The Untold Truths of Hoarders
Thanks to the popularity of some shocking TV shows, hoarding is a fascinating topic for many people — sometimes because it affects them directly. When the love of collecting things crosses a line into behavior that is obsessive and uncontrolled, it often indicates a hoarding disorder. The symptoms of hoarding — extreme clutter, messiness and maybe even filth — are very outwardly visible. When you see the end result, it’s easy to understand why the behavior is classified as a mental disorder.
We’ve gathered some important information on hoarding and highlighted cases from the media to help you understand what to do if you or someone you know needs help. Let’s take a look!
What Is Hoarding?
Although many people jokingly call themselves "a bit of a hoarder" because they tend to hold on to things too long or collect specific items, a hoarding disorder is actually a psychological condition that goes far beyond a fondness for certain items. Like many mental health disorders, it can occur at different degrees of seriousness.
Some people may have hoarding tendencies and become obsessive about keeping certain things but be able to control it to a point. However, it crosses over into being a more serious problem when a person’s hoarding overtakes their thoughts. Additionally, it’s an issue when the hoarding impacts their overall mental health, physical health and living conditions.
When Collecting Becomes Hoarding
You can tell the difference between simply collecting things, such as fridge magnets or keyrings, and having a serious hoarding disorder in a few ways. For friends and family, the first noticeable symptom is that their relationships begin to suffer.
Hoarders will stop inviting you to their houses, and if you do go into a hoarder’s house, you will see that it is a mess, and the person is struggling to manage everyday tasks. Obviously, there will be disorganization and piles of dirty things that may already be attracting vermin.
When Hoarding Gets Serious
As well as struggling with an unclean house, excessive possessions and an untidy appearance, a serious hoarder will show emotional signs that there is an issue. They will find it hard to categorize small, seemingly unimportant items, such as grocery bags, from less important bigger items, such as electrical goods.
They may become obsessed with certain items, refusing to give them away or allowing other people to borrow or touch their things. They will often place an emotional or monetary value on things that other people wouldn’t, such as broken furniture or old clothing, insisting they simply need to be repaired and may be needed someday.
Hoarding can start from a very young age and is often inherited from family members. For example, if someone’s parents were hoarders, they may have used the child’s space to hoard their own things and encouraged the child to hold on to things as well.
That could lead the child to grow into an adult with similar thoughts and obsessions because it seems normal to hoard. They could then be attracted to someone who does the same thing. In fact, it’s very unlikely a hoarder would develop a relationship with someone who tends to be neat and tidy.
Other Reasons to Hoard
There are other circumstances that could make someone more likely to hoard things. It’s very closely linked to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example. Someone might have an uneasy feeling that they must collect or keep certain things in case something bad happens.
This can sometimes be traced back to a triggering event. For example, someone might hoard food because they fear war or a natural disaster. Other triggers include traumatic incidents, postnatal depression and dementia. When someone struggles to process memories and thoughts, they could use hoarding as a misdirected way of retaining control.
The Mental Obsession
Hoarding is an extremely visible condition — particularly to neighbors and family members — but the psychological side is often not well understood. Due to its links to anxiety and OCD, hoarding often causes a cacophony of thoughts in the sufferer, and those thoughts are usually hard to express.
As mentioned before, they might fear that "something" bad will happen if they don’t hoard things, even when they have no idea what it might be. Other mental obsessions may also be present. For example, they may constantly think people are trying to steal from them or trick them, so they hold on to items as a kind of security.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Massachusetts estimates that one in four people with OCD are also hoarders, and 50% of people who hoard come from hoarding parents or families. NAMI says that although hoarding can start in the teenage years, it often becomes more severe as people move into adulthood or become more socially isolated.
Their statistics indicate adults between 55 and 94 years of age are a third more likely to have a diagnosable hoarding disorder than adults between 34 and 44. Up to 5% of the worldwide population have symptoms of clinical hoarding.
Most Commonly Hoarded Items
When you think of the phrase "one man’s trash is another man’s treasure," this is often very literal when it comes to hoarding. The most commonly hoarded items include junk mail, flyers, leaflets, newspapers, magazines and books, as well as important mail such as bills. Cardboard boxes, bags and other containers are ironically common in order for the hoarder to store items.
Clothing and household supplies, such as cleaning products, bottled water and canned goods, are also common. This is particularly true if the hoarder is a "prepper," which is someone preparing for Armageddon or a natural disaster.
Some people sadly hoard animals and animal care products, such as canned or dry food, hay and sawdust, depending on the animal. Often, cramped and untidy conditions combined with a large number and variety of animals lead to none of the animals being cared for properly.
This can lead to poor health for the animals as well as the hoarder and unsanitary living conditions. Due to the financial and social impact of hoarding, it is often a struggle for the hoarder to handle the cost of vet bills and other care.
A person’s hoarding could become unsanitary for other reasons. For example, rooms full of paper, clothing and perishable food are appealing to rats and other vermin. Their feces — or dead bodies (worst case scenario) — attract maggots and flies, creating a vicious cycle of filth.
Some hoarders’ living conditions become so desperate that they are unable to get to their bathroom or maintain it in good working order. In extreme cases, some hoarders collect their own body waste. Obviously, any type of unsanitary hoarding attracts more attention from authorities due to the health implications for the hoarder and their neighbors.
Hoarding Specific Items
As mentioned, some hoarders are "preppers" or simply hold on to things because they are convinced they may need them. Others hoard specific items. Sadly, these are often items that they love — a librarian hoarding books or an artist hoarding paintings and sculptures — but the items end up neglected or buried among clutter.
Some hoarders collect unique things, and some of these hoarders have been highlighted by hoarding shows on TV. For example, an early hoarding show on the BBC called A Life of Grime featured Edmund Trebus, who particularly liked vacuum cleaners and Elvis Presley albums.
Outside the Home
While a hoarding disorder is often obvious from the state of an individual’s home or work environment, a hoarder may display signs outside the home that they have the condition. Hoarders may compulsively shop at garage sales, flea markets and charity shops, or they may frequently struggle to tote around various bags or trolleys filled with stuff.
However, in advanced cases, a hoarder may not even leave their home because they fear leaving their possessions unattended. They may also find it hard to follow a safe or easy path outside the property due to the clutter.
Hoarding as a Recognized Condition
Due to various TV shows on hoarding airing in recent years in countries all around the world, the condition is now well known. However, the term started being used long ago after the Great Wars and the Depression, when news reports highlighted people obsessively collecting food, money and possessions.
This wasn’t necessarily seen as problematic at the time, as there were practical, self-preserving factors in play. At the time, hoarding went hand-in-hand with a general feeling of anxiety and need for survival in times when employment, provisions and health were uncertain.
The First Famous Case
One of the first cases of hoarding that earned real recognition was that of the Collyer Brothers in the 1940s. It was their notoriety that made specialists start to see specific cases of domestic hoarding as pathological and problematic.
The sad case involved two brothers who became increasingly reclusive and suspicious of the "outside world," obsessing over their many possessions, which were piled up in each room, including their own inventions and booby traps. The brothers both died in the clutter from old age and malnutrition after refusing to see doctors.
At the end of the day, celebrities are people just like us, so inevitably there are cases of celebrity hoarders. And it isn't all about owning dozens of watches or fleets of cars. Some celebrities have collections of items that may cross the line into a hoarding obsession.
One in particular, Jack White of The White Stripes, appeared on the show American Pickers with his collection of taxidermied animals. In addition, Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame has admitted she struggles to part with decades’ worth of bills, planners and other paperwork.
The Artist Hoarder
Andy Warhol is another famous hoarder. It's considered a little more normal for artistic people to live in a little more disarray than an accountant or professor, but Andy Warhol, an infamous contemporary artist, hid his hoarding in specific rooms of his well-designed, otherwise tidy New York townhouse.
These off-limit rooms were only discovered after his death and were packed with everything from airport menus and correspondence to souvenirs from all over the world, pornographic material, trash and pizza dough! (Strange enough for you?) On the positive side, Warhol left a note in his will saying that any valuable items could be auctioned to fund other emerging artists.
Another Famous Case
Another famous hoarding case also featured family members. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter of the same name were relatives of First Lady Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, so they were also slightly famous in a way.
They lived in a huge mansion filled with a mixture of trash and treasure: empty food cans among priceless paintings, expensive jewelry in old cookie tins next to kitchen waste and broken furniture. They also had a significant number of cats and, bizarrely, pet raccoons. Like the Collyer Brothers, the mother and daughter were reclusive and viewed as eccentric.
A Disturbing Case
In an extreme case on Hoarders, a lady from Hanover, Illinois, had an unhealthy obsession with hoarding cats, dead and alive. She estimated the number of cats she owned to be around 50, but she also had another 75 to 100 dead cats — some disturbingly liquefied — in her fridge and freezer.
Therapists on the show discovered she began hoarding cats at 13 when her dad died. On the show, she said, "I have this feeling in me that I'm helping save something." She said she wanted to cremate the already deceased cats but didn't have enough money, so she decided to freeze them.
Hoarding as Entertainment
The first significant television show focused on hoarding aired on the A&E network, and it was simply titled Hoarders. It started in 2009, ran for six seasons and was the first of various shows that looked at the lives of compulsive hoarders.
On each show, hoarders were shown in their homes, and concerned friends or family tried to help them. Specialists, including therapists and clean-up organizations, were called in to help the hoarders, including often painful to watch clean-up operations in the homes. Some hoarders were revisited in subsequent episodes so viewers could see how they were doing with recovery.
Other Popular Shows
In the decades since then, many shows have focused on unclean or cluttered homes and their inhabitants, ranging from mild messiness, such as the U.K. show How Clean Is Your House?, to pathological obsessions with both hoarding and the opposite — extreme cleanliness — in Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners.
Many of these shows were criticized for televising people who were clearly suffering from mental illness and even trivializing their anguish. In relation to shows on hoarding, the British Psychological Society said the media should "desist from using mental health problems to entertain and shock the public."
Levels of Hoarding
The National Study Group on Compulsive Disorganization uses a scale to measure hoarding. Level one involves clutter that isn't excessive, doors and stairways are accessible, and conditions are sanitary with no odors. Level two indicates there is clutter in several rooms along with light odors, garbage, mildew, one blocked exit and some pet waste. Level three has some unusable rooms, soiled food areas, excessive pets and visible clutter outdoors.
Level four involves sewer backup, hazardous electrical wiring, flea infestations, rotting food, lice on bedding and pet damage to the home. Level five has rodents, unusable kitchen and bathrooms, feces and disconnected electrical and/or water service.
Hoarding and the Law
In many cases, TV shows highlighted the dangers and the legal side of hoarding. For example, sanitation complaints can lead landlords and local organizations to step in to force the person to clean up or even evict them.
Damage can spread to neighboring properties due to vermin infestation, and the risk increases for fire damage and blocked drainage systems. This can end up costing local services and landlords a lot of money that might not be covered by insurance. People can also be diagnosed with antisocial disorders (and possibly committed) if they do not comply with requests to clean up.
Community Impact of Hoarding
A property that has been used for hoarding can significantly decrease in value due to resulting structural problems, drainage issues, electrical problems and general maintenance issues. In some instances, particularly in very unsanitary cases, the house may need to be demolished.
This not only has an impact on the landlord or homeowner but also on the surrounding community. Other people may find that the values of their homes decrease when they have a hoarding neighbor. This is particularly true now that properties can be seen on Google Maps, and the hoarding has extended into the garden or surrounding area.
Fate of Hoarders Who Don’t Recover
Sadly, as well as the risk of eviction, some hoarders risk jail. This is more often the case when there has been injury or death to people or animals as a result of hoarding. For example, in 2019, a dog breeder was jailed in the U.K. for keeping more than 100 dogs in appalling squalor.
The risk of illness is also high for hoarders themselves, with many being either overweight or malnourished due to improper kitchen facilities. Of course, there is the very real risk of injury — possibly even death — from tripping, falling or even being crushed.
Reaching Out for Help
Many hoarders are in dire situations and need help, but they may be reluctant to reach out due to embarrassment or fear of change. In the first instance, it's important for the right therapeutic services to contact the hoarder to see how receptive they are to assistance.
Their home will require a visit so a clean-up operation can be assessed. This can take some time and coaxing. After living for so long in such conditions, the hoarder will be scared of people trying to change them and resistant to parting with the things they've stored.
Longer Term Help
If an initial clean-up operation is successful, then the hoarder will still need on-going help. As many of the TV programs showed, many hoarders start rebuilding their collections of stuff if they don’t receive the proper mental health support.
Therapies such as cognitive behavior therapy are helpful because this can get to the root of the hoarding habit and help people change the nature of their attachment to certain things. It’s also important to rebuild the person’s self-worth and social skills so they do not continue their habit of isolation.
Famous Hoarder Helper
On the show Hoarders, Dorothy Breininger was a key figure and home organizer. She individually spent many years and thousands of dollars of her own money to help people, including an elderly Los Angeles man, who was a hoarder who risked jail. The makers of Hoarders heard this story and hired Dorothy to train producers on the show.
This helped them show that the media exposure for hoarding wasn’t just about entertainment or making money. It was also an attempt — and in many cases a success — to rehabilitate compulsive hoarders.
As well as providing mental health help, some companies deal with hoarder clean-up. Because hoarding creates different types of messes, specialist clean-up organizations must be called in to deal with disposal and sanitization.
As well as vermin and dangerous clutter such as broken furniture and electrical items, there are possible biohazards, including staphylococcus bacteria and E. coli due to drainage, sewage problems, pet waste and even the dead bodies of vermin. After the clean-up, building contractors may be called in to fix any structural damage, such as flooring and ceilings, and plumbers and electricians are sometimes necessary as well.
How to Help Hoarders
If you think a neighbor or loved one is hoarding obsessively, the first step is to reach out to them personally. As with all mental health issues, it's important to be tactful and understanding. They may not want to talk at first, but simply let them know that you're there if they do need to chat.
Offer to help with one small thing at a time — one pile of clothing, for example. It could be that they don’t realize they have a problem, but if their situation is affecting their physical, mental and social health, then it should be addressed.
Hope for Hoarders
Fortunately, people can recover from hoarding disorders with the right help and support. Although media coverage of hoarding and other compulsive disorders is criticized by some, positive outcomes have been achieved, with people turning their lives around after getting the right help from both professionals and their community and family.
It has also helped de-stigmatize the condition, prompting people who watch the show and identify with the hoarders or their families to reach out for help. This broader understanding has also helped people recognize the symptoms and take the appropriate steps before the situation gets too far out of control.