Varian Pierce

Vairan Pierce

Every first and third Wednesday Varian Pierce facilitates the “Clearing House” drop-in support group at Openhouse. The group is for community members who struggle with the physical stuff of life—the papers, the clothes, hand-me-downs, and keepsakes that hold meaning and create challenges in our lives. Varian is a Peer Response team member of the Institute of Compulsive Hoarding and Cluttering, part of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco (MHASF). The program addresses the problems and needs of people with issues in these areas.

According to the MHASF’s website, “Peer responders all have lived experience with collecting and accumulating. They use their experience to provide non-judgmental, harm reduction-based, one-on-one peer support. They also give community presentations that message anti-stigma, empowerment, and the possibility of recovery.” MHASF services are free.

Openhouse and MHASF use the title “Clearing House” and “clutter support” in part because the term “hoarder” can be pathologizing and may not feel right or empowering for people. “Actually,” said Varian, “we are thinking of changing the name of the Institute because both cluttering and hoarding have become terms of stigmatization.”

People’s behaviors exist on a spectrum and the group welcomes everyone who identifies with having challenges with acquiring and/or holding on to material possessions. The group is a non-judgmental and confidential space to share struggles, strategies and resources.

Varian was born in Carbondale, Kansas and grew up in Bellevue, Nebraska, the baby of a family with three sisters. He knew he was gay early on and came out to his friends at the age of 12 and to his family at 16. “Dad was okay about it but my mother had a much harder time. My sisters were great it was no big deal to them. Later one of my older sisters came out as a lesbian.” Varian says he recently discovered that many uncles and aunts in his father’s family were also hoarders.

Varian arrived in San Francisco in 1987. Prior to his work with MHASF, he had worked in food service. “I started in the Haight when I first arrived. I was good at being a waiter as I liked people and made a lot in tips. When I left after a shift I didn’t have to think about the job until the next day. It was perfect. I needed to keep very busy and flit from table to table. I could never sit and concentrate. Later I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.”

From the age of six, Varian knew he had depression. “It was all through my family,” he said. “My mother and my sisters had had it and my father had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I was finally diagnosed with depression when I was 28 and have been treating it ever since.”

“Cluttering and hoarding is an anxiety disorder. The people that suffer from it have an outsized sense of responsibility and take responsibility for things that they find on the street. It’s an unconscious way of protecting us from the anxiety. Hoarders are creative thinkers. We can see the potential in everything but we are also perfectionists and get overwhelmed with the amount of things we have taken responsibility for, that we never get to do anything about, we end up feeling paralyzed. Everyone has something they collect, but if you have the disorder it’s out of balance.”

For Varian, becoming healthy became his priority when he was diagnosed with Cryptococci meningitis, a symptom of HIV/AIDS, in 1995. Varian struggled through his first infection of that left a fungus on his brain and four times the usual level in his bloodstream. “They called me the Miracle Boy at Kaiser. I had excruciating headaches and my spine was completely inflamed, I felt like I had to hold my head in my hands all the time. All together, I had about four near-death experiences with AIDS.” It took a year before his body was stabilized, while his ongoing depression continued— aided and abetted by the worst disease to ever hit San Francisco.

About three years ago Varian said he had a breakdown and realized that he was a hoarder After joining a support group at MHASF, Varian found a new calling. He became passionate about his recovery and joined the Peer Team Response Team. “It really feels like a vocation to me,” said Varian. “I’m fascinated by the peer support groups. Coming out as a hoarder was very difficult for me. It’s such a stigmatized thing, and a disabling condition that can lead people to isolation and even suicide. Most of us like to keep possessions that bring us comfort or appear to have value. But when one’s daily activities and quality of life are compromised by an accumulation of things, it’s time to look at the underlying disorder.”

Currently, not in a romantic relationship, Varian says he’s like Diana Ross, “You can’t hurry love. My concentration is on getting better and helping my peers to regain their mental health.”

For questions about the Clearing House group, please call (415) 728-0193 or, just drop by, every 1st and 3rd Wednesday from 12:30-2PM at Openhouse.

For more information on MHASF go to http://mentalhealthsf.org/programs/prt/#sthash.8uN2G7wx.dpuf

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