‘Can’t I just keep it!? I might wanna use it later…’
I’m sure as a kid you would’ve fought with your parents when they asked you to surrender your favourite toy and as a teen, at least in this day and age, you’d find yourself struggling without having a computer or smartphone within arms’ reach at all times.
I know myself I’ve had certain objects which I fought to the teeth to keep: as a baby there was a certain blanket that apparently I refused to get rid of until it was just a 10cm x 10cm square, and now I can happily let my smart phone go, but try separating me from my computer unless I’m physically away from my house!
It’s just human nature to become emotionally attached to certain things whereas with other things we have no issues of disposing them when they are past their use-by date. It’s also essential to know the difference in helping to keep a clean kitchen and making sure that we don’t accidentally end up with food poisoning.
On a side note, I’m sure those of you familiar with the TV series Kitchen Nightmares (either the UK or US versions) would be well-versed in Chef Ramsay’s explosions regarding old and expired food lurking in the fridges of the restaurants he visits. It could be argued that many of the chefs and/or owners of these restaurants are hoarders to some degree, but then again, it can be difficult to determine who really has issues with throwing things away and which of them are just plain lazy and irresponsible.
What is a hoarder?
Hoarding used to be directly tied in to obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD (which I’ve discussed in greater detail here) but after further study, it is considered these days as a distinct disorder. It is also pretty common that the hoarding is a symptom of another underlying condition such as depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and ADHD.
Being able to tell when someone is hoarding can occasionally be difficult as there are some people who hold onto things for the purposes of posterity and these people are known as collectors. It could also be argued that people with cases of mild hoarding aren’t really hoarders in the classical sense: they just want a cosy home with all their beloved items close to them.
How do you define a hoarder then? The classic definition of a hoarder is someone who collects objects with no perceived value to the general population and when asked to get rid of the items, these people end up suffering from high levels of anxiety and their psyche tries to find any excuse in the book to hold something that inherently needs to be gotten rid of. There are also several sub-categories of hoarders, and the more severe the hoarder, the more likely that they are likely to cause themselves serious harm from the objects that they are keeping in their midst. The homes of the most severe hoarders have tripping hazards from objects piled on the floor as well as fire hazards from objects near cooking appliances and electricity cables and health hazards from decomposing objects and/or waste products.
Why can’t hoarders just get their acts together and get rid of the stuff?
Usually, hoarders are aware that they have too much around them, but there is something major holding them back. Like in some mental disorders, it’s easy for some people to say ‘just get rid of the mess!’ but for hoarders, it’s often not that simple. If people were to intervene and clean the hoard without the hoarder getting treatment for their condition, the mess would inevitably come back. This is because hoarders are often trapped in a cycle like the one below:
How can you tell the difference between a hoarder and a collector?
There are three things to look out for when trying to diagnose a hoarder as opposed to a collector:
- Usually, the line between collecting and hoarding becomes clear when the person in question is no longer able to perform daily activities in their house without the objects getting in the way: a collector can keep their objects and their daily life separate, a hoarder cannot.
- Collectors are able to maintain a normal social life within and outside their properties, whereas hoarders, especially in severe cases, lose the ability to socialize with other people and become hermits.
Also, a clue as to whether the person is a collector and a hoarder is if the person can resist the urge to go shopping for the objects in question and leave money for their daily expenses: collectors have a tendency to take their time to build their collection, whereas hoarders often cannot resist the urge to shop excessively, even if it means foreclosure of their homes and/or breaking up of relationships as a result.
What drives people to start hoarding objects in the first place?
There are several theories as to why people hoard. It can be contested that some of these people were originally collectors but they eventually became overloaded by their collection, but more often than not there is a deep psychological issue that the people use said objects in order to compensate for. Such theories include the following:
- A lack of attention and love from their parents i.e. using the objects as an emotional substitute
- Grabbing things for projects that they will complete ‘later’: these people tend to have lots of ideas but rarely go through with completing them
- Keeping of things that are ‘sentimental’ even though they may not indicate any real significant event in their life due to fear of them forgetting the event in question
- Trying to hide from a strong inner pain or stressful event in their life i.e. being unable to have children for whatever reason
Are there any specialized types of hoarding?
There are several types of hoarding, some of which people are more familiar with than others, and a couple of these have even landed in popular culture. Hoarding can also be split into two further categories: ‘clean’ hoarding and ‘dirty’ hoarding; as the name suggests, the latter version is far more dangerous as it can pose a serious health risk to the people involved: some of the things collected are perishable.
Some of the types of hoarding include the following:
- Animal hoarding
This is one of the most famous examples of hoarding: in fact it is SO well known that one of the secondary characters of the Simpsons is primarily known for this trait. Yep, I’m referring to the crazy cat lady here, as depicted on the picture on the right. She is also known as Dr Eleanor Abernathy M.D, and due to burnout from both her medical and law degrees she becomes an alcoholic and gradually takes in all these cats in order to cope with her stress, however it spirals out of her control. Individuals that hoard animals, as the name above explains, collect large amounts of pets and, though their intentions are admirable, due to the huge expenses of caring for so many animals, they lose the ability to properly take care of themselves as well as failing to pay any veterinary expenses. In severe cases,the animals unfortunately end up dying and end up decomposing in the houses.
Let’s face it, pets, particularly ones with special needs such as those who require medications of any kind, are expensive to look after, and the expenses multiply the more pets you own. This particular type of hoarding is one type of ‘dirty’ hoarding for self-explanatory reasons: like us humans, pets leave excrement behind, however they are unable to dispose of their waste away from the house like we do, unless they are given access to a backyard or another large enclosed outdoor area. The waste products that they leave behind contain some rather nasty bugs, and some of these are transmissible to humans if we aren’t careful. One example I can think of is the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is found in cat stools, and I discuss it more here.
There are several theories out there as to how someone can develop the need to hoard animals: the example above is one such case, however, more often than not, it seems to be a case of trying to compensate for a lack of emotional attachment from your parents as animals are famous for giving unconditional love.
- Book hoarding/record/CD hoarding
As the name above suggests, the hoarders collect objects like those above to the point that they overload the house that they live in. This particular type of hoarding is known clinically as bibliomania. In severe cases, sufferers of this type of hoarding may be putting themselves at fire risk and may lose the ability to prepare food for themselves. Additionally, the collection of books or other kinds of media becomes over-the-top when it begins to impact on the hoarders’ social skills: in severe cases, these people become recluses.
How is hoarding treated?
Like in some other mental disorders, hoarding is more likely to creep in if there is a hoarder in your immediate family. If there is an underlying condition which triggered the hoarding, the best course of treatment is to seek psychological help (known as cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT) to tackle the core of the problem. This treatment is designed to help the person sort through the over-the-top emotional responses that the objects make them feel and to help break the cycle of distress they feel when contemplating letting the objects go. Occasionally, medication may also be required to treat the symptoms and to help the person be able to better cope with a decluttering scenario. It is also useful to learn relaxation and breathing techniques. In the most severe cases, outside forces may be called in to help the person sort out the hoard and eventually return the property to a livable state.