Hoarding: A Very Real, Very Complex Issue
Hoarding is a touchy subject in my family. My grandfather, the person I loved most on this planet, was a hoarder, and my mom (his daughter) shows similar signs of this problem. To clarify, by hoarding I don’t mean stashing possession in one or two rooms of the house or collecting multiple items in large but relatively organized piles. Instead, I mean cramming your entire home with as much junk as possible, with nothing more than a narrow path to walk from the bedroom to the living room to the kitchen. And junk refers to everything from used ovens and wooden bookshelves to clothing, miscellaneous decorative items and empty bottles, stacked from floor to ceiling.
In other words, I am quite familiar with the realities of hoarding.
Not Just a Pack Rat
Serious implications of hoarding include isolating the person from friends and family; creating fire and public health hazards; removal of children from the home; and property being condemned. Some of these effects are readily visible; others, however, are not quite so apparent. This means the health hazards associated with hoarding are often overlooked in favor of more obvious effects.
Where's the line? As with most mental issues, hoarding is just a tendency until it begins to significantly interfere with the person's life. For instance, when someone can no longer cook dinner in his or her home because access to the kitchen is diminished, it’s called hoarding. Likewise, if the home’s safety or usability is diminished because of accumulating objects, the hoarding label is applied.
When diagnosing a hoarder, psychologists look for certain defining features:
- Inappropriately intense emotional attachment to trivial objects
- An overestimation of an objects value.
- Fear trivial objects may one day be needed.
A Complex Issue
Research into the workings of hoarding is limited. Experts do know that this problem is more prevalent than even some mental health professionals have previously thought. Still, others continue to discount it as a mental illness.
In the past, experts viewed hoarding as an extension of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But as studies continue to come in, there appears to be a stronger correlation with major depression disorder, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. Moreover, studies have revealed that the frontal lobe - important for logical thinking and decision making- within the brain of someone who hoards tends to work differently.
But the cause(s) of hoarding remains unknown. Psychiatrists are unclear as to whether it’s an addiction or compulsion. Continuing in this vein, theories why people hoard vary from a neurobiological basis that humans are hardwired to collect (like squirrels) to the hypothesis that hoarders are driven by trauma or fear of scarcity.
The Tipping Point
Those in health care do understand that hoarders have often been abused or experienced psychological trauma. To fill an emotional void, they might keep things that have memories attached to them. They may not be able to throw out a magazine, for example, because it contains a recipe their mother used to make. They might collect newspapers because they can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.
In the case of my grandpa, he began hoarding after my grandmother passed away. Her death was traumatic for everyone, but particularly so for him. He cared for her while working full-time (she was only 56 at the time of her death, he was 57). They’d been married for almost 30 years and had endured no small amount of trials and tribulations. In other words, they had a deeply meaningful and loving marriage, and losing her changed him in ways that cannot be explained by mere science. Hoarding may have been a way to relieve the loneliness he felt after she was gone.
Of course, we can only speculate on all of this, because he’s also passed now, but one thing is certain: hoarding deserves more scientific study to better understand how it can be corrected, and possibly even prevented, so those who suffer from this condition can have a chance at a normal life too.