Is the glass half empty, or half full? The way people interpret reality is rarely subject to universal principles and general standards. Perception is unique to every individual and reflects their specific points of view, sets of values, past experiences, and current state of mind. The same situation or event may present great opportunities to some and may cause troubles to others. Likewise, certain items may be useless to one person but invaluable to another. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and can categorize the world according to their own priorities, lifestyles, and worldviews.
However, this concept is only valid when people are able to make informed decisions and categorize situations and items according to their significance and practicality. On the contrary, if they experience organizational difficulties or severe indecisiveness, if they have problems with self-control and self-motivation, or lack proper socialization skills, their behavior is no longer seen as a manifestation of unique individuality but as a warning sign of an obsessive disorder. Compulsive hoarding is probably the most typical example of such a distraught behavior characterized by total disorganization and excessive accumulation of junk.
Hoarding disorder is found to be a distinct genetic subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) characterized by personality traits that include avoidance, anxiety, indecisiveness, procrastination, perfectionism and poor socialization skills. The differences in the way compulsive hoarders’ minds work in terms of maintaining focus, making decisions, processing information, and defining values result in the following common symptoms of hoarding:
Acquisition of Useless Items
Many people derive pleasure from acquiring material possessions and see them as a sign of prosperity and good fortune. Hoarders also like to own plenty of things, only they cannot decide which items are really worth buying. Not to mention that many of them don’t have the financial resources to purchase quality products, so they just take anything they can and store it in their homes.
Valuable and useful household items are soon buried under piles of randomly collected articles and get completely forgotten. What might have started as a collection quickly turns into promiscuous clutter and then ends up in a hoard. The obsessive need to acquire more and more items is so extreme that even garbage (empty food packages, broken furniture pieces and electronic devices, torn fabrics, etc.) inevitably becomes a part of the common surroundings of a hoarder.
Excessive Attachment to Possessions
Hoarders tend to invest each of the accumulated pieces with great value regardless of how outdated, damaged, or useless a specific item may be. They either believe it may come in handy in the future or associate it with precious memories of happier past periods and beloved people. However, this sentimental value extends to all their belongings, even if they are not at all related to an important event or a special person. As time passes by and the accumulated items grow in number, their initial purpose, as well as the emotions they once evoked, gradually fall into oblivion. So hoarders keep storing absolutely everything until their cherished possessions mix up with trash and they cannot tell the difference any more.
Inability to Discard Items
Not only do hoarders need to constantly acquire stuff but they also have a hard time discarding any of it. This is due to their inability to decide what is actually important and what has no value at all. Hoarders are terrified that they may lose something significant and this fear prevents them from throwing anything away. The greatest problem is rooted exactly in their overwhelming anxiety. The mere thought of parting with a cherished possession triggers severe emotional distress and causes hoarders to suffer. As a result, they automatically reject any ideas of cleaning or decluttering without even trying to sort out or categorize their belongings.
Indecisiveness and Procrastination
As already mentioned, all types of hoarders have a severe problem processing information that impacts their decision-making abilities. They just cannot categorize their cluttered belongings and thus cannot sort them out and decide their fate. Since they are not sure what to do with a certain item but they don’t want to waste it or lose it either, they usually come up with a simple solution – they decide to keep everything. To ensure their peace of mind, they delude themselves with the reassuring thoughts that one day they will fix the damaged items they have stored or will recycle the useless ones. This day is constantly put off until a more appropriate moment while the piles of worthless junk keep growing in direct proportion to the ever-lasting procrastination.
One of the main reasons why hoarders simply cannot put their belongings in order and clean them out in the process is found in the total lack of organizational skills, typical of everyone who exhibits hoarding symptoms. Even if they eventually decide to go through their possessions, hoarders just end up moving household items and trash alike from one pile to another, without discarding anything. They fail to see the logical relations among various items and cannot find their rightful places. Since they are not capable of systematic or meaningful organization, hoarders easily forget what exactly they have stored and why. Their surroundings turn into a total mess that bears little resemblance to a home.
Inability to Manage Daily Tasks
One of the side effects of hoarding is that it renders simple daily tasks extremely difficult or even impossible. Hoarders cannot clean under the scattered pieces; cannot cook because they don’t have access to their kitchen utensils; cannot turn on any heat sources because of the enormous risk of fire; cannot bathe because their showers or bathtubs are full of random items; cannot have a rest due to the piles of worthless items on their beds; cannot use their chairs and tables; cannot open their drawers and wardrobes, etc. As a result, the living conditions in their homes become so unhygienic and disorganized that they are no longer capable of having a normal daily routine. More often than not, hoarders lose their social lives and their jobs, so they experience severe depression and financial problems as well – they cannot pay their bills and don’t even have enough money for decent food.
Perfectionism doesn’t seem to fit the profile of a hoarder and it is difficult to believe that it is one of the giveaway signs of hoarding. However, most hoarders want everything to be perfect and that is exactly why they deny parting with items reminiscent of happy moments (to make the perfect experience come back) and insist on preserving various damaged or outdated pieces (to restore them to their former practical and appealing condition). Implausible as it may sound, many hoarders would like their surroundings to be really flawless. However, when they are faced with all the dirt and chaos in their homes, they just lose hope that they will be able to clean and organize everything perfectly. They feel discouraged and don’t see any point in trying to achieve perfection when it is impossible, so they just give up the idea of cleaning in the first place. It is some kind of a vicious circle they cannot escape without adequate professional help.
Unusable Living Space
All the above factors result in an extreme clutter that literally suffocates the living space in hoarders’ homes. Even passage is difficult, not to mention that household items are rendered absolutely impossible to use. What is worse, quite often hoarders do not disturb the piles of accumulated stuff at all, so that dust, dirt and grime slowly build up in outrageous amounts. As a result, mold develops hidden from sight and a number of structural damages occur, greatly deteriorating the living conditions. Fire hazard increases drastically because of all the stacked paper and poses real danger to the hoarder’s life. Pests take shelter, breed, and die undetected among the clutter causing great mess and a variety of biohazardous threats. The situation becomes so horrible that hoarders’ families, friends, and neighbors can no longer put up with such unsanitary and chaotic lifestyles. Compulsive hoarders, however, cannot recognize their problems and don’t take any adequate measures to improve their lives, so they become socially withdrawn and even completely isolated.
Although hoarders do not realize what is wrong with their lives, they intuitively feel ashamed of their appalling surroundings and don’t want any visitors. What is more, they are afraid to allow others to touch their precious belongings or move them around, not to mention to borrow any of them or clean around the house. The suspicion that someone may throw away their treasures makes hoarders avoid social contact and resent even their own relatives. This fear adds to the congenitally poor socialization skills typical of hoarders, and results in complete social isolation, loneliness, and despair.
Genetic Predisposition and Accompanying Mental Health Disorders
Hoarding is considered a genetic disorder that runs in families as the majority of hoarders can identify another family member who has had the same problem. Compulsive hoarding symptoms often start during childhood or early teen years and gradually become more and more severe. However, it is usually not before the person experiences some emotional trauma that the problem fully reveals itself. It can be accompanied by other mental disorders, such as depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder, and impulse control problems. Self-control is very difficult for hoarders and they just lack motivation for change, improvement, and even treatment.
To make matters worse, compulsive hoarding is rather difficult to treat as it doesn’t usually respond very well to the traditional methods effective for other kinds of OCD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is considered to yield better results than medications as it aims to develop decluttering habits and involves a consistent behavioral program that has a fair chance to restore hoarders’ lives back to normal.
With such a great number of people affected, it is very important to be familiar with the common characteristics of compulsive hoarding in order to be able to recognize the early hoarding signs in a beloved person and help him/her before the situation gets out of control.