Hoarding—It's not what you see on TV

Jill Barron* of Wisconsin was always a saver. She kept class notes from junior high well into adulthood, along with candy wrappers for craft projects, recipes she thought she might one day make and comics that gave her a smile.

Hoarding Image - Masterfile

Seven years ago, after her daughter was born, Jill began buying up a storm: clothing, shoes and toys for her newborn to use in the future. Within a year, Jill’s home became packed with piles of possessions. Soon, she could no longer walk through her basement, entertain in her dining room or prepare food at her kitchen counter. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to throw or give anything away.

Jill is one of the up to 15 million Americans who suffer from compulsive hoarding. While most homes have a junk drawer or two, and millions of people enjoy collecting items they feel drawn to—studies show kids as young as 25 months doing this with stuffed animals—hoarding is a different matter.

Compulsive hoarders have an uncontrollable need to acquire. They collect vast amounts of items, which often have little or limited value and store them haphazardly. They form such powerful emotional attachments to these possessions that they can’t discard them, even when living spaces become unusable—like Jill’s kitchen counter.

“People often ask when clutter crosses the line,” says Gail Steketee, Ph.D., a professor of social work at Boston University and coauthor of the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). “Any level of clutter that causes distress and prevents you from daily activities can be considered a hoarding problem.”

Hoarders often share a set of other problems, such as great difficulty with organization and decision-making in every part of their lives, from paying bills to keeping appointments. Hoarders often get distracted or lost and show up late more frequently than non-hoarders.

Compulsive buying is also common for hoarders, who tend to acquire goods on impulse—without thinking about the cost of yet another new lamp or where they will put it, says Stuff coauthor Randy Frost, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

While hoarders may be embarrassed to have others see their homes or feel upset about their disorganization, they typically resist attempts to reduce their hoards—even when family members are deeply distressed. To hoarders, “it can feel like they are throwing away part of their identity,” says Steketee. “These objects become an important part of their lives.”

In December 2012, the American Psychiatric Association approved changes to the manual used by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders. The DSM-5 identifies hoarding as a category separate from OCD.

*Jill’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. Not pictured.

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Source: Adapted from our sister publication, REMEDY (Winter 2010): Updated by the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Nov 2010

Last Modified: 03 Feb 2015