Helping people to deal with their hoarding obsession

Dealing with hoarding obsession

To some people, hoarding seems to be a curio that bears little importance beyond being a mildly amusing habit that a few people fall into. But for those people who become afflicted, or their close friends and relatives, the reality of hoarding is not even mildly funny. Hoarders end up living ankle deep in trash and misbegotten collections of miscellanea that turn their homes into wastelands of rubbish strewn habitats that no longer represent decent living spaces. In America, such people are branded “pack rats”, and in England they are known as squirrels, although the name “squirrel” does not really evoke the correct squalor that these people inflict upon themselves and the conditions in which they live.

Compulsive hoarding is not at all amusing or curious. It is an affliction that devastates lives and causes misery. It ruins the lives of those who become addicted, and turns them into unsociable, isolated individuals who become disassociated from the rest of humanity. Able to recognize the abhorrence that the state that their homes raises in other peoples estimation, and rather than suffer the humiliation of the contempt and disgust that this may engender, they close themselves off from the rest of society, and bar anyone from visiting them and witnessing the state in which they live. They become virtual hermits within their own homes.

Hoarders do not hoard things of use or value. Yes, there may be one or two items of interest or worth, but that is neither the intent nor the reason behind this “fetish”. Hoarders will clutter their homes with useless, valueless things; often things that do not work, or that are damaged. Sometimes hoarders will go on a veritable binge of buying things in bulk, just to own and take possession of large quantities of whatever the item may be. There is no logic, rhyme or reason beyond the compulsion to have whatever it is, in their possession.

The sorts of things that hoarders may accumulate include:

Items that are broken and unserviceable
Buying quantities of products way beyond that which they would use
Storing things for future use that will never get used
Separating some items from their trash and saving them irrationally
Retaining things through fear of accidently losing something useful
Keeping excessive quantities of printed matter
Keeping lists of their useless collection of clutter
Collecting thing for future recycling, but never actually letting them go

Of course it is not just humans who hoard things. Working back from the name the Brits use, “squirrels”; squirrels themselves hoard food for the winter that often they will never even find again, let alone eat. Birds such as Starlings and Magpies collect things; witness the classical piece of music by Rossini, “The Thieving Magpie”. In the animal kingdom this may be put down to instinctive behaviour, but in the human world, it is a compulsive, psychotic behaviour pattern, one that is termed “OCD”, which stand for “Obsessive Compulsion Disorder”, and it is a recognized, medical diagnosis.

One of the most common “reasons” that leads to hoarding is the misconception that anything that is thrown away, may actually be needed, or come in useful one day. The twisted logic, reasons that this will result in some sort of loss or disadvantage. People who suffer from a hoarding OCD, just cannot differentiate between items that may be useful, or items that are totally and utterly useless. It is quite normal that a hoarder will hardly ever look through their collection of useless clutter, but when they do, they can never find what it is they are seeking.

Some people, (often the elderly), retain things from their past, such as childhood toys, or clothes. It may be that they think ill luck will befall them if they were to throw their clutter away; or it could simply be the belief that they it be useful again one day. Very often, this can reveal certain things about individuals, such as a want to not grow up, or a reluctance to disassociate with their past.

Strange though it may at first seem when one realizes that hoarders become isolated from the rest of the world, some hoarders begin hoarding under the precept of collecting items that may one day be useful for other people. Hoarders often reason that they are collecting items that can one day be either repaired, or recycled. Of course, in reality, people will never want these things, nor will they ever get repaired, or recycled.

Sometimes, things are not collected for what they are; rather it is an illogical fear that they may accidently throw something away, unbeknown, that might one day prove to be useful. Hoarders can often become infatuated with money, or rather the fear of accidently throwing paper money away, so to “double check”, they don’t discard newspapers or magazines just in case some money may be hidden within their pages. They also fear that the very act of throwing something away, may lead to hours and hours of searching and sifting through the rubbish to find something that they may need.

The sort of things that hoarders collect can include some practical things such as reusable containers. Whilst this may be understandable, it often goes way beyond the bounds of reason when the quantity of what it is that is being hoarded, far outweighs any potential gain.

The ongoing hoarding of all this clutter will create storage problems. This can lead to problems with their actual living space, which becomes increasingly broached upon, and can cause terrible inconvenience; not to mention the health and safety aspect, particularly the increased risk of fire.

The sort of problem that this type of acute hoarding can bring about is the complete exclusion of a particular room in the house from its normal function because it has become “infested” with clutter.  Often a hoarder’s spouse or partner is unable to tolerate the results of hoarding, and the relationship breaks down. There are unfortunately, several reports of people being burned alive, when their hoard of clutter finally ignites.

The depths to that hoarders will allow their clutter to reach can be truly awesome. Witness the infamous example of a guy called Langley Collyer who between 1933 to 1948’ somehow managed to fill the entire room space of a huge mansion on Fifth Avenue (Manhattan) with over 120 tons of clutter comprising of refuse, human waste, and various items of junk. When both he and his brother were discovered dead one day, the enormous pile of clutter found in the mansion included 11 discarded pianos, and all of the components to build a model T Ford from the ground up. Langley had been crushed to death when a pile of heavy items that had been amassed as an intruder trap, accidentally collapsed on top of him.

A particular type of hoarding is when a hoarder becomes obsessed with attaining a complete collection of something.  In this type of scenario, the hoarder will seek to collect the entire range of whatever it is that makes up his targeted aim. There is even something called mental hoarding which is the name given to the syndrome whereby the sufferer believes that he/she has to learn by heart, all of the information pertaining to a particular subject. Sometimes a hoarder may collect things that they fantasize must be kept in as new condition, even in its original wrapping.  In many instances, the items collected deteriorate beyond use over time.

Remedial treatment for compulsive hoarding is behavioural based, and centres upon acclimatizing hoarders to gradually begin releasing items from their hoard of clutter, with each step being directed at clutter that is more intensely difficult to relinquish their hold upon. There are specialist therapists who operate in this difficult field. They will usually begin applying their therapy following a visit to the hoarder’s home, where they can assess the extent of the problem, and begin to formulate a particular strategy to deal with each individual case.

Therapists often draw up a set of rules for what should be discarded in the present and in the future too, using a 2 year plan. Basically this works on the premise that if an object hasn’t been read, used or worn for two years, then it is to be earmarked for discarding. Obviously, this does not include things like heirlooms. As far as reading matter is concerned, hoarders are retrained to keep only the current week’s newspapers, or the latest issue only of any magazine. The rehabilitation also includes getting hoarders to sort their mail daily.

Where hoarding has become very deeply ingrained into a person’s character, they may need medication to help them to cope with the “trauma” of discarding some of their clutter. This medication is aimed at helping to lessen anxiety and helping to ward off, or cope with depression. There are psychiatrists who specialize in treating OCDs, and their expertise and knowledge should be sought and employed when trying to rehabilitate hoarders.

There is no absolute cure for hoarding, but with the right treatment and support, the condition can be managed.