Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder that affects up to one person in every two hundred in the UK. It is classed by some as a type of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) although there is a new school of thought that believes that it differs from general types of OCD, and that it should be treated as an illness in its own right. But what exactly is compulsive hoarding, and why can it be so damaging?
Compulsive hoarding is not just a whimsical notion to collect certain items. It is far more serious, and in its most chronic manifestations it gets totally out of control and ruins lives; not only the lives of the individuals cursed with compulsive hoarding syndrome, but also the lives of those who may be unfortunate enough to cohabit with them, and even the safety of their neighbours. A compulsive hoarder is not simply someone who is lazy, or negligent. Chronic hoarders are suffering from a neuropsychiatric illness that will not go away unless professional help is sought.
The consequences of hoarding are horrific and can be literally fatal. One of the most infamous cases of hoarding was the American Collyer brothers. Way back in 1947, their bodies were discovered in their crumbling New York City mansion, where they had lived surrounded by an amazing 100 tons of clutter, some of which subsequently fell on top of them crushing them to death. Only last year a woman was smothered to death when a huge pile of clothing fell on her. There have been many instances of fires being caused by inflammable clutter which has in turn caused the deaths of several hoarders who were tragically unable to escape in time because doorways and passages in their homes were totally obscured by piles and piles of clutter.
Compulsive hoarding can strike anyone of any age, gender, or background. It is treatable, but it can be quite difficult in some cases to get a hoarder to acknowledge that their clutter presents any form of problem. The other problem is that professional help, via cognitive behavioural therapy, is quite expensive, and may be beyond some people’s pockets.
In terms of the type of clutter that hoarders amass, it can be anything and everything. The items may have some value, but in many cases the items are no more than junk, often being broken beyond repair and therefore useless. But a typical hoarder will perceive that the object may one day come in useful.
Most people for example will throw their old newspapers away into their recycling bin, but by comparison, a hoarder will hold on to those old papers believing them to be a source of potentially useful, and maybe even life changing information. When newspapers are thought of in this way by a hoarder, it becomes possible to understand that to discard them may seem an act of sheer recklessness, and would be seen by them as being both wasteful and foolish. The mere thought of discarding them will cause the hoarder much grief and soul searching.
Of course any kind of organisation quickly becomes impossible. In the beginning it may be possible to loosely categorise things and stow them logically, but with continual compulsive hoarding, the sheer volume of growing clutter becomes unmanageable, and it is gets put anywhere where space permits. One of the symptoms of a compulsive hoarder is one of procrastination. They can be reluctant, and in some cases unable to reach decisions. One reason for not putting things away is the desire to be able to see them at all times so they do not become forgotten. In other instances, what starts out by harmlessly leaving a few items of clothing on top of a chest of drawers instead of inside them, can in time become a veritable mountain of clothing causing danger from smothering (as mentioned above), and of course representing a potential fire hazard.
There is also a danger of infection. Old clothes left lying around for months will get damp and collect mildew. This can irritate those who suffer from allergies and conditions such as asthma. Old empty food containers and even food leftovers will attract rodents, and their droppings and urine are a constant source of potentially serious infection.
The mountains of clutter left lying around can also interfere with the proper function of things in the house. Fireplaces become unusable, and winters can be very cold and uncomfortable in hoarder’s houses, and even toilets and bathrooms become overrun with clutter. Cluttered houses are dangerous places for children, and also for the elderly who will have extreme difficulty trying to navigate themselves around and through the chaos.
But it is not only the hoarders themselves who are in danger, their clutter also represents a fire hazard to neighbour’s houses, and also to any members of the emergency services who are called to the house to deal with fires or other emergencies.
There is also a financial consideration. To declutter a chronic hoarder’s house is quite an expensive operation, and if the hoarder cannot finance it him/herself, then the local council has to step into the breach and use taxpayer’s money. Of course there is no guarantee that the house won’t revert back to becoming a rubbish tip again.
The good news however is that CBT treatments (as mentioned in an earlier paragraph), have shown successful results. It is not normally possible to truly rid a hoarder of his/her compulsion altogether, but a structured CBT program can help a hoarder to manage their condition. They are taught to recognise and analyse their compulsions in a way that makes it possible to resist them, perhaps not 100%, but to really put a limit on adding to their clutter, whilst at the same time making it possible for the hoarder to be able to consider gradually discarding and reducing the size of their hoard.