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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.