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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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EW: So how were you able to get him to get rid of all those bike parts?

DB: We had to look at different ways. The first thing I did is build trust by telling him I wouldn’t throw anything away. The second thing I said was, "You will probably want to throw things away once you realize you’re in charge." So giving the person dignity and trust and empowering them. Then really understanding that with hoarders and folks with OCD, they can look at a bunch of quarters and $100 bills and old newspapers, and it’s like they all have the same value. There’s no differentiating piece in the brain. What we want to do is look at their things and say what is most valuable to you. So rather than asking what do you want to throw away, let’s start asking what do you want to keep. And let’s prioritize what you want to keep.

EW: What is the biggest misconception people have about hoarders?

DB: The misconceptions are that people are being ridiculous and they should just get rid of it. The misconception is that you just can’t make decisions. Another one is that they don’t care about their family because when their house is full then family can’t visit. So they think the stuff is more important than the family. There are a lot of misconceptions.

EW: You say hoarding is growing. Do you have any hard numbers?

DB: I know it’s in the millions in terms of hoarders in this country. It’s new in terms of being talked about, but people have been hoarding for a long time, they’ve always collected and hoarded, but it’s only being documented now because it's a health hazard to our neighbors and ourselves. So they, meaning the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, don’t have all the hard numbers. They’re still trying to figure this out.

EW: What about the different degrees of hoarding? What if you have one room with a lot of stuff in it?

DB: That’s not hoarding really. That’s just life in 2008. Lots of people have garages or storage units or basements full of stuff they just can’t get rid of. We were bred in a society through the late '70s and certainly the '80s to collect, and in the '90s, oh boy, we had the money to do it. And it’s only now, especially now with the economy, where we’re being asked to come in as organizers to help them get rid of stuff because they’re losing their houses, they need to move, they need to get their paperwork in order. If you have a room full of stuff, but the rest of the house in pretty livable and you make your appointments on time and can have people over and you pay your bills on time, then you’re OK. If you bring in tons of takeout food and just leave it and don’t clean it up and have rodents or roaches coming into the home, then that impacts daily life and daily health. Then you’re bordering on hoarding. But if it’s not impacting you or your family, probably not.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.

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