Being a professional Psychotherapist is often strange at dinner parties. Either someone corners me to ask intimate questions about themselves or a loved one or certain people avoid me for fear that I am analyzing their every comment and non-verbal cue. Yikes! Therapists are just as friendly and sociable as anyone else, usually. Still, it is interesting to have insight to add in group conversation. Recently the topic of hoarders, those depicted on television and those within the community, arose in our conversation with great fascination. As baby boomers with our special collections, aging parents with bulging attics and basements; what were the boundaries of hoarding?
First, let’s give credit to the television program I referenced, TLC’s Buried Alive: Hoarding, (taken from their website) which explores the compulsion to accumulate and store large quantities of nonessential things. Each episode tells the stories of hoarders struggling with behavior that has made every day existence unbearable for both them and their loved ones. With the help of expert therapists and organizers, the hoarders will attempt to unlock the key to their obsessions in hope of reclaiming their lives. The program has been wildly successful and has spawned sibling programs on TLC’s: Confessions: Animal Hoarding, My Strange Addiction, and Freaky Eaters to expose additional issues for examination to viewers.
It’s important to note that hoarding is different from collecting. Collectors often categorize their items and carefully display them. Collecting is the act of assembling items in accumulation as a hobby or a study. So if I assemble tea cups, sea shells, or comic books into a collection, perhaps you might be interested in seeing them. Those who have collections, deliberately search out specific items for their collections. However, should my collecting become pathological or compulsive, it is changed from collecting to hoarding status, because it becomes excessive in acquisition and deviates from the original collection topic. Hoarders, on the other hand, will save random items they encounter in their daily life and store them haphazardly in their homes or surrounding areas.
“So what about my dear old dad’s National Geographic Magazine Collection spanning my entire lifetime? He swears they’re gold, I say trash! Is that a collection or hoarding?” As a therapist, not an appraiser, I am gonna call it “a little of both.” It is your father’s collection providing he has them neatly shelved or boxed and everyone can walk through and breathe. It makes him happy to think of the years he’s saved them and all you’ve learned from them. You might explain all that info is on computers now and see if he’s open to donating to schools and art program. If he knows kids still need to see them, maybe he’ll feel better about parting with some. Otherwise when it is time to sell his home you’ll be hauling them to the recycle center (or art program, school, etc). I do not believe they have more value than sentimental.
Compulsive hoarding is a pattern of behavior which involves excessive acquisition and inability or unwillingness to discard the large quantities of objects which would qualify as useless or without value. Those who hoard save items because they believe these items will be needed or have value in the future. An individual may hoard items he or she feels has important emotional significance; they serve as a reminder of happier times or represent beloved people. People who hoard may report feeling safer when surrounded by the things they save. Compulsive hoarding behavior has been associated with health risks, impaired functioning, economic burden, and adverse effects on friends and family members. When clinically significant enough to impair functioning, hoarding can prevent use of space to limit activities such as cooking, cleaning, moving through the house, and sleeping. It can also be dangerous if it puts the individual or others at risk for fire, falling, poor sanitation, and other health concerns. The social stigma for families is significant and hoarding is highly socially isolating.
It is not entirely clear to social scientists what triggers hoarding; it is more complicated than it seems. While hoarding does share some resemblance to OCD (Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder), it is not the same thing. How it resembles is in the close association of fears; fears of losing important information, fears of losing objects of emotional significance, fears of lack of symmetry, etc. The difference from OCD is that that thoughts in hoarding tend to not be as intrusive, repetitive, ritualistic, unpleasant as in OCD. Hoarding is more a passive preoccupation than an attempt to neutralize unwanted thoughts, images or impulses. Hoarding also can have its euphoric side when an item is found to hoard, like compulsive shopping.
The distress associated in getting rid of possessions in hoarding is far more related to grief and anger but expressed as anxiety. The role of trauma and developmental disorders in hoarding require great understanding on the part of the therapist and may require supervision for the hoarder.
“People who hoard animals may have dozens or hundreds of pets in their care, without time, energy, and funds to care for them properly. Families are often so frustrated with these individuals who neglect themselves and other people for this sad predicament.”
Unlike what is depicted on television, hoarding ranges from mild to severe. Clutter and difficulty discarding things are usually the first symptoms of hoarding. Across the lifespan, problems can usually surface during the teenage years, as an affected person grows older, he or she typically starts acquiring things for which there is no need or space, and then, by middle age, symptoms are often severe. If you or a loved one has symptoms of hoarding, talk with a doctor or mental health provider as soon as possible. Hoarding can be a symptom of another disorder, such as grief, depression, psychiatric or developmental issues. Some communities have agencies that help with hoarding problems. Check with your local or county government for resources in your area. As hard as it might be, in severe cases, you may also need to contact local authorities, such as police, fire, public health or animal welfare agencies, especially when health or safety is in question. Above all, hoarders and their families are people in great pain and deserve our utmost compassion and understanding as such.
Gail-Elaine Tinker, M.S. is a Psychotherapist, Reiki Master, Advocate, Writer, Speaker, and Teacher located in Bethlehem, PA you may learn more about her work at www.tinkerpsychotherapy.com or contact her at 610-216.4319.
TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive – Debbie