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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

The stuff of dreams: Some people just can't stand to throw anything away

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sharrone Clay in her office, surrounded by books, files, and boxes. Sharrone Clay in her office, surrounded by books, files, and boxes.
LONG / BLADE Enlarge

The best way to study a pack rat is to visit one in its natural environment.

In the case of Sharrone Clay, that means heading over to her home in West Toledo, a tan, two-story place on a quiet stretch of road. The front door opens to a tidy living room where the floor is open and the books are lined up neatly, nothing out of place.

But it's all a front, a fake, a ruse.

"It does look very nice," Ms. Clay says smiling. "It does make people think that we're normal."

The truth lies elsewhere, in her office or bedroom or garage or - gasp! - the basement.

"I might as well show you the disaster area," she says as she walks down the stairs.

Down below, boxes are stacked four and five high, teetering over the narrow paths through the room. Here's a shelf full of crafting supplies she hopes to use one day. Over there's a deceased friend's old wheelchair.

"I make use of every inch of space," she says later upon entering her small office crammed full of books and files and boxes. "I have no idea what's over here. There's stuff behind stuff."

Like many of her kind, Ms. Clay, 60, has trouble throwing things out. She's learned to live with it, though, and can afford to laugh at her jumble of stuff. Not all pack rats can.

Some go from cluttered to eccentric to clinical, and more people around the country are taking notice. A couple of television shows have sprung up to help pack rats, and there are a growing number of places in America, including New York City and Arlington County in Virginia, that have formed hoarding task forces to tackle the issue as it relates to health and housing issues.

The reasons pack rats have so much stuff are legion: The things have sentimental value. They paid good money for them. They might use them someday.

"The reasons are no different than the rest of us, but they apply those reasons to more things. Virtually everything they come in contact with comes to have some value to them," explained Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Massachusetts who has studied hoarding for 10 years.

Offenders may not only have issues with acquiring items and a difficulty in discarding them. The worst have problems organizing them that can interfere with carrying on a normal life.

"That's really the distinction between this behavior as kind of an eccentricity and this behavior as a real clinical problem," said Mr. Frost, who is part of a study developing a treatment program for people who hoard.

Dennis Doblinger at one time filled his house and five storefronts around Toledo with his collection. He doesn't live in his home anymore - city officials are concerned about the condition of the property - but much of his stuff still does.

Let's begin with the kitchen, where the sink has been buried under a giant wave of miscellany - lamps, bottles, cans, a faux lobster. Around the bend is a stack of old newspapers, an old wooden cabinet, saw blades, a single slipper, a box full of prescription drug bottles.

The basement and some other rooms have things stacked nearly to the ceiling. And this is after Mr. Doblinger, who does some construction work and collected many of his things through estate liquidations, carted out more than 10,000 books to a warehouse.

The rest will follow. But for the moment, he must carefully make his way through it all by a narrow path. As he talks about his collecting - the role he plays in the world, the business he does selling things - he stops and ponders what it would be like to give up his pastime. His answer comes matter-of-factly.

"I've never considered killing myself," he says, pausing thoughtfully, "but if I didn't have all that stuff, I don't know what I'd be living for."

In some cases, collecting things can take over someone's life, said Gail Steketee, a Toledo native who now is a professor of social work at Boston University studying the issue.

"It's a very difficult problem to treat," she said. "We are having reasonable success with a combination of strategies, but it takes quite a bit of work on people's part and quite a lot of time."

Most pack rats are of a more mild variety, though, like Mac McCoy, of North Toledo.

The retired Owens-Illinois employee collects coins, books, magazines - including the issues of Popular Mechanics he received as a kid - and antique automobiles. He still has the first car he ever owned, though he hasn't used it in 30 years, and there's an old 1912 Regal Underslung Touring car that he's been meaning to restore for two decades.

"The biggest mistake sometimes I ever make is throwing things away," the 68-year-old said. "That's why I have a big three-car garage with a second floor and a workshop and another building I bought to store ... stuff."

For those people who love stuff but also want less cluttered lives, Californian Pamela Nudelman runs a professional organizing business. She's even written a book to help, The Secret Handbook for Perpetually Paralyzed Procrastinating Pack Rats Anonymous (Panacea Publishing, 1999).

"You have to set limits," she said. "I have one drawer in a desk that I toss things in. Once that goes beyond that size, I sit down, dump it out, weed it out. I limit it to a size. Sometimes people don't limit themselves to what they save."

Ms. Clay said she's going to get rid of some things, many of which came to her with the deaths of a good friend and her father and her mother's move to an assisted-living facility.

"I'm gonna try to be ruthless," she said. "But there's so much good stuff."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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