooms picking up stuff that is out place. THen I ask all my family members to gather their things off the basket and put them in their rightful places. Sometimes most of the items in the basket are mine! lol

    Bath and kitchen de clutter: “do I use it every day?” “do I use it every week/ month?” If the answer to these questions is “no” then I have to toss it or give it to someone else. When I get to this point, I will be able to close a couple of drawers in my kitchen! lol

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Laurie

    I have two friends who are hoarders, not in the extreme category yet. They are different, yet very alike. Both are holding on to old grudges, and to old memories. One cannot forgive and move on from a divorce, and one cannot forgive her now dead father. Both hold on to everything, memories and collectibles, from their mother. Both are compulsive shoppers, too. It’s sad that they don’t see how the clutter and the stuff is shutting them off from the world and relationships around them.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bill Wallace

    I wanted to print this article as I am a hoarder. For me it is rather ironical as I am a retired Air Force SSgt and former Marine Corps LCpl in 1956. Maybe it is rebellion against what I used to stand for. If that makes any sense. I collect books and cut out articles in newspapers. At one time I had four book cases each about 6 shelves and all were full. Am trying very hard to get rid of most of it and have had some success. Sadly I have no social life in that I can`t invite friends in which is understandable. Have to continue getting rid of most of it as I may be moving back to the states later this year. It me years really to accumulate all this junk and several times family and friends have told me to get a skip and just throw the junk in it. I can`t just throw it away. I can give it to friends to do it, but I can`t, especially books. I think you get the picture. Also, my wife had threatened to leave me years ago, but sadly Maxine passed away three years ago from cancer. The son and daughter are at me to just get rid of it so they can visit me. Also, am 73. I hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel and not a train coming in the opposite direction. Got to have a sense of humor. Thanks Bill
    Also, wanted to print this but on my screen there is no print icon. Wish you could assist. Thanks

  • Pingback: Dirty Little Secret: Help for Children of Hoarders | World of Psychology

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment kgfrompa

    My BF just told me she is a hoarder and has fruit flys in her frig she asked for help but said not today she will tell me when and made me promise not to ever tell her kids I am heart broken and feel like i have to respect her wishes

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