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What is Hoarding & How Does it Affect Others?

Updated on December 20, 2016

What is Hoarding?

Hoarding is a behavior associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but is defined as a separate mental illness known officially as "hoarding disorder." It is a real mental illness extremely difficult to overcome without help from others. Often, counseling and drug therapy are needed to make any headway with the disorder, not to mention positive support from family and friends.

Hoarders keep everything they can, and feel guilty selling or throwing things away. They personify their belongings, often attaching feelings to objects. For example, hoarder Jane still has an old baby rattle she was given as an infant. When she was two years old, she broke the rattle and lost all the plastic beads from inside. When her mother threw it away, Jane was hysterical and eventually her mom gave in and retrieved it from the trash. Jane continued to tote the silent toy around through the years and into adulthood as a "keepsake". Jane loves the rattle dearly, and feels it must somehow love her too. When someone suggests to Jane that it's an old, worthless, broken rattle, she simply cannot imagine betraying it by sending it to the dump.

Like many hoarders, Jane's disorder does not stem from a single traumatic experience. She exhibited hoarding behavior even as a small child. She cannot help but attach a kind of personality to each item that enters her home or life. Every small thing remains of utmost importance to her. Different levels of stress over a hoarder's lifetime can cause "flare-ups" of the behavior, but it usually doesn't get out-of-control until around 40 years of age.

Common Traits in Hoarders

Hoarding is difficult to generalize because of its complexity, but hoarders appear to have four things in common. The most obvious to both hoarders and their loved ones is some form of emotional dysfunction. Mild to severe depression or anxiety disorders are common. Even the tendency to be a perfectionist. They are often not happy until things are "just right" in their view. Like other people, hoarders can recognize that they are depressed, anxious, or obsessed with details but will usually choose to ignore these issues because they don't feel it really affects their lives. Emotional dysfunction is easy to brush off as something you can work through by yourself even when it's a substantial problem.

A second trait in those with hoarding disorder has to do with cognitive function. These are things like ADHD, memory issues, an inability to reason or make decisions, and lack of organization and categorizing skills. People with these kinds of problems run into information hurdles. Even intelligent people sometimes need to break down complex ideas into small pieces in order to process them in a way that's easier to understand. For hoarders, it's necessary to do this for even small decisions. Like emotional dysfunction, the degree of difficulty a hoarder has in this area varies from person to person.

Like Jane, most hoarders attach personality or emotion to the inanimate objects in their possession. Hoarders tend to sympathize with other people more often. They form attachments to others, animals, and a wider variety of objects more easily. In a hoarders mind, everything has a life and history all its own. Each item has a story, and hoarders have a hard time ending what has become a kind of relationship between themselves and their things.

The fourth thing most hoarders have in common is a fear of being wasteful. They keep things because they are somehow useful, or could be if fixed-up. For example, a collection of used Zip-Lock bags is kept because they can be washed and reused for non-food items. They are not trash, but useful in certain circumstances. Hoarders keep many "project" collections; That is, things they intend to fix or re-purpose. They view these as opportunities, and have an extremely hard time giving up on these opportunities. Hoarders don't want to miss out on something that could benefit them in the future.

So far as we know, there is no hoarding gene. It's a combination of these traits that make the tendency to hoard extremely likely. Especially when additional stress is introduced. Emotionally and physically traumatic events were once thought to cause hoarding. It is more accurate to say that they magnify preexisting dysfunctions.

Families

Because there are so many other underlying issues that contribute to hoarding behavior, it's difficult for family to understand what drives a person to act this way. They cannot point to one thing as the cause. Hoarders are equally frustrated by these factors. There seems to be no explanation they can embrace and overcome. It's so many different things happening at the same time.

Think about the four most common traits for a moment. A hoarder who can see she is causing her family grief knows regret. She can feel guilty, sad, and have a strong desire to change. At first glance, it seems she could actually work through her problem, but combine these emotions with a mood disorder that makes them each a mountain in their own. Then add in the cognitive challenge of trying to think things through and work out a plan for change. It's easy to become overwhelmed and stressed to the point where your mind shuts off.

When stress in life increases, we all tend toward activities that either alleviate or avoid it. For hoarders, who have often alienated family members out of their home and have the ability to relate to a broader variety of beings, they turn to their stuff. Other family members are quick to interpret this displaced concern as outright rejection, stubbornness, or refusal to participate in reality. All that stuff holds a higher value than they do. However, this is not the case. Hoarders love their family the same as anyone else. But the fact that they can relate to inanimate objects as well as other people creates a rift in understanding between family members. Hoarders cannot understand why their family wants to sever all their valued relationships and memories with objects, essentially friendships. While families don't understand how these relationships can exist with inanimate objects. This void of understanding is what tears families apart.

Dangers of Hoarding

A hoarder's home can be harmful to her health. It can contain decomposing organic matter, fecal remains from pets, mold and mildew buildup, and other harmful substances. Not only that, but accumulated possessions pose an extreme fire hazard and prevent emergency paramedics from reaching hoarders within their home.

Family members are bewildered by the danger hoarders put themselves in voluntarily. They are genuinely concerned for the safety and health of their loved ones who hoard, but can't effectively communicate that message. Hoarders view their accumulation of possessions as an acceptable lifestyle choice, just as someone who climbs mountains for enjoyment accepts the risk of injury or death, so do they. To them, they are in control of their lives. Hoarders often view the opinion of others as criticism of their life choices instead of seeing it as true concern. Especially when family members get confrontational because they so desperately want to get through to their loved one. It is important that family members and friends choose their words carefully when confronting a hoarder about their worries.

Coping With Hoarding Together

Because hoarding is such a complicated disorder, it's next to impossible to handle alone. People with hoarders in their family may gently suggest their concern and desire to better the situation by attending therapy with their loved ones. Family members who are not hoarders can also benefit from individual therapy sessions to improve their communication skills. Hoarding is a sensitive subject that should be handled with delicacy. It's easy to become defensive and hostile when discussing this difficult topic. Anything that can help communication will greatly benefit both a hoarder and her family. Remain open-minded and listen carefully to each others' concerns. Do not expect a hoarder to be able to change her lifestyle overnight. Developing better organizational skills and habits will take years of help and there will be many small victories and setbacks. Stay positive and try not to criticize each other.

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