I met up with some friends last week and in the course of our discussions, the topic of hoarding came up in different guises by almost all of us. It was quite an enlightening and interesting experience for all of us because we found out that the issue of hoarding was a part of our lives in various degrees. It also turned out that all the women had relatives or friends who also engaged in hoarding in some form of another. This is a topic I covered several years ago and received lots of feedback. I am taking another look at it today. Do you recognise yourself in the description of hoarding?
Hoarding has been a hidden disorder for many years for many people. It is actually a much bigger problem than is realised and very much misunderstood. People who hoard are on a continuum. From the person who can’t stop buying things, which may be useful and practical, whether it is household items or clothing; to the person who just accumulates junk and is unable to let go.
There has been a recent increase in awareness of the problem in the media and by health professionals in the US and the UK. There has been a need to raise more awareness of the condition and increasing understanding among sufferers and their family members who are also impacted directly by the actions and effects of the sufferer’s behaviour on them. There is a feeling from research that the condition is on the increase and it is causing serious mental health problems mostly for women.
Almost everyone has or can have clutter from time to time, but hoarder’s take it to the extreme. It is the difference between a messy environment and living in actual filth, with the quality of a person’s life greatly compromised and practically destroyed from the effects of it. It is basically about an inability to desist from acquiring things, alongside reluctance or at the very least, a struggle to get rid of stuff that has ceased to be of any use at all. For some people even getting rid of things that have decayed is a problem.
There are a couple of ways to see hoarding. It could be a borderline situation of unusual and strange behaviour, such as someone liking to collect or acquire items as a hobby or even shopping excessively and having lots of clothes in the wardrobe that still have tags on them; or it could be more serious and part of a deeper compulsive behavioural pattern. At this level it would come under the umbrella of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
OCD is classified as an anxiety disorder. This means that there are certain behaviours associated with the condition that are performed as a way to cope with distressing situations. The person suffering from this condition is held to ransom by their actions in response to stressful situations which may be real or perceived.
In an effort to manage anxieties brought about by obsessive thoughts, hoarders collect possessions to an extreme point. According to the National Institute of Health UK, hoarding has also been known to be as a result of attention deficit disorder, psychosis, depression and dementia. A lot of people suffering from mild to medium depression do not realise they are depressed even though it may manifest itself in a variety of often unrecognised symptoms such as hoarding.
Compulsive hoarding syndrome falls under three basic criteria which include accumulating and failing to discard useless possessions, extremely cluttered living areas and significant distress or problems functioning caused by the hoarding.
Hoarders tend to exhibit an obsessive need to get and save objects, they experience huge anxieties throwing them away because they rationalise it may have a possible need or value. They may also form emotional attachments to these objects and create in their minds a belief that they might need these objects later in the future. They may feel panic and anxiety at the thought of being faced with the absence of these objects at a point when they are needed. The reality usually is that they have not seen some of these objects for several years or they may not even know exactly where they are.
We all probably can imagine or visualise the florid psychotic on the street who is laden down with bags and bags of clutter (the bag lady). Or we may have seen films that portray mentally ill people pushing around a cart or trolley filled to the brim with none descript junk. This scenario is easy to explain away as the traditional picture of a lunatic. However, there are many more people who suffer this same behaviour on a smaller and more covert way. They may have the clutter and junk in their minds where it is wreaking other forms of havoc. If this is unmanaged, it can lead to more profound problems. Hoarding is a symptom of a disorder of cognition and behaviour.
It is useful to know that anything can be hoarded. I had a client who used to come to our sessions with what for all intents and purposes can only be described as a medium-sized suitcase with the biggest padlock attached to it. In his mind, he was of the belief that he was holding a work briefcase or attaché. Every week he came with this monster piece of luggage and placed it ceremoniously in the centre of the room as we conducted a perfectly ‘normal’ therapy session. As the clinician, I found myself obsessing about this object every week as I fantasised I could see the bag swelling more and more every week. I eventually allowed my imagination to get the best of me and was convinced there were the cut up remains of a dead body in the case. I conjured up different ploys in my mind to get my client out of the room while I got pliers to break the lock and tip the contents of the case out on the floor of my office. When I was eventually able to compose myself and get my thoughts in check after several weeks of his coming, I finally decided to broach the subject and made a psychological interpretation by telling him we needed to talk about the ‘elephant in the room.’
To my amazement, my client said some of the contents in his case had been in there for over 30 years. Once he disclosed this, we immediately set out new goals to work towards unlocking the case. It took a further six months to get to that stage, but we did. The unlocking of the case coincided with the unlocking of other things that were trapped in my clients’ mind.
According to the Institute of Psychiatry UK, hoarding is a brain disorder. It is a ‘dysfunction in the limbic system’ which is instinctual. Other places that are also affected are ‘the frontal lobe’ (which accounts for our planning, judgement and problem solving). It is also believed that hoarding may be ‘genetic, chronic, unremitting and may become more severe with age.’
For hoarders, the motivation is fear of losing important items, an excessive attachment and belief about the importance of objects. There is also a fear of making the wrong decision, an excessive sense of responsibility and a grief-like loss of getting rid of things. Extreme hoarders are likely to be depressed, anxious and may have unresolved attachment issues stemming from the loss of a loved one.
Identifying and recognising that there is a problem is the first step. Ideally, seeking psychological support through counselling could be beneficial. Otherwise taking baby steps to decluttering your personal space can also be a symbolic first step. Enlisting the support of a trusted friend or your immediate family who are probably aware of the situation and can probably be very helpful in their honesty about it might be helpful. Having a loved one support you in helping you with the evacuation of things you have been unnecessarily holding on to for years could be what you need to start the process.
The upshot of this exercise might leave you feeling like you are shedding your skin and mind of debris as you create room in your environment and most importantly your mind.
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