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How Compulsive Hoarding Can Threaten Your Health and Take Over Your Life

The inability to part with possessions is often a symptom of psychiatric disorder -- and it's on the rise in America.
 
 
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For some people, it’s Civil War memorabilia, for others old newspapers and magazines, and for some old yogurt containers and plastic bags. Some of us might have a drawer or a closet filled with things we have been meaning to sort through, but for compulsive hoarders, getting rid of objects that seem worthless to others can be agonizing, and their stuff ends up taking over their lives.

Because of the piles of possessions they can’t bear to part with, hoarders often can’t sit in their living rooms, sleep in their bedrooms or cook in their kitchens. Many have a narrow path from room to room in their homes to navigate through the clutter. Often they can’t find valuable items such as a check or a piece of jewelry. There are safety hazards, such as tripping over piles, or the danger of fire with stacks of papers and magazines all over the house. People who live in houses with excessive clutter are at risk of more health problems because of the dust, mildew and fungus that can be caused by the disorder.

Not much is understood about the causes of hoarding, which is thought to affect over a million Americans. Compulsive hoarders may have a difficult time getting rid of objects because they are anxious they will need them in the future, feel the items have sentimental value or do not want to be wasteful. Compulsive hoarding is often a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder or depression.

Professional organizer Dorothy Breininger, CEO of the Center for Organization, recently spoke at the nation’s largest annual conference on compulsive hoarding and cluttering, hosted by the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. She also appears in the new documentary, Saving Our Parents, where she talks about how hoarding can impact the elderly. She spoke with AlterNet’s Emily Wilson about the difference between hoarding and clutter, the safety risks of having a house stuffed with junk, and how to help someone you think may have the disease.

Emily Wilson: How did you get started working in hoarding?

Dorothy Breininger: I got a call in 2003 from the L.A. County Council on Defense. They were looking for someone to help this gentleman who was 76 years old. His name was Lloyd, and he was going to jail because he had too much stuff. He had 5,000 bikes and bike parts in his house, and he was sleeping in a reclining chair on the front porch in inner city L.A. And they asked me if I could help him avoid going to jail and avoid having conservatorship placed on him, and I said "Of course," and then they said, "Well, we can’t pay you," and I really thought about it and said "Yeah, I’ll do it." It took about eight months, and we met with judges and environmentalists and rodent specialists, and we kept him from going to jail. We got his house in shipshape. I kept saying to Lloyd, "If you would only clear the clutter, something good will happen in your life." And he started having people over, he wound up meeting people, he went to church and he wound up meeting and marrying his church sweetheart.

EW: What is it that leads people to do that? Why do people start hoarding?

DB: Often we see it in the senior population, and sometimes they start hoarding maybe after their spouse passed away.  It’s like a great big hug and provides a wall of protection to the outside world. That’s one reason. Another is a serious illness. They can no longer function, they can no longer get out, so they stop going out, they start watching TV and collecting things. Another is they have no family nearby who can help them, and they go unchecked and nobody stops by to see what’s going on. Those are some of the top reasons. And then of course there is OCD, which is obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s right there in the front lobe of the brain. Some of us are just more predisposed to being organized than others. It’s just how our brains are designed.

 
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