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Compulsive Hoarding (Part I) – Signs, Causes, and Complications

Most people know someone who’s a "packrat" – You know the type: they have a hard time discarding certain items, claiming those items all have "sentimental value" or because they’re certain they’ll find some good use for them down the road. They may have several boxes in the basement or garage that haven’t been opened in years. In many cases, it’s not a truly serious problem, although their spouses might grumble about their "collection" of "unnecessary stuff" or "useless junk".

However, for some who jokingly refer to themselves as packrats, their situation is anything but amusing. Their behavior has gotten completely out of control – to the point that it’s ruining their lives. These individuals are packrats to the nth degree; in clinical terms, they’re compulsive hoarders. It’s not uncommon for them to have every piece of furniture, every inch of floor space, the stairway, and even their garage and/or yard covered or piled high with everything you can imagine. The areas of their home that most people use for living are filled with clutter or boxes upon boxes of stuff.

Hoarding has become a hot topic in the media in the past few years. Talk show hosts have addressed the issue on many occasions, as it resonates with many viewers. There are even TV shows that specifically feature individuals with this challenging problem. It’s a compulsive behavior – the person is simply unable to resist the impulse to get rid of anything, even if they no longer need it or couldn’t possibly ever make use of it.

Let’s face it; about the only most people could imagine doing with hundreds of newspapers (besides recycle them, of course) is have a really big bonfire! But hoarders aren’t most people. They view those same newspapers very differently. Logic simply doesn’t enter into the picture.

Signs of Compulsive Hoarding

Unusual amounts of clutter or stuff – The signs of compulsive hoarding are not difficult to recognize. As a general rule, compulsive hoarders accumulate an inordinate amount of stuff – for lack of a better word – for which they have no real use, even though they will often argue otherwise. Some hoarders focus on specific items, such as collectibles or, sadly, even pets. Others hoard anything and everything they touch. It’s not uncommon to find piles and piles of clothes, shoes, household items, magazines, unopened mail, empty containers, and even piles of literal garbage in their homes.

Inability to discard anything – Hoarders will hold on to things even if they have absolutely no value whatsoever. For example, one woman with a severe hoarding problem kept shoeboxes filled with very old, empty cosmetic and makeup bottles. Since she’d never washed them out they still had dried up remnants of the original product in them. While some incredibly creative person might have found a use for those bottles, she couldn’t articulate any specific rationale for keeping them. She just knew she wasn’t able to throw them out.

Frequent shopping or buying large quantities – Some hoarders do collect items that have value, such as brand new clothing with its tags intact. In fact, it’s not uncommon for many hoarders to buy large quantities of items that are on sale. They justify their purchase with statements like, "Who could pass up such a great price?" Of course, those 40 toothbrushes, 15 tee shirts, and 20 boxes of light bulbs will just be added to the growing pile of other stuff that was also "such a great bargain". If they have money to spend, the amount of brand new items hoarders accumulate but never use can be staggering – and it often adds up to thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars over time.

"Going through the motions" to appease others – If a spouse or other family member complains, many hoarders will go through the motions of "getting rid" of stuff. But in most cases, they don’t actually discard anything (or very little, at best). Instead, they rearrange the clutter, box up loose items, repackage things, move items from one pile to another, or relocate stuff from one spot or room in the home to a different one.

Strong attachment to belongings – Hoarders typically become very attached to their possessions. In many cases, the things they collect give them a sense of security or comfort. Deep down, the thought of parting with any of their belongings is very distressing. If forced to do so, it can trigger significant anxiety, anger, sadness, and / or other strong negative emotions. Most hoarders don’t like anyone touching or handling their things either. If someone does, they may become quite indignant or upset.

Disorganization – Most hoarders have trouble organizing the possessions that litter their home. For many, the situation gradually spirals into such chaos that it’s impossible for them (or anyone else in the home) to find anything or function normally. In fact, many compulsive hoarders have trouble managing and performing their daily activities.

Indecisiveness – Their ability to make decisions is often impaired. This may be at least partially due to the chaos that constantly surrounds them. However, sometimes indecisiveness is an underlying trait that contributes to the hoarding. If trying to decide whether or not to throw something away is too difficult, they’ll just hold onto it.

Social isolation – Compulsive hoarders often become very isolated. This may be partially due to the fact that their compulsive behavior consumes much of their time, leaving little room in their life for social activities. Their isolation may also be due to the shame that often accompanies this behavior. If they do socialize, it’s usually on a very limited basis. Having friends or family come over can be very uncomfortable, leading to unwanted questions, judgment, or embarrassment – not to mention exposing their closely guarded secret.

Why People Hoard

For those on the outside looking in, it’s hard to imagine that hoarders could have any reasonable explanation for this strange behavior. However, many hoarders have a genuine belief that every item they collect will be useful for something important at some point in the future.

Experts don’t know the exact reason why some people are prone to compulsive hoarding. A history of trauma and / or anxiety is not an uncommon factor. In some cases, hoarding is a manifestation of the anxiety disorder known as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). However, not all hoarders meet the criteria for an OCD diagnosis. Hoarding is also a common symptom of a personality disorder known as Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. Although the names are very similar, the two disorders are entirely different.

Hoarding does tend to run in families. This suggests a possible genetic and / or learned component of the behavior.

Hoarders may have stress-filled lives that make it difficult for them to cope. The hoarding behavior may be a way to comfort or soothe themselves.

Some people hoard out of a deep-seated fear of scarcity. They always want to be sure they have plenty of the item or items on hand "just to be on the safe side". Surrounding themselves with things gives them a sense of security.

For some hoarders, the sacredly guarded items are associated with a positive time in their life. They feel comforted by surrounding themselves with items that remind them of loved ones or happier times. It’s not uncommon for hoarders to hold on to things due to their sentimental value.

For the most part, hoarding is done randomly. The items they collect are not specific. Some, however, are more specific. For example, animal hoarders may acquire dozens or even a few hundred pets and keep them inside their home. Sadly, in most cases these animals suffer due to neglect and overcrowded conditions. Even though the hoarder may have good intentions, he or she simply can’t give them the individual care and attention they deserve. It’s not uncommon to hear these gut-wrenching stories in the news of malnourished or overcrowded animals being removed from the home of a pet hoarder.

Hoarding has only recently been thrown into the limelight, so there is relatively little information about its occurrence. There are also many who engage in compulsive hoarding but never seek treatment. This makes it even more difficult for medical and mental health professionals to fully understand this challenging behavior.

Additional Complications

Hoarding almost always impacts a person’s psychological well-being. However, it can affect physical well-being as well. Safety issues – particularly the risk of fire – are very important to consider. Excessive clutter can be a serious fire hazard. Boxes or items stored or sitting too close to a fireplace, furnace, or heating source of any kind are a disaster waiting to happen. A collection of potentially flammable items can also be very dangerous.

Health and safety issues are a concern in other situations as well. For example, animal hoarding often creates a very unhealthy and unsafe living environment – for both animals and people alike. When food waste or other garbage gets mixed in with everything else, which is not uncommon in cases of severe hoarding, the risk of illness or disease becomes a very real issue.

When significant clutter is everywhere, there is an increased risk of injury due to tripping or falling. Attending to laundry and personal hygiene can also be very difficult when the bathroom, bedroom, and / or laundry room are filled with accumulated stuff.

Hoarders are more prone to other difficulties as well. Their often chaotic, stressful lives make them more susceptible to both physical illness and other psychological problems, such as depression. Substance abuse – including alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs, and nicotine – often co-occurs with hoarding.

If they work outside the home, hoarders often exhibit poor work performance. They are also more likely to have conflicts with others, particularly their spouse and other family members. Many couples end up getting divorced when one partner is a hoarder.

Compulsive hoarding is a complex and difficult disorder that affects many people. Treatment is available, and usually takes place in the form of psychotherapy and / or medication. While some people benefit from treatment, others do not. Due to the complex nature of the disorder, working with a mental health professional who specializes in treating hoarding (or at least who has a lot of experience in treating it), is highly recommended.

There is still hope.

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