Do you know that one friend whose home always looks cluttered? Who can never find what they are looking for because there is just so much “stuff” to search in? Who never throws away even the oldest and decrepit furniture even though it may be on its last leg?
If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you might have met a “hoarder”.
What is hoarding?
While compulsive hoarding has been recognized as a phenomenon since the early ’80s, it was only recently in 2013 that it was officially defined as a mental disorder. A lot of recent research has happened on the subject, and public interest was piqued further when a show called A&E hoarders was aired in 2013, which featured several cases of people who were struggling with personal crises, brought on due to compulsive hoarding.
So what is hoarding? When someone finds it difficult to discard items or to part with possessions all the time because they feel the need to save them, when they feel distressed or are extremely uncomfortable at the very thought of getting rid of their possessions, even though they might be of little or no value – it is known as compulsive hoarding.
Hoarding can be about either compulsive buying (forever bargain hunting), compulsive collection of free items (collecting freebies at malls and hotels), or even the compulsive search of the best and most distinctive items (which may not be that unique, except to the eye of the beholder!).
People with a hoarding disorder justify their need to save as:
- Either those items are unique, or they will be valuable at some point in the future
- They feel a significant emotional attachment to those items – maybe they remind them of a loved one or a favourite pet
- They feel comfortable and safe when surrounded by the items that they have collected
- They feel it is wastage to throw away anything
What are the symptoms and behaviours of hoarders?
Hoarders exhibit behaviours that form a specific pattern. They are always afraid of running out of things and are ashamed of the hoard that they are making – to the point of not letting others into their houses and lives:
- An inability or severe anxiety to throw away anything they own
- Difficulty in organizing, classifying or generally keeping track of things that they own
- Indecision about organizing and keeping/discarding items
- Feeling embarrassed by their possessions, especially not wanting to show the things that they have collected
- Discomfort with others looking at their possessions
- Obsession with having everything available at all times – fear of running out of stock or losing things
- Social problems – isolation, marital discord, financial problems, health issues
Below are some clear symptoms that something is wrong:
- Buying the same thing over and over again, because you can’t locate anything in what you already have
- Not allowing others to visit your home or be friends with you or your family
- Financial problems – the inability to pay bills and mortgages due to excessive spend on buying “stuff”
- Inter-family disputes, marital discord due to fights over hoarded materials
- No space to walk around the house due to too much clutter lying everywhere
- Feeling of shame and disgust with oneself due to one’s possessions
What kind of items do hoarders collect?
Hoarders may be collecting very commonplace items. It is not the peculiarity of the items collected, instead what sets them apart is the quantity in which they possess those items. It could be as simple as clothes, household supplies, tools, boxes and bins and even newspapers. While everyone else might be clearing off their stash of newspapers every 1 or 2 weeks, hoarders will carry even 10-year-old newspapers in their houses somewhere!
One particularly sickening example of hoarding is the hoarding of animals, in the name of loving pets. Hoarders may be collecting hundreds of pets (maybe smaller ones), but due to the lack of proper care, non-availability of the necessary space and financial constraints, those animals might be living in unsanitary and extremely hazardous circumstances
How is hoarding different from collecting?
One may feel that sometimes collectors also indulge in collecting commonplace items (like buttons or pennies), and how is this different from that?
But the fact of the matter is that collectors are proud of their possessions, understand the worth of the item, love to display and showcase their collections and generally can’t stop talking about them! They keep their collections organized, get great satisfaction out of growing their collection and may even form communities of like-minded collectors to discuss and showcase each other’s possessions!
On the other hand, hoarders are ashamed of their collecting habits. They are extremely embarrassed talking about it, and god forbid someone should see it! They aren’t organized, they don’t like spending time on what they already have and feel shame every time they add to their collection. They are often facing financial difficulties, rather than having more than enough to indulge in a hobby.
Who is susceptible to this disorder?
The hoarding disorder can be found most often in people above the age of 50, though it can have its beginnings even in the teenage years, and often the result of hoarding becomes visible after a lifetime of struggling with the problem. It is also likely to find hoarders in twos! Anywhere between 1 in 20 to 1 in 50 people are known to have serious hoarding problems.
This disorder can take many forms – from mild to severe. While for some people it may just a be a quirk or eccentricity that others just learn to ignore, for others it can lead to severe problems, both from a societal as well as monetary perspective.
Hoarding is often coupled with other disorders as well. People who have OCD, anxiety disorder, PTSD or suffer from personality disorders, depression or addiction are at a much higher risk of developing hoarding as a secondary neurosis.
The second set of people more vulnerable to this disease are those who have faced a traumatic incident during their life, such as accident victims, victims of violence and abuse. One particularly vulnerable group of people is foster children, who have had to endure a traumatic loss early on in their lives but have not had the closure or the proper therapy to deal with it.
People who have had to lose their spouse or close friends are also at risk to develop hoarding.
Another set of possible victims are those who have faced a huge personal loss – such as the death of a loved one, loss of livelihood or suffering through a calamity (such as a fire or earthquake).
An interesting and often difficult to identify set of hoarders are those who call themselves “thrifty”: such people would have had to endure chill penury early on in their lives, and would, therefore, justify their hoarding behaviour as a perfectly natural consequence of having had to live through a time when they had very little, thus leading to a habit of saving every last penny.
Another set of individuals who might be at risk of hoarding are people who suffer from pica, an eating disorder that involves eating nonfood items such as clay, dirt or paint. People with Prader-Willi syndrome (a genetic disorder), psychosis and dementia are also known to be at risk.
What are the treatments available?
One of the biggest challenges in treating hoarding as a disorder is that the patients often refuse to accept it. They feel that it is just a “small problem” or “quirkiness” or they may even justify it as a way to save money. However, with proper care and intensive treatment, it is possible to make them understand the deleterious effects of this habit, and how it might be leading them down a path of financial and emotional trouble.
Listed below are some things to do, both for the hoarder and for those around him/her
What should you do if you are compulsively hoarding?
Accept the problem: Don’t call it an “eccentricity” or a “quirk” or “minor habit”. Try not to make it impersonal either (The stuff keeps coming back to my house – it doesn’t come on its own, you buy it!)
Observe patterns, and correct them: When buying at the supermarket, do you find yourself buying the same item every week? Can you make a weekly grocery list and clear out items already bought? Getting organized is the best way to declutter. Try to start observing the behaviour patterns that encourage hoarding, and by organizing yourself better, try to eliminate them.
Make clear targets for decluttering: Once you organize, its time to start cutting down by setting achievable yet challenging targets. Can you limit the grocery shopping to only 10 items every week, and leave out everything else, no matter how compulsively you may want to buy it?
Commit to clearing out your mess: Make clear commitments to decluttering (I’ll clear out this room completely by Friday).
Take help: SHG’s like Clutterers Anonymous and Messies Anonymous are available for support as well as sharing experiences. Talk to people in your family/friend circle who are known to be good organizers, and take their help (don’t get them to do it for you, just ask them what all you need to do). If there are underlying issues like ADHD or depression, it would be best to first get cognitive behavioural therapy and treatment for those.
What should you do if you know a compulsive hoarder?
- Challenge them constantly on their need to collect new things
- Help them. Go out with them to buy things. Make sure they are not buying unnecessary items. Help them prepare and organize lists and declutter their home.
- Identify triggers – what leads them to buy new things? Can it be controlled?
- Help identify a good SHG and make sure that they visit
- Most importantly be patient and understanding. Know that relapses can occur, make sure that they have all the help that they need when they need it.