How Hoarding Works

Symptoms of Hoarding

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City building inspector Lauren Mosely photographs the kitchen of a Chicago, Illinois home where an elderly couple was found buried alive in the mess. Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

You might have a messy house, a room that's got too much junk in it or maybe an attic you haven't organized in years. Does that mean you're a hoarder? No. Compulsive hoarding is a mental health problem that makes it difficult for people to make decisions about material possessions. There are four main symptoms that signify compulsive hoarding.

  1. An inability to stop acquiring things or get rid of things. Hoarders often stockpile or buy items that have no immediate use or value, like clothing when it's on sale even though they don't need any and the clothes they buy aren't even the right size for them. Hoarders' homes often are filled with clothes or other items that are still wrapped in plastic or have the store tags on them, having never been used. Hoarders will also hold on to things that don't have any value at all, like stacks of old newspapers, advertisements and junk mail. They can't stop themselves from getting more junk, and they can't force themselves to get rid of the junk they already have. Even thinking about throwing something away causes them severe anxiety.
  2. The junk is utterly disorganized. A person who stockpiles items but keeps them sorted and stacked on shelves is perhaps a little odd, but doesn't fit the description of a compulsive hoarder. A hoarder's inability to make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of extends to making choices about sorting and organizing. As a result, the junk forms in piles and stacks that sprawls out of control. The hoarder might remember where certain items are, but there's no organization to the mess.
  3. The hoarder feels ashamed. This is an important symptom of mental illness. Hoarders compulsively gather junk, then feel guilty and ashamed of their hoarding, which can lead to more hoarding to try and ease the mental anguish they're feeling. It's not unlike an alcoholic whose drinking causes problems in their life, which in turn triggers them to drink more to avoid the pain they've created. This symptom also differentiates hoarders from collectors, even those with enormous collections of seemingly strange items (yes, even your uncle's beer can collection). Collectors are proud of what they've accumulated, and they organize and display their things. Hoarders are never proud of the junk in their homes [source: Hale].
  4. The junk significantly impacts the hoarder's quality of life. This can take several forms. The junk fills in areas of the house until they're no longer usable for their original functions. Examples include bathtubs filled with stacks of paper, kitchen stoves piled high with broken appliances or entire rooms completely blocked off. Hoarders will carve small paths through rooms out of necessity, but the piles of junk prevent much of the house from being used. It can even become a serious health and safety problem.

Hoarders have actually died from being crushed by their stuff. Hoarding also affects the hoarder's social life. They realize they can't bring friends into their homes, and they may be reluctant to leave their homes because of anxiety that someone will rearrange or throw away their possessions while they're gone. Hoarding can also impact finances in a variety of ways (for instance, the hoarder can only eat expensive takeout food because they can no longer use the kitchen to cook meals). Other personal relationships, including the hoarder's marriage, can also be strongly affected by the disorder [source: Arkowitz and Lilienfeld].

You might think you already know a lot about hoarding, but our thinking about compulsive hoarding has changed a lot in the last few years. Let's look at some of the myths about hoarding.