"The Big Emptiness": Hoarding, OCD, Depression and the Quest for Meaning

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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

There is an interesting program being aired these days on A&E (Arts and Entertainment) Television. Its title is “Obsessed” and it is reality television detailing the lives of people who suffer from various types of anxiety disorders. The major mental health intervention is Behavior Modification. In addition to a different pair of patients on the show each week, there is also a psychiatrist and a psychologist who treat the specific patients on each episode. The cameras dramatically show the behavioral interventions used and their results. I believe the show graphically shows how behavior modification is used and its results. It is important to keep in mind, when viewing the program, that these patients are people for whom, by and large, other treatments have failed. It is also important to understand that these and other people also experience plenty of depression.

This past week, one woman, a 50 year-old who hoards everything she can purchase at garage and tag sales, used a term that I thought was very gripping. In describing how her OCD became a major hoarding problem, she stated the fact that things became intolerable after she and her husband divorced. Soon after, her son, now a fully educated adult, moved out in order to live his own life. In her own words, she states that it was then that the “Big Emptiness” began.



What did I find so gripping about that phrase, the “Big Emptiness?” What struck me about the phrase is that it is descriptive of one of the major underlying fears we all face. Some philosophers and psychologists might refer to the “Big Emptiness” as one of the “existential crises faced by each human being.” There is a fundamental dread of abandonment and isolation. This fundamental dread is what lies under our symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, let us not forget that the “big emptiness” speaks volumes about feelings of loss and depression.

The woman portrayed on this particular episode was forced by circumstances to face the terribly dreadful reality of isolation because she was left alone in the world. Her efforts to hoard, to save huge quantities of possessions, was an attempt to fill the void she felt inside.

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It is important to know that once the treatment team was able to help this woman give up her hoarding symptoms through the use of behavior modification, she still had to face the even bigger challenge of finding meaning in her life.

In my opinion, the search for meaning is a part of each person’s quest in this life. Some people find meaning through religious beliefs and practices. Others find it through involvement in important causes ranging from saving the whales to helping relieve poverty around the world by going to poor countries and teaching people how to read, write or farm.

However, there are those of us who experience great difficulty in finding meaning in our lives. It is those among us who end up struggling with depression, anxiety and many other varieties of emotional turmoil. Even among those who believe they have found meaning for themselves, there often is a point at which they begin again to question, doubt and discover that they are feeling that great “Big Emptiness” inside.

Psychotherapy may not be the total answer to life and its many challenges, but it can help remove obstacles that we encounter as we move towards finding real meaning for ourselves and gaining a sense of fulfillment. Whether the psychotherapy involves behavior modification, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychodynamic treatment, the ultimate goal, after reducing depression and anxiety, is really to discover or formulate a meaning for ourselves and our lives. Do you find it hard to quiet your mind? Take our specialized overthinking test to explore your thinking patterns and find peace.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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