You’ve likely seen or heard references to hoarders in your daily life, or in pop culture. There’s a popular TV series, Hoarders, that explores the lives of people who suffer from compulsive hoarding. And you might have even been called out for “hoarding” by a friend or family member when you refused to get rid of an item that no longer has any use.
But while it’s sometimes the subject of jokes and entertainment, hoarding disorder is a serious affliction—and we should all work to understand it a little better.
The Basics of Hoarding
Hoarding disorder is characterized by a recurring reluctance to part with personal possessions. People who suffer from compulsive hoarding oftentimes accumulate countless items, regardless of “real” value, and refuse to get rid of those items. Over time, their homes and apartments fill up with these items, compromising their ability to live a normal life, and in many cases, causing the deterioration of the property.
People who inherit the property of a hoarder, and those attempting to help a hoarding loved one, often have limited options for help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other therapeutic techniques have been shown to help hoarders resolve their inner anxiety, at least to some extent. But if there’s been extensive damage to the property, your best option may be to sell the home as is; otherwise, you’ll need to hire a professional cleaning crew.
Signs and Symptoms of Hoarding
These are some of the most notable signs and symptoms of hoarding disorder:
Excessive accumulation of items. People who hoard end up with an exorbitant number of items. These could be practically anything, including collectible items, newspapers, and even fast food wrappers.
Strong feelings of attachment to items. Hoarding disorder also causes people to develop unnaturally strong feelings of attachment to the items in their possession. This isn’t just an empty French fry box—it’s a very important empty French fry box that can’t be thrown away under any circumstances.
Feelings of anxiety and/or fear around getting rid of items. The thought of getting rid of an item fills a person with hoarding disorder with anxiety. They can’t stand the idea of throwing things away, donating them, or otherwise giving up possession.
Accumulated clutter. The houses of hoarders tend to be very cluttered. There are items strewn about everywhere, and it may be difficult (or impossible) to move around.
Indecisiveness, avoidance, and perfectionism. There are a host of other personality traits generally associated with hoarding disorder. For example, people with compulsive hoarding tend to be highly indecisive, they tend to avoid problems, and they tend to be perfectionists.
Hoarding isn’t always focused on inanimate objects; in some cases, the desire to accumulate can extend to animals. In these tragic cases, hoarding individuals sometimes acquire dozens, or even hundreds of pets. There may be countless cats roaming around the house, or hundreds of animals kept in makeshift terrariums throughout the house. Due to the sheer number of animals present, the cluttered condition of the house, and the caretaker’s inability to provide, these animals generally aren’t cared for properly; they may not get enough nutrition, and may be living in unsanitary conditions.
When to Seek Help
Most of us have had difficulty parting with items in the past, and many of us have collections we’re proud of. However, these are normal behaviors. How can you tell when someone is genuinely collecting, versus when someone is in need of help?
Physical clutter. One of the most obvious hallmarks is physical clutter. People with large collections often take care to properly categorize each item and put them on display with pride; items are on shelves or are filed away. But with hoarding disorder, things tend to be much less organized. There are stacks and piles of items throughout the home, serving little to no purpose.
Emotions and attitudes. You can also identify hoarding disorder by the emotions and attitudes of the person accumulating items. When they think about getting rid of something, are they simply reluctant, or do they seem paralyzed with fear? Are they aware that their collection is getting a little out of hand, or are they desperate to keep collecting more at any cost?
Reaction to assistance. Also pay attention to how this person reacts to assistance. If you make a suggestion or attempt to help them clean, do they respond aggressively? Or do they take things in stride?
If you or a loved one is suffering from compulsive hoarding, the best thing you can do is contact a therapist. A professional will be able to help you analyze the situation, and provide you or your loved one with the therapeutic techniques and resources necessary to minimize the impact of the disorder.