Many of us might believe that hoarding is a problem that only happens on TV; thanks to reality shows, the disorder is seen as a problem that afflicts only recluses or peculiar old people, whose hoarding habits escalate to the point where they become life-or-death issues. In the real world, however, hoarding isn't a disorder that can only happen to "certain" people, and it isn't a disorder that is always "obvious." Though anyone can become a hoarder, the Anxiety And Depression Association Of America notes that it is typically seen among people already struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or depression. The range of those disorders might give you an insight into how tricky hoarding is to treat, because it's not a uniform behavior in response to a uniform problem. People hoard for many different reasons: to stop their anxiety or to feel safe; because they feel like it helps them avoid catastrophe; because it helps them cope with negative feelings. Basically, hoarding is not as simple as you might think it is.
If you do have a friend who you think may be at risk of hoarding, know that getting them help is not about just urging them to them clean their house; people dealing with hoarding have to treat their underlying mental health issues, not just tidy up.
And if you are helping a friend work through their problems with hoarding, make sure you get the help you need to support yourself through the process, too; if somebody close to you (or somebody with whom you share living space) has issues with hoarding, things are likely going to be fraught (or, at the very least, complicated), and it may be too much to handle on your own.
Here are seven signs of hoarding behavior that should definitely make you pay attention.
Check It Out: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, $10, Amazon
1. They React Very Poorly When Asked To Clear Up
Requests (or commands from landlords or housemates) to clear out some of their stuff will likely be met with extreme, aggressive, or emotional reactions that read as out of proportion to the person making the request. They may avoid the issue, stonewall, react with dismissiveness or overt anger, but the outcome will be the same: they do not want to throw away their possessions, even if said possessions have no apparent use (and are making their life and living space difficulty to navigate). This is due to the strength of the psychological attachment that hoarders build towards their "hoard".
2. They Seem To Acquire Many Belongings With No Obvious Use
One symptom persistently mentioned in the medical literature about hoarding is how the collected items may seem strange or "useless" to outsiders. This is part of what separates hoarding from collecting; hoarders will take home or keep anything from free flyers to unimportant magazines that went out of date three years ago; the items have no obvious use and aren't for decoration or to complete a collection or project. Rather, it's the physical act of having them, of storing them, that is the important element. Hoarders may also, according to the International OCD Foundation, develop the sense that inanimate objects have emotions of their own and don't wish to be thrown away.
3. They No Longer Organize Their Stuff
The National Health Service points out that organization is one of the main distinctions between people who are "collectors" (you know, folks who have to own every single Barbie doll produced since 1960) and those who are actually hoarders: collectors organize, and often meticulously care for, their items. They're conscious of where every item in their collection is, and are invested in maintaining its condition and order. Hoarders, on the other hand, may insist that they're collectors, but hoarding doesn't have an organizational principle; in a typical hoarding situation, things just pile up.
4. They've Become Reclusive Or Prefer To Meet Away From Home
When you think of hoarding, you may not immediately think about the social consequences, but according to the Mayo Clinic, social side effects are a part of the condition, not something that can be separated from it. If your friend is becoming seriously socially reclusive and refuses to leave their house, or, conversely, will only interact with people outside their home space (usually because of shame or embarrassment they feel about their conditions), it's a sign to keep in mind.
Remember, however, that your friend may not necessarily draw a conclusion between their social habits and their hoarding habits; a study from 2010 about treating hoarding pointed out that "insight-related challenges" (the inability of hoarders to look at their own behavior rationally) actually make treating it with the same methods as other OCD conditions quite hard.
5. They Invest Strong Emotions In Possessions
We all have some objects we feel very strongly about — a pair of shoes we bought with the paycheck from our first real, adult job; a mug that reminds us over a wonderful trip we took. But the emotions that hoarders feel about objects are different.
The Clinician's Guide To Severe Hoarding says that one of the biggest symptoms of hoarding behavior is "overvalued ideation;" in other words, hoarders have irrational ideas about the value of the stuff they have, hence their huge resistance to getting rid of it. The two most common methods of irrational valuing are giving objects massive sentimental weight, or believing they "may be useful someday," both of which can be used to justify keeping huge amounts of items that are not useful, like out-of-date newspapers or outgrown clothing.
Another symptom that the Clinician's Guide mentions is a sense of "inflated responsibility," which means that a hoarder believes that they alone are responsible for deciding whether to keep or discard everything in their possession, and the responsibility paralyzes them. It's hard to part with something when your head's telling you that it might save you from a fire someday, or that it belonged to your Great-Aunt Nancy and thus can never be thrown away.
Dr. David Mataix-Cols at Help For Hoarders outlines a few other ways in which hoarders can be emotionally over-invested in their stuff. In the case of some people, he says, "hoarding accompanies a fear of contaminating/harming others if 'contaminated' possessions are discarded, or superstitious thoughts such as the unreasonable belief that throwing something away will result in a catastrophe of some kind." That tends to be associated with fairly intense OCD, which is sometimes based around averting catastrophe with repetitive behavior.
6. Their Home Is Becoming Unsanitary
If you've noticed cockroaches, flies, rotting items, or other unhygienic conditions in your friend's home due to their hoarding, it's time to dismiss your doubts and try to help. An expert interviewed at Everyday Health noted that unsanitary living spaces — even they're confined to just a few spots in the house or apartment — are a pretty crucial sign that the accumulation of possessions is getting out of hand.
The International OCD Foundation also notes that, in addition to unsanitary conditions, rooms that can no longer be used for their intended purpose (bedrooms for sleeping, bathrooms for washing) due to build-up of possessions are a warning sign of hoarding. Dirty conditions resulting in an inability to clean or remove food waste are a recipe for bad health, and should cause serious concern.
7. They Express Discomfort About Other People Interacting With Their Belongings
This is tied to feelings of over-attachment; the relationship a hoarder shares with their items is theirs and theirs alone, and they may react in strange ways when other people touch, interact with or even talk about their stuff. The Mayo Clinic lists "excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow them" as one of the leading signs of hoarding, which may seem strange to outsiders who think that the items hoarders accumulate seem to hav little value.
But that's the key to understanding hoarding behavior; items that may look random or useless to us have been imbued with intense meaning by the hoarder, and we can't begin to help a hoarder until we understand this.
Also Check Out: Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding, $9, Amazon
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