10 Things You Should Know About Compulsive Hoarding
Many of us have a collection, or things that we like to keep. Whether it’s decorative spoons, bells, tools or coins, most collectors can hold on to these items without having a problem with them. Their collections are neatly organized and catalogued, and often displayed in an attractive case, book or other device.
For some people, however, their collections get out of control. There is no rhyme or reason to these collections, and over the months and years, the collection grows larger until it fills rooms, and in some cases, even fills the entire house. This is a condition known as compulsive hoarding, and collectors are only some of the people who suffer from this condition. Other compulsive hoarders may not have a traditional collection, but may gather other items. These people often are compulsive shoppers, or they consider it a hobby to go to garage sales or second-hand stores. The problem, however, is that these people continuously bring things into their home, but never take anything out. In other words, they are hoarding.
Hoarding is a type of mental illness, and the hoarding compulsion ranges from mild to severe. Those who have mild hoarding disorder may keep their “collection” or hoard in a small area, such as a drawer or closet. These people are often described as “pack rats.” Those who have severe cases of hoarding disorder often fill room after room, and in extreme cases, home after home, with their collection. Here are the top 10 things you should know about compulsive hoarding:
10. Hoarding Typically Starts with General Clutter
Most of us have experienced clutter at some point in our lives, and many of us have cluttered areas of our homes right now. Hoarding usually starts with clutter, but the difference between a compulsive hoarder and a typical person is that a hoarder allows their clutter to get out of control. A pack rat will get rid of their stuff when they run out of room, but a hoarder will simply move it to another place.
Most doctors believe that hoarding is a symptom of anxiety, and some doctors believe that it is a part of obsessive compulsive disorder. Other believe that hoarding is its own condition. Hoarding starts small. For instance, a hoarder may see a headline in the newspaper and believe that it will be important at a later date. The next day, a new headline appears, and she also thinks that this might be important. This cycle continues until she finds her entire office or bedroom or kitchen is filled with old newspapers. Hoarders can hoard anything, from books and records to mail or dogs.
So what makes a messy person, or someone who doesn’t mind clutter, different from a hoarder? There are a number of signs. For instance, hoarders are often afraid to waste, and often feel a fear of making mistakes or put an intense amount of responsibility on themselves. Hoarders may not allow anyone in their home, they may become isolated, or they might live in unsanitary conditions. Hoarders often also have a lot of debt because compulsive shopping is a symptom of the disease.
9. Those with Compulsive Hoarding Issues Have the Best of Intentions
Most people who hoard do so with the best of intentions. For example, a person may see a lawnmower on the side of the road and think to himself, “That’s in good condition. I can fix that and resell it.” To most of us, this is not an issue. We will take the lawnmower home, fix it on the weekends, and then sell it. To a hoarder, however, they will take the lawnmower home and put it in their garage with the 10 other lawnmowers that they intend to fix. The problem is, however, is they never fix or get rid of any of these lawnmowers, and instead, keep bringing more lawnmowers home.
This issue of hoarding with good intentions is highly apparent when people suffer from compulsive animal hoarding. This is when, instead of objects, a person hoards animals. Whereas a normal person can safely care for two or three pets, an animal hoarder will attempt to care for 10, 20, 50 or more than 100. These people cannot physically and mentally care for these pets, and often become isolated and alienated from friends and family. Ultimately, both the person and the animals suffer in these situations, though the person is caring for the animals because they want to rescue them, and they feel that they can give the animals the best care. Many of these animals end up becoming very sick, and in some cases, they die, because they do not get the care they require.
8. Compulsive Hoarding Often Starts in Adolescence
Most of the time, the symptoms of hoarding peak in adulthood, but the signs of compulsive hoarding often appear when the hoarder is a teenager. Hoarding usually looks a bit different in teens than in adults, and researchers are just starting to figure this out. For adults, a main sign of hoarding is a seriously cluttered home due to their collections, but teens do not often show this. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to. It usually comes down to a lack of freedom and a parent who is constantly telling the teen to clean their room.
One big sign of hoarding in teens is difficulty giving up possessions. Though most teens have a few trinkets from their childhood that they want to save until adulthood, a teenager who refuses to give up anything may be showing signs of a hoarding disorder. Other signs of hoarding in teens is compulsive buying and indecision about where to put their belongings. These teens may also have a hobby, or even obsession, of trying to get items for free. For instance, a doctor’s office may offer candy as patients leave the office. It is normal to take one or two, but a teen who has a compulsion to hoard may take 10 or 12, or however many are in the bowl. These teens also often have emotional issues that go beyond what a normal teen may exhibit.
7. Compulsive Hoarders Often Isolate Themselves to Hide their Hoard
A compulsive hoarder is often very isolated, though this is isolation by choice. In fact, many hoarders begin hoarding to literally build a wall up around themselves due to their psychological disorder. Hoarders often also become isolated because they become embarrassed of their hoard. In fact, this shame is often masked by the exterior of a home, because a hoarder does not want to let the rest of the world see what is inside. This means, a home may look nice and neat on the outside with a nicely landscaped lawn and a fresh coat of paint. Outsiders, such as friends and family, may look at this house and think, “Mary’s house is lovely! I wonder why she never invites me over anymore?” The truth is, however, is that their friend Mary is a hoarder who is simply putting on appearances. Keep in mind, however, that not all hoarders have homes that are nice on the outside. Many other hoarders simply allow their hoard to fill up their property both inside and out.
Since hoarders try so hard to hide their hoard, they often become angry and defensive when people try to come into their home. They may even become combative if another person attempts to come into the home. To avoid this, the hoarder may intentionally stop talking to friends and family, they may avoid invitations to events, or may not respond when contact is made with them.
6. Hoarding is Often Triggered by a Major Loss or Traumatic Event
Though there is no definitive cause of hoarding, psychologists believe that a possible cause is a major loss or traumatic life event. In other words, the action of hoarding is often a response to a bad thing that happened in the person’s life. In fact, researchers have found that there is a link between hoarding and events such as the death of a child or spouse, divorce, serving in a combat zone, or other traumatic events. Though this is not a cause of all hoarding, in late-onset hoarding, it is usually the main cause.
Why do people who go through these events start to hoard? Because accumulating these items helps to fill an emotional hole that is left by the trauma, and it allows the person to give themselves permission to not deal with the pain that comes with these events. When someone attempts to take these items from the hoarder, the person may experience extreme anxiety.
Additionally, a person may create an attachment or even a type of relationship with the items they hoard due to the event. For example, a woman who loses a young child obviously has gone through a traumatic event. In the months following the death of her child, loved ones may notice that she is collecting dolls. She might begin naming the dolls, talking to the dolls, and collecting more and more dolls. Eventually, her home might be filled with dolls due to this condition.
5. Compulsive Hoarders Often Suffer From Serious Health Issues
Another thing that you should know about hoarders is that they often suffer from serious health conditions, and these are almost always related to their hoard. Though you might not see the connection between a lot of dolls and health problems at first, such as in the example above, there could be major health ramifications.
For instance, if you consider the vast amount of “stuff” a hoarder has, even if it doesn’t seem dangerous, it could be. Even small amounts of clutter could cause a person to trip and fall, and when you have a large hoard, the chances of a fall rise exponentially. The other issue here is that if a fall should occur, emergency personnel may be unable to reach the person due to the hoard. In extreme cases, a hoarder only has a path that snakes through their home.
Falls are not the only thing that hoarders have to worry about health wise. There is also a big fire hazard when a person has a hoard in their home. Since there are so many items packed and piled on top of each other, one stray spark may ignite the entire home. Hoarders may also experience breathing problems due to the growth of mold in the home. For many hoarders, the hoard has been growing for years, and there are mold colonies that have developed underneath the hoard due to the hoarder not caring for their home. Lung issues, for example, are a big problem for hoarders.
4. Hoarding Has Almost Nothing to do with Money
Some people mistakenly believe that hoarders like to hoard because of the monetary value of the items. This, however, is not true. In fact, to a hoarder, the monetary value of their hoard is only an excuse as to why they should keep the items. Instead, it is all about control.
Experts who work with individuals who hoard will agree to this fact. Though a hoarder may believe that an item may have worth in the future, most of these items really do not have a lot of monetary value, and even if they do, most hoarders truly will not care. For example, a hoarder may collect clown art. This person may have a painting that is worth $8, one worth 8 cents, and one worth $8,000. The value of these items to the hoarder is equal. They don’t really care that one painting is worth $8, and one is worth $8,000, they have no intention of getting rid of either of them, so the real value doesn’t matter.
What it comes down to is that, when surrounded by their hoard, they feel more comfortable and less anxious; they do not care about the value, only that these items make them feel good. If you actually asked a hoarder to sell that $8,000 painting in the example above, they would immediately feel stress, anxiety and a sense of dysfunction. The other truth is, that most hoarders have a hoard that is more or less worthless, so monetary value simply doesn’t come into play with a hoarder.
3. Hoarding May Be Genetic
Research shows that hoarding may be genetic, and it often runs in families. Many people who hoard have a first-degree relative who is also a hoarder, according to research from Johns Hopkins. This means that hoarding may be genetic via DNA, or simply may be modeling. There is gene research that shows a specific region on the 14th chromosome may link OCD with compulsive hoarding within families. Those families with more than two hoarding relatives actually have a unique pattern on this chromosome, but families who have several members with OCD, but without hoarding, have a unique pattern on the 3rd chromosome.
Evidence from the American Journal of Psychiatry also shows that compulsive hoarding has a familial link. The research also takes a look at images from the brains of individuals who hoard. In this case, the images show that those who hoard have a different type of brain activity than those who don’t.
Though there is scientific evidence that hoarding may be genetic, it is also possible that it is a mirrored behavior. This means that if a child grows up in a household where one of their parents is a hoarder, they are more likely to be a hoarder themselves, as they have learned, or mirrored this behavior. They may have been taught that this behavior is acceptable, or they may have found a certain sense of comfort from the hoard they grew up in. As they grow into adulthood, they see no problem with building up their own hoard, and they feel good when doing so.
2. Compulsive Hoarders Often Don’t Realize or Accept that They Hoard
One of the biggest roadblocks in treating a hoarder is that they do not realize that they hoard, and if they do realize it, they do not admit it to others. Approximately 1 in 50 people are hoarders, which is shocking to most people, because they think that they don’t know any hoarders. However, if you know at least 50 people, the odds are very high that you know a hoarder, but it is also very likely that you don’t realize it because they don’t realize it.
A hoarder realizes that they have a collection, of course, but they see no harm in collecting these items, and instead see this as their hobby. Take, for example, a person who hoards newspapers. This person may see themselves as a news junkie, and the newspaper as their collection. They are proud of this collection, and would not hesitate to show it off to others, but they can often not locate a specific article or edition because it is buried in the other newspapers and other items in the person’s collection.
In many cases, these people don’t accept that they hoard until they are constantly told about it by their friends or family members, or until something bad happens.
1. There are Treatments for Hoarding, But Its Not an Easy Condition to Treat
It is difficult to treat compulsive hoarding, even if the hoarder wants to seek treatment. The main course of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy. In this type of therapy, the therapist will help the hoarder first understand why they hoard, and the reason why the hoard has become what it has become. This therapy is often combined with tasks that the hoarder must work on, such as choosing what they want to keep, and what they want to throw away.
In order for the treatment to be successful, it must be a long-term treatment plan. Some of the meetings with the psychology professional will take place in an office setting, but many also take place in the home. This way, the hoarder is forced to take on the subject of their hoard directly, though it is often a slow process. In other words, it may take days or even weeks to be able to remove just one thing from the home. Gradually, the individual will learn that bad things will not happen to them when they remove their items from the home, and eventually, with successful treatment, they see that a life without their hoard is a better life.
In addition to counseling, some hoarders also take an antidepressant medication, such as a SSRI, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
When it comes to hoarding, this is a condition that is difficult for outsiders to understand. At the same time, the hoarding behavior is a normal way of life for the person who hoards. Hoarding does not equate to laziness, nor is it a sign that a person has had a poor upbringing or is someone who is just “dirty.” Instead, it is a serious psychological condition that may be genetic, and at this point, is out of the control of the person who hoards.
Often, a person doesn’t even realize or accept that their condition is dangerous, and they often see their hoarding as a way to improve their collection or as a hobby. However, this can become quite dangerous over time, and as the weeks turn to months, and the months turn to years, this hoard can grow and become very dangerous, even life-threatening.
Though it is possible to treat hoarding though counseling and medication, it is a difficult and rough road for the person who suffers from the condition. Even after a person goes through treatment successfully, there is always the chance that the condition will cause the person to begin hoarding again.
The most important thing that an outsider should do when dealing with a hoarder is to not take it upon themselves to throw the items in the hoard away. Instead, help the hoarder find treatment and allow them to do the clean up themselves. Throwing their hoard away will likely only make matter worse.