About Compulsive Hoarding

A very basic description of a compulsive hoarder is someone unable to dispose of excess or unused things things to the point where their belongings are clogging their living space.

Making a cup of tea, or sleeping in their own bed becomes impossible because the spaces designed for living in have become  storehouses. 

Compulsive hoarding as a survival mechanism

Some hoarding situations can be part of survival mechanisms.  Traditional farming entails saving or ‘hoarding’ a harvest to last through the winter, saving seed to be planted in the spring.  Other animals hoard.  Squirrels gather nuts.  Brain scans done on squirrels show activity in the same areas as human hoarders. 

Emergency candles, tinned goods and spare light bulbs are all useful things in moderation.  With a compulsive hoarder these positive choices are taken to an extreme where they no longer have any meaning or use.  The food kept by farmers for the winter will rot if not used.  Old seed loses its ability to sprout.  It is at this point that the psychological factors come into play.

Compulsive hoarding manifestations

The most familiar manifestation of hoarding is what is known in animal research as a 'cache'. This version is the one most often depicted in the media: a house over full with stuff coming out the doors and windows. The hoarder protects it all. There is another animal hoarding behaviour known as 'cache spacing' which is used by 'scatter hoarders'. Animals, like kangaroo rats, store their seeds in different places to assure themselves of food even if one cache is raided by another animal. Squirrels sometimes bury their small caches and then forget where. The nuts and seeds are able to germinate which assures the animals long term food supply.

Two of our non-hoarding clients were engaged in personal relationships with hoarders. The hoarders had access to the non-hoarders houses and had started hiding things in small caches. Because these were both non-hoarding houses, the caches of inappropriate and strange things were particularly noticeable and very unsettling. With all the research into animal hoarding and how it relates to human behaviour, it seems possible that some exploration into scatter hoarding would be valuable.

Psychological factors

The psychological component is effectively what locks the sufferer down turning their hoard into frozen pain.  The clogs and clots of things pile up into protective shells for their owners.  In severe cases,  moving single items, not even throwing them away will elicit cries and panic from the hoarder.  It is very important to recognise this part of hoarding.  A non-sufferer will look at a hoarders house and think: All that is needed here is a good clear out.  The house will then be liveable again.  Meals can be cooked.  Beds can be slept in.  Windows can be opened.  Guests can be invited. 

However, the hoarder has stopped living in their home.  The home has become a storage facility with the owner serving the things rather than the things serving the owner. Sometimes the hoarder will escape to other places to live.  This can take the form of frequent holidays.

The logic of the compulsive hoarder

Because there are times and places where hoarding has saved lives, compulsive hoarders are provided with reasons and justifications for their clogged homes.  They will argue that a person entitled to live as they choose. Doctors and other health professionals will speak about how ‘logical’ a compulsive hoarder can be. Hoarder logic can be applied to individual small things, micro behaviors: keeping a plastic bag, one newspaper etc. this is then combined with an inability to see or be embarrassed by the macro result: 1,000 plastic bags and huge towers of newspapers.

If the hoarder is embarrassed by the house and they don’t want people to see how they live, it is an encouraging sign since it means that the hoarder has accepted that there is something not right. This can be a first step towards seeking help.

Compulsive hoarding and acquiring

Compulsive hoarding is not just keeping things.  It is also acquiring.  Sometimes this can be out of control shopping and buying.  Other times it can be skip diving and scavenging.  If embarrassment about the condition in which they are living is the hoarders first step back to a living breathing home, stopping the acquiring cycle is the next. Again it is important to highlight how acquiring is ‘normal’ behavior. 

We all need to acquire food and clothing.  There are times when most people will experience the pleasure of a comfort buy: a chocolate bar, a new pair of shoes, a CD or a magazine.  When we are ill, having trouble at work or mourning a death these small things can get us through a day.  For the hoarder the purchase has two functions the first is that moment of acquisitive pleasure and the second is to build the shell walls higher, to make themselves feel safer.  Safety, and confidence are crucial in enabling the hoarder to stop building the walls higher, let alone dismantling them. 

Consequences of compulsive hoarding

A hoard can become a major health hazard, fire risk or has promoted vermin.  In these cases government departments move in and radically clear the site stripping the hoarder of their shell.  These are the cases that become come to the public notice in the news.  The hoarder regards this as rape and will almost certainly re-establish their protecting walls of junk within as little as three months.  Unless the psychological aspects are addressed, a liveable home cannot be achieved.

Hoarding and collecting

It is also important to differentiate between a hoard and a collection. A collector is someone who is proud of the collected things and wants to show them off. They invite guests to admire their collections. A hoarder is the opposite. They not want anyone in their home. For hoarders, barring visitors has to do with a fear that the visitor will move or destroy something. There are cases where trauma can tip a collector over the edge into becoming a hoarder.

A hidden illness

Hoarders who live alone can go unrecognised for years and years until their neighbours start to feel the impact.  During their working life, the hoarder will go out to work and entertain in public places.  Once they retire and/or become disabled the situation can become even worse and be compounded by increasing depression.

Not just the hoarder, but their family

Many times families will give-up.  Children who have grown up in a household clogged with refuse and paper will leave home and never return.  If they see their parent(s) at all, it will be in their own homes or restaurants.  The tragedy is that often the parents never get to know their grandchildren. There are some on-line support groups for children of hoarders.

A gradual process

The process of a cluttered home becoming a hoard storehouse is a gradual one. Traumas and anger can slow down the normal digestion and sorting of belongings. It can start as “getting behind”. When someone gets far enough behind, dealing with it becomes daunting.  Words take so much time to process that getting behind with them can happen very quickly.  Many people hoard words making those clots very common.

Physical fitness and energy are important considerations. Many people are able to ‘just’ stay on top of it until they get old. With less energy the task of addressing the piles can not only seem insuperable, it may be physically impossible.

Tackling the hoard

The road back is slow and measured. Throughout, the most crucial part of tackling a hoard is the person themselves, not how much stuff there is. In serious cases, the first steps may not seem very important or even perceptable to the average person but they are to us. To summarise what the insights might be: 

  • I stopped buying things, it was only making it all worse. 
  • I had to make a path for the plumber. When I let him in, I realised how awful it must look to him.
  • I was away on holiday and I thought how wonderful it was to be in an empty hotel room

As with anything acknowledging personal ownership of what is happening is the first step. The next is wanting help and being willing to accept it.

Clients have to call us themselves.

Family and friends can do the finding, for example by finding this website, but the call needs to come from the client.

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