I had a close friend and work colleague, now deceased, who would never invite me into his home. We would always meet at other locations such as a restaurant, coffee shop, or movie theater. I never pressed him on this as I felt there was something he didn’t want me to see. In the workplace he would save everything whether it was broken or in disrepair. If I threw something away such as a torn envelope or cracked stacking tray he would retrieve it from the trash. In one conversation he confessed that he had never thrown out any card or letter anyone had sent to him. In another he told me about his "collection" of national geographic magazines that he could not part with despite the space they took up in his home. In a prophetic message he told me that he felt sorry for the person who would have to clear out his home after he died. I believe that my friend was a hoarder.
What is hoarding?
Time magazine reports that there are between 6 and 15 million hoarders living in the U.S. It is difficult to give an accurate estimate as many hoarders live in isolation and keep their hoarding a secret from others. The International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation defines hoarding as a disorder with three major behavioral symptoms:
1. Collecting too many items. Hoarding is not limited to objects. Some hoarders keep numerous animals or pets far beyond their capacity to care for them.
2. Difficulty getting rid of items.
3. Problems with organization.
Hoarding becomes a disorder when these behaviors lead to not being able to make use of living space, the clutter poses safety and/or health risks, and it causes emotional distress and dysfunction for the individual and/or the individual’s family and loved ones.
Hoarding is sometimes lumped under the umbrella of obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) but other experts believe that it is a distinct and separate disorder deserving its own diagnostic label in the upcoming revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
What are some examples of hoarding?
There is more awareness of hoarding due to television shows such as A&E’s Hoarders and The Learning Channel (TLC) show called Hoarding: Buried Alive. In one afternoon I watched several episodes of Hoarders and found myself fascinated by the stories shown. Episode #41 focused on a widower named Glen who was hoarding pet rats. There were over 2500 rats in his home forcing him to live in a shed on his property. The rats had completely destroyed his home. In episode #46 we meet Ron, a divorced father, who has filled his house from floor to ceiling with newspapers, books, sheet music, and magazines. He leaves his gas stove burners on in order to heat the house despite the highly combustible pile of papers inches away from the fire. A woman named Carol is also part of this episode in which her home has been condemned by the city. Her house is so filled with floor to ceiling clutter that she is living in her truck with her pet cat. Carol had not always been a hoarder. She began to shop and collect items after losing three loved ones within the span of a few years.
What causes hoarding?
There is very little in the literature on the cause of hoarding behavior. Some experts report that hoarding behaviors may run in families and there have been studies to show that genetic factors contribute to at least half of all compulsive hoarding. The experience of trauma can also be a trigger for hoarding behavior. One personal observation I made while watching the Hoarders show was that in almost every case the hoarding behavior seemed to manifest after some sort of loss. The man with the thousands of pet rats had previously lost his wife. The father with stacks of books and magazines had been through a divorce. The woman living in her truck had experienced three deaths in her family. In the case of my friend (who I described at the beginning of this article) he had lost two brothers and both of his parents before he was forty.
Dr. Robert T. Muller, clinical psychologist and blog editor for The Trauma and Attachment Report, describes hoarding as a reaction to trauma: "Recently, studies have also shown that individuals who have both OCD and exhibit hoarding symptoms were more likely to have experienced at least one traumatic life event in comparison to those with OCD alone, suggesting that the act of compulsive shopping and the obsessive need to collect and keep material objects may serve as a coping mechanism for grief, loss or posttraumatic stress." The individual who hoards may be filling a void left from the loss by accumulating objects or in some cases, pets. The overabundance of stuff is an unconscious way of avoiding the pain and to gain control. When someone attempts to take away objects or animals from the person who hoards, the sufferer may exhibit grief symptoms such as anger, anxiety, and depression.
Is there help for hoarders?
There is help and treatment but quite often the individual who has extreme hoarding behaviors will be very reluctant to receive it. Part of the problem is that hoarders are usually in denial about the magnitude of their compulsion and how it has disrupted or in some cases endangers their life. For example, the man who had papers stacked to the ceiling next to an open flame on his oven burner refused to see that this was a fire hazard for the entire neighborhood. In many cases the legal system or animal control must be involved in order for some people to get the help they need. Sometimes friends and family initiate seeking help for their loved one oftentimes angering the family member who hoards. Many hoarders are isolated by choice and nobody knows how extreme their behaviors really are until someone tries to enter the home.
The International OCD Foundation reports that the most effective treatment for compulsive hoarding syndrome is a combination of psychotropic medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The class of medication usually used first are the SSRI’s including medications such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. The research on whether or not such medications work for treating hoarding behaviors is mixed. Some studies show only minimal response in reduction of hoarding behaviors following medication treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy focusing on exposure and response prevention (ERP) has been found to be especially effective for treating compulsive hoarding syndrome in some cases.
How many of you would describe yourself as being a compulsive hoarder? How many of you have a relative or a friend who compulsively hoards objects or pets? Is there anything that helps to overcome this behavior? Do you feel that the hoarding was precipitated by a traumatic event? Tell us your story. We are eager to hear from you.
If you or a loved one is suffering due to hoarding please get support and mental health treatment. The following are some resources to help.