Even the most organized among us has a junk drawer or closet filled with old clothes, shoes and other items long past their prime. Hoarders, however, take collecting to an entirely new, and often unhealthy, level.
The world has watched in fascination in recent years as hoarders have been more widely depicted on cable. Most of us wonder how anyone could live in such a state, while others are curious about how they became hoarders in the first place.
Many people fail to realize, unfortunately, that hoarding behavior is anything but a conscious lifestyle choice. In fact, it's a major illness that can seriously interfere with the life of the hoarder, as well has his concerned family and friends. Keep reading to learn more about hoarding, including symptoms, age of onset and possible triggers.
It's a surprisingly common problem
True hoarding behavior is actually fairly common, with anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of the general American population meeting diagnosis requirements [source: WebMD]. Before you self-diagnose, we're not just talking about someone with a few hundred CDs lying around. Instead, clinical hoarding behavior is characterized by the person's inability to function or move about in his own home.
For example, he can't use his kitchen to cook meals or even reach the bathroom for its intended purpose. As you can imagine, it's not healthy for anyone to live like that, particularly when many hoarders are emotionally attached to actual garbage, often feeling racked with guilt over disposing of something they perceive as important. Many times, neighbors become wise to the situation before anyone else, since pests and odors become unavoidable.
The symptoms are deep-seated
Hoarders don't hang onto things just for the heck of it. Most of the time, they see significant value in items that the rest of us toss out without a second thought. Sometimes, hoarders view objects as having artistic merit: Driftwood, buttons, greeting cards. Or they save items that bring back happy memories -- even if that item is just a fast food restaurant cup.
Although collecting or messiness is certainly understandable in moderation, hoarders find significance in virtually anything they encounter, resulting in a home full of more odds and ends than anyone could possibly need. Some are unable to discard even obvious trash or garbage.
In addition, they have difficulty making decisions or organizing their belongings, so their stuff just accumulates in piles. It's easy to see how hoarding behavior can quickly spiral out of control.
When confronted with suspicions of hoarding, however, people will often emphasize that the collection of such objects helps them feel safer in their own home. Yet hoarders are also often embarrassed about the state of their home and become antisocial.
It often begins during puberty
Hoarding behavior often begins during adolescence (around age 13 or 14), although it's possible for even young children to exhibit tendencies by holding onto old, broken toys or useless scraps of paper [source: Mayo Clinic]. Typically, severity increases with age and actually reaches unmanageable levels more often in older men and women [source: AARP]. In fact, it's a serious issue among the retired population, many of whom are less likely to be supervised on a regular basis (they are adults, after all). Often, the problem goes unnoticed until a grown child realizes what's going on.
Trauma is a trigger
For some people, hoarding behavior is triggered following a traumatic life event. Such an experience can range anywhere from the death of a loved one to divorce, eviction or loss of possessions in a fire. Often people who have had such an experience become depressed, and they can develop hoarding behavior if their depression is not addressed.
Post-traumatic emotional issues require professional treatment.
The brain's makeup can play a role
To some extent, people who hoard may be hard-wired for the behavior. Studies have revealed marked differences between the functioning of the brain's frontal lobe in hoarders versus non-hoarders. Specifically, the frontal lobe is the critical segment of the brain that, among other things, helps a person think rationally and consider options. So, in a hoarder's frontal lobe, the question of whether or not to throw something away can easily be confounding.
The cause is often environmentally related
Although the brain's composition can increase a person's likelihood to hoard, it's pretty safe to say that plenty of people resist the tendency. In fact, environmental factors are strongly believed to play a significant role in the development of hoarding behavior. For example, having a family history dramatically increases a person's likelihood of becoming a hoarder, so upbringing, as well as genetic predisposition, can influence development of the disorder.
Depression is often related
Compulsive hoarders don't typically start off depressed, but more than half of them usually wind up that way [source: International OCD Foundation]. Hoarding often promotes feelings of happiness, since the acquisition of beloved items helps hoarders feel safe and secure. Too often, however, the hoarder becomes overwhelmed with guilt and shame over the appearance of his or her home, which can begin the dangerous downward spiral into clinical depression.
Diagnosis is sometimes a group effort
Although hoarding has yet to be designated as a specific disorder, psychologists do have guidelines in place for making a diagnosis. Clearly, a comprehensive psychological evaluation is necessary, during which the clinician will glean as much information as possible about the patient's hoarding tendencies and emotional attachment to the objects.
He'll also need to assess the living quarters to differentiate between plain old clutter and true hoarding. Often, he'll also ask to interview family and friends who can provide him with a different view of the situation, such as whether or not the behavior is negatively impacting the patient's day-to-day life.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three primary characteristics that designate a hoarder. First, a true hoarder acquires excessive amounts of items that non-hoarders would perceive as useless and is emotionally unable to get rid of them. Second, the hoarder's home must be classified as practically unusable as a result of the behavior. Third, a hoarder will experience substantial distress due to the illness, both in terms of emotional stress and the impact of hoarding on his everyday life.
Treatment requires more than just a broom and a dumpster
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is often coupled with medication to achieve the best outcome for the patient. Since many hoarders also suffer from other psychological issues, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it can take some time to determine just the right combination.
CBT is complex and done differently by many psychotherapists, but a patient can expect to delve into the reasons behind the hoarding and learn better methods for deciding what to keep and what to toss. Hoarders often learn relaxation techniques, since throwing treasured items away is a stressful experience for them. Ongoing treatment is critical, because hoarding behavior can never be officially "cured."
Consequences are more than just a messy home
Most hoarders have to deal with very concerned family or friends once the situation comes to light -- and with good reason. Concerns include an unsanitary living environment, as well as increased risk of falls or fire, thanks to hazardous conditions. Emotionally, however, the potential for long-term effects is just as significant. Left untreated, hoarding behavior can result in severe social isolation, clinical depression and even suicide. And when hoarders seek treatment, they often have a long road ahead of them, since it's a tricky and difficult behavior to manage.
HowStuffWorks looks at the concept of digital hoarding and how it compares with other forms of hoarding.
More Great Links
- Boodman, Sandra G. "The Hoarders Among Us." AARP Bulletin. Feb. 4, 2011. (June 27, 2011). http://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-02-2011/the_hoarders_among_us.print.html
- "Extreme Phobias: The Collyer Brothers." Psychologist World. (June 29, 2011). http://www.psychologistworld.com/issue/collyerbrothers.php
- Mayo Clinic Staff. "Hoarding." Mayo Clinic. Nov. 5, 2010. (June 27, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hoarding/DS00966
- Metcalf, Eric, MPH. "Hoarding: More Than Just a Mess." WebMD. April 19, 2011. (June 27, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/harmless-pack-rat-or-compulsive-hoarder
- Steketee, Gail, Ph.D. "Hoarding." International OCD Foundation. 2010. (June 27, 2011). http://www.ocfoundation.org/hoarding/about.aspx