Remember your first childhood friend? That adorable stuffed toy, that’s probably packed up in a box somewhere right now. It’s a little more worn and tattered than it used to be (aren’t we all?), but it’s still the same loving companion you cherished way back when.
Well then. It’s time to throw it out.
Don’t panic; we’re not serious. But your reaction just now might give you an idea of how a compulsive hoarder might feel when a loved one goes to put last November’s newspaper in the bin – or merely mentions it.
Compulsive hoarding is a serious mental condition affecting lives and relationships every day.
To learn more about the condition, its causes and how to overcome it, we spoke with Wendy Hanes and Angela Esnouf from Hoarding Home Solutions. They were kind enough to share their expert knowledge on the topic.
Hoarding Disorder: In Psychological Terms
First of all, if your home is cluttered, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a hoarder. According to Wendy and Angela, many factors can lead to a cluttered home, like mobility, aging issues, passive decline, or substance abuse. But these are entirely separate from having a hoarding disorder.
“The essential feature of hoarding disorder is persistent difficulty parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value,” they explain.
Think about your stuffed toy again. Now think about an old food container. While you would instinctively feel more attachment to the teddy than the used takeaway container, in many cases, people with this disorder can form an attachment to any object, even if it’s objectively worthless.
But what exactly is hoarding?
“Hoarding disorder is recognised as a diagnosable and treatable behavioural mental health condition,” Wendy and Angela say.
Just because you have 300 pairs of shoes, it doesn’t make you a hoarder – you could just be a collector.
Wendy and Angela identify 3 elements as the main signifiers of hoarding:
Anyone with hoarding disorder will gather objects that many of us would consider useless, from old clothes to used toilet rolls. These can gather in garages, wardrobes, on the floor – wherever there’s room.
Or, in fact, even if there isn’t room.
One signpost of compulsive hoarding is that the person will acquire many random things without considering whether there’s actually space available for those items.
2. Failure to discard
Once something is accumulated, it’s there for the long haul.
This will often manifest initially as neglecting to throw things away, before evolving into refusing to do so when prompted by another person (such as a partner or family member).
3. The inability to use your space as it’s intended
This occurs when the amount of accumulated objects becomes so severe that it drastically limits general living space. It’s also the foundation of many negative side effects.
“People often are unable to sleep in their own beds or cook in their kitchen, or sometimes even shower in their own bathroom,” Angela and Wendy say.
The effects can be devastating to a person’s lifestyle and their relationships. And it can lead to people isolating themselves from friends and family who may scrutinise or criticise these details.
Properly diagnosing Compulsive hoarding disorder requires a mental health professional.
The Reasons Behind Hoarding
Well, the reasons seem practical to a hoarder.
A person will hoard items they believe will be useful or hold some kind of value in the future, according to Dr. Fugen Neziroglu, a cognitive psychologist and leading researcher on anxiety disorders. Hoarded items may also act as treasured reminders of memories someone may be afraid to lose.
These beliefs sit at the very core of hoarding behaviour.
Hoarding disorder is commonly associated with other mental health conditions.
“Some of these may be obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and social anxiety disorder,” Wendy and Angela say.
The condition doesn’t arise from age or laziness. It grows like any mental condition. And can even grow from them.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders*, hoarding that arises from OCD can lack those practical beliefs. A compulsive hoarder may believe an object holds no value, but hoard it anyway (like rubbish or unusual items).
It’s purely a compulsion. And it can affect anyone.
“Hoarding does not discriminate,” Wendy and Angela state. “In our experience, we’ve worked with bank managers, school teachers, psychologists, barristers, who almost live a double life.”
In fact, a hoarder’s co-workers or anyone else they interact with would likely be shocked to see the state of their homes and how they live. But there are always deep factors at play.
*Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition), American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
The Effects of Hoarding Disorder
Wellbeing, Wallets and Space
According to The Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria, many hoarders will often shop excessively, accumulate masses of items or rubbish, and clog their home.
The end result is a home that’s no longer a living space.
It’s a storehouse. And the possessor has become possessed, serving the items they bought.
Other than being a financial burden, hoarding damages daily routines and makes general living incredibly difficult. This can plague a person’s mind.
“Research indicates that 75% of people with a hoarding disorder have a comorbid (co-existing) mood or anxiety disorder,” Wendy and Angela state.
Beyond a cluttered home, the effects of hoarding can be extensive and can ultimately seep into relationships. There’s a common story at play that Wendy and Angela witness regularly.
Friends and family of a compulsive hoarder will often just see the symptom: mess. With their love and compassion, they’ll try and help by attempting to fix the mess. But trying to fix the symptom misses (and can even worsen) the real issue.
“This can lead to frustration, hurt feelings and the breakdown of relationships,” they say.
“It all ends in mistrust, and actually exacerbates the urge to collect.”
In many cases, the last chapter of the story is isolation from loved ones, as they feel as though the person hoarding has chosen stuff over their relationship.
“We see children hoarded out of their own bedrooms, families who haven’t been able to share a meal together in the family home, and people growing up in homes where visitors are shunned,” Wendy and Angela say.
The worst effect of hoarding may be the legacy passed on to kids. Wendy and Angela often see hoarding traits passed on between generations. Even if the child grew up hating the clutter, they may still continue the behaviour.
But suffering doesn’t have to be the final chapter of the story. And there certainly doesn’t need to be a sequel.
Overcoming Hoarding Disorder
If you’re affected by hoarding behaviour or have a loved one showing signs of it, there are steps to overcome it. And it isn’t all about tidying a space and decluttering.
“Clearing out does not fix a hoarding problem,” explain Wendy and Angela.
“The best treatment for managing hoarding disorder is a collaborative effort between an appropriate mental health professional and in-home service providers.”
“The mental health clinician generally uses cognitive behavioural therapy to change the client’s behaviour and thinking while a skilled professional works with the householder in the home to teach new skills to manage the clutter.”
There isn’t a one-step cure. Overcoming a hoarding disorder involves managing it, which requires time, patience and professional help.
Wendy Hanes is Australia’s only Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization (CPO-CD©) and assists countless Australians in organising their lives.
Angela Esnouf runs her business, Creating Order from Chaos, to help people organise their homes and lives.