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Buried Alive: Saving, Collecting and Hoarding

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

What is meant by hoarding?  The clinical definition of a hoarder is someone who has collected so much stuff that they can’t properly use rooms in their home, such as cooking on their stoves in the kitchen or sleeping in their beds because of piles of junk that have been accumulated. The hoarder is someone who is unable to throw anything out and who must shop for more stuff. There are often health risks to the hoarder, his family and to neighbors. The clutter and garbage attracts such things as insects, rodents and diseases. There is also the danger of fire and even cave-ins caused by the weight of carelessly piled possessions.

But, what is hoarding vs. what is collecting?

There are two very interesting programs on television connected to the problem of hoarding. One of them is on TLC and is called “Hoarding: Buried Alive” and the other is on the History channel called “Pickers.” What is so interesting is that, while “Hoarding” deals with people who fit the clinical definition described above, “Pickers” deals with people who collect old things as a hobby. In both case, the hoarders or collectors, there are people who are unable to part with their possessions even when offered lots of money. On Hoarders, collecting junk is maladaptive behavior that is a form of mental illness related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). On Pickers similar people appear to be smart businessmen who enjoy buying and collecting old junk as a kind of hobby and as a way of earning money by selling what they accumulate. The fact is that in both cases people are hoarding.

Where do the “pickers” fit in? As depicted in the program, pickers are people who rummage through the junk collected by other people for the purpose of buying items that they can sell at a profit. On the program, the two pickers own a store where their purchased items are sold to people who are either decorating anything from their own businesses to their apartments, houses or condominiums. Even though the pickers make their purchases in order to sell at a profit, is it possible that they, too, are hoarders? After all, if you have seen the program you know that much of what they buy is filled with dust, rot and rust. Is this purely picking or is it possible that this is hoarding.

Added to the mystery is where to place those who collect things for investment? There are people who collect postage stamps, gold and silver coins, and original works of art, among other similar hobbies? Is it possible that they are hoarders?

The question posed here is similar to the puzzle of what types of behavior are normal or abnormal? Like so many things in life, hoarding exists on a continuum that ranges from normal to abnormal. Collecting postage stamps in an album filled with new or mint stamps from around tbe world is a normal or healthy kind of collecting. It’s a financial investment that does not interfere with living on a daily basis. On the other hand, accumlating piles of junk in one’s home so that there is no place to sleep, cook, eat and even go to the toiletter, does interfere with daily life. In the wors of cases this type of accumlation can and does become a fire and health hazard. For example, saving piles of newspapers that dry out and collect dust makes it easy for a small spark to set off a blaze. Another example is the type of hoarder who collects large numbers of cats or dogs in their home while paying little heed to dealing with their waste disposal and even feeding. Besides posing a terrible health hazard, this behavior often results on the neglect and death of many of the animals.

What is it that causes the extreme type of hoarding that alienate friends, family and neighbors and that threatens life? It is suspected that what is happening with these people far exceeds what most of us know as OCD. Evidence shows that brain chemistry and functioning lies at the root cause of this. That is why having someone clear away junk, as happens on the Hoarders program, is not successful. In the new DSM V hoarding may have a separate disgnosis from OCD. In these cases of hoarding what is most probably  needed is medical intervention with the appropriate psychiatric medications and cognitive behavioral therapy.

How do you know if you or a loved one is a hoarder? In asking and answering this question it’s important to keep in mind that hoarding is not simply having a messy room or not being neat. If often starts with the inability to throw or give anything away. In addition, there is the need to go shopping to the point where purchases make no sense because they are duplicates of what is already at home. Then, too, there is the inability to return anything to the store that is unnecessary. Items being to pile up and slowly develop into heaps.

For another blog the question, “Is being sloppy the same as hoarding?” will be discussed. 

If you or anyone you know is showing these symptoms or who has full blown hoarding behavior, help is available in the form of psychiatric and psychotherapy intervention.

What are your comments and experiences with hoarding? Your comments are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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