Peeking into the depths of hoarding: understanding this mysterious disorder

Happy New Year!  In light of the new year’s resolutions and “fresh starts” that abound this time of year, I thought I would try to clean up some of the misperceptions of the complex issue of hoarding.  What is hoarding?  Compulsive hoarding is defined as the excessive acquisition of possessions (and the failure to use or discard them), even if the items are useless, hazardous, or unsanitary.  Hoarding interferes with mobility in the person’s living space, and with basic life activities such as cooking, cleaning, sleeping, showering and eating.  Some symptoms of hoarding may include: saving items that most people do not see as valuable and find worthless, compulsively buying and saving large quantities of items, experiencing intense anxiety or distress when discarding (or thinking about discarding) any of these items that others deem useless, being unable to use furniture or appliances due to clutter and experiencing a severe deterioration in housekeeping because of the lack of space.  Hoarding has also been known to include animals, such as cats and dogs.  These animals are typically types that can be kept indoors in large quantities and often are not given the proper care.

What causes hoarding? Is it linked to any other mental health disorders?  Hoarding is another of the “new” types of disorders that is in consideration for inclusion in the DSM-V.  Similar to other disorders I have written about in my blog, hoarding is controversial and there is still debate about its relevance as a mental disorder.  Clinicians are finding correlations between hoarding and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Some of the same factors in OCD, such as obsessive thoughts and compulsions that try to help cope with underlying feelings of inadequacy, emotional pain, and depression, can also be present in people who present with hoarding.  Hoarding not only affects the physical, emotional, and mental state of that person, it also affect the quality of life of the person’s family and anyone else who lives in the home.  Another effect of hoarding that might not be always recognized is the financial strain that this disorder causes on a person and/or a family.  A compulsion to aquire numerous possessions can initiate additional struggles of trying to figure out how to finance this need, and can force family members to learn how to be honest with each other about the consequences of this disorder and how it affects each member’s quality of life.

Feeling connected to large amounts of seemingly value-less possessions can be defense mechanisms against the more vulnerable feelings under the surface.  These possessions might be a physical representation of the emotions that have not yet been freely released.  When the hoarder is able to clean up their home and their life, unexpected emotions such as guilt and shame come to the surface and are given the opportunity to be explored and healed.  The ‘popularity’ of hoarding has been documented on television in such shows as TLC’s Hoarders: Buried Alive, and A&E’s Hoarders — making it a spectacle and a source of entertainment for the nation.  While these tv shows help give exposure to the issues behind the disorder and show that it is possible to recover from it, it also glamorizes this issue and can trivialize the true pain that comes with this and any other type of mental disorder.

Another outlet that I found for those affected by hoarding is through the internet — blogs, to be exact.  I found several blogs written by hoarders and written by children of hoarders.  Each blog depicts what it is like to live a daily life as a hoarder, or as the child of a hoarder, and how this has impacted them as they have grown and formed relationships of their own.   These are very real, honest accounts and can give hope and support to others in their situation — especially since this disorder can be judged inaccurately and misunderstood as to why it is becoming so prevalent.  Only since the early 1990s have we been doing research and looking deeper at the causes, consequences, and symptoms of hoarding, and we still have a long way to go.  Talk therapy and exposure therapy (wherein the client practices new ways of responding to triggers and uncomfortable thoughts that have previously caused hoarding behaviors) have been effective mechanisms for treating hoarding.

As new research and interventions are performed on people who suffer from hoarding disorder, we are finding new ways to treat this condition and bring peace to families who might now have realized what was going on.  Relationships are formed and renewed, and self-identity is explored in the healing process.  As we all have ways we can de-clutter our lives emotionally, physically, and spiritually, maybe hoarding is not quite so mysterious after all.  Now is the beginning of a fresh year! How are you going to begin?