In the home of a hoarder, piles of trash might reach the ceiling, and stacks of newspapers so crowd the kitchen that cooking is impossible. Sleeping, eating and bathing may take place in such clutter that these daily activities become strained and health suffers. Having guests can be out of the question.
This state of affairs is difficult to fathom. How can people choose to live surrounded -- in some cases practically buried -- in trash? Is it a choice? Or are hoarders simply slobs, too lazy to clean up after themselves?
In most cases, they're not. Not at all, in fact. So how does hoarding happen? And how can it be fixed?
Those homes don't fill up with trash overnight. And cleaning up isn't just a question of making a huge donation to the dump or the thrift store; it's about making a huge change in mindset. To understand how hoarders can end up in such dire straits, you need to understand how the process starts, and that begins with understanding one central concept: To hoarders, none of that stuff is trash.
Why Do People Hoard?
A hoarder is not simply a pack rat. A pack rat gets rid of some "collectibles" when he or she runs out of room in the garage or basement. A hoarder simply moves the stuff into the bathtub.
Hoarding is a symptom of a mental illness, an anxiety disorder -- some experts say obsessive compulsive disorder, while others say it's a category unto itself. It's defined by three primary traits: the obsessive collection of objects that seem useless to almost everyone else, the inability to get rid of any of them and a resulting state of distress or peril.
Like most obsessive behaviors, hoarding starts small. Someone thinks that maybe the information in today's newspaper could be useful at some later date -- and tomorrow's newspaper and the next day's. Or she begins to wonder if she may have accidentally tossed something valuable in the trash can, and keeps that bag of trash just in case. And the next bag of trash. Maybe collecting books, or dogs, or records or mail, and living with them every day, so eases symptoms of anxiety that these things become indispensible -- sort of an extreme case of a favorite blanket or a grandmother's locket or the family photos on the wall.
A hoarder might be afraid to waste anything. Or he may be such a perfectionist that he simply can't start sorting through piles of useless things for fear he may not do it exactly right.
Hoarding can be an indicator of an intense sense of responsibility or fear of making a mistake.
Not everyone who has lots of dogs or stacks of books or piles of mail is a hoarder, of course. Lots of perfectly healthy people have cluttered homes. So what makes "collecting" a case of "hoarding"? There are some telltale signs that probably mean it's time to seek help …
Signs There Might Be a Problem
A room full of books or a house full of pets does not a hoarder make. In hoarding disorder, collecting those things interferes with life.
Hoarders might become isolated because they're too embarrassed to have people over, or there simply is no room. Safety personnel like police or fire fighters may be unable to access the home. Hoarders may live in unsanitary conditions, unable to shower because there are "valuables" in the tub. They may destroy their credit because the bills are buried somewhere in 10 years of mail, or have so many animals that they can't care for them properly and they, too, get sick.
And when those animals are taken away, or a family member comes over and hauls away hundreds of pounds of junk mail, hoarders feel an intolerable void and start collecting them all over again.
Some fairly reliable signs of a hoarding problem include:
- Collecting and being unable to get rid of things other people throw away every day
- Living in unsanitary conditions
- Being unable to use rooms for their intended purpose (kitchen for cooking, bathroom for washing up, bedroom for sleeping) because they are too cluttered
- Having too many animals to care for them properly
- Attempts to sort junk from valuables only results in moving things from one pile to another
- Many people have suggested there might be a problem
- Access to the home is blocked
If this describes you or someone you know, it may be time to seek help -- and while it's typically not as simple as having a garage sale or giving away a few cats, there are ways to overcome the compulsion …
Help and Solutions
To the compulsive hoarder, there seems to be no problem with the hoarding behavior. That's part of the disorder. But if you or someone you know suffers from an intolerable, life-changing urge to collect things, chances are there is a problem.
Because hoarding is a fairly recently recognized disorder, research in effective treatments is only starting to pick up. Some methods, though, have shown notable success, including medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on pinpointing the cognitive (thought-based) causes of compulsive hoarding, typically the roots of anxiety, and then slowly changing the behavior. It can take months or years, and requires great dedication to the process of recovery, but it can ultimately help a hoarder to let go of the possessions that are interfering with a healthy life.
Therapy is often combined with medication, which can help maximize results. The current pharmaceuticals used to treat hoarding are the ones that have been found to help patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), namely SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) and other antidepressants.
Compulsive hoarding is not, at the moment, well understood in the mental health community, and it can be a difficult illness to treat. The best way to increase the chances of overcoming a hoarding problem is to catch it in its early stages: If you see signs in yourself, or you suspect someone you love might be headed down a dangerous path, reach out. Hoarding is not about laziness or sloppiness or being a "gross" person. It's a manifestation of a deeper emotional problem, and immediate attention can help nip it in the bud.
For more information on hoarding and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- Doheny, Kathleen. "Harmless Pack Rat or Compulsive Hoarder." WebMD. (Feb. 28, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/harmless-pack-rat-or-compulsive-hoarder
- Hoarding. Mayo Clinic. (Feb. 28, 2011)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hoarding/DS00966
- Overview of Hoarding. IOCDF. (Feb. 28, 2011)http://www.ocfoundation.org/hoarding/overview.aspx