The saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” is applicable to those who struggle with hoarding, a type of anxiety disorder that some professionals believe is correlated with obsessive compulsive disorder.
People who hoard are not lazy slobs who refuse to clean up after themselves, despite what it might seem like to others. To people who hoard, every item in their house (or car, or office, or other space) has a purpose and is needed.
Hoarding is defined by three primary traits: the obsessive collection of objects that seem useless to almost everyone else, the inability to get rid of any of them and a resulting state of distress.
How do you know the difference between “pack rat” and “hoarder”? A pack rat collects things as well, but when they run out of room, they will throw out something they no longer need. A hoarder will make room, even if it’s in what anyone else would consider inappropriate space, such as in the bathtub or in bed.
Tell-tale signs of hoarding
- Keeping items that other people would throw away, such as newspapers, food wraps, food scraps, used tissues, anything with an expiration date, etc.
- Having a house that most people would consider “unlivable” because of the amount of stuff in it.
- Not being able to use the rooms in the house for their intended purpose because they are too cluttered.
- Having too many animals to care for them properly.
- When the person attempts to clean up or clear things out, it only results in moving things from one pile to another, as opposed to actually disposing of them.
- Many people have suggested there might be a problem.
- Access to the home is blocked, whether that means people are not invited to come over because of the mess, or they are physically blocked because it is just not possible to maneuver safely within the home.
What to do if you suspect your loved one is a hoarder
Having a loved one who hoards–whether that is your partner, a parent, a sibling, or a child–can put tremendous strain on your relationship. As I said earlier, the person who hoards generally does not view the behavior as a problem, despite it being obvious to everyone around them. Trying to convince your loved one that they need help is a tricky proposition, but experts recommend the following steps when approaching the topic:
- Understand that you cannot force the person to stop the behavior. They have to be ready and willing to accept help. Jumping in and cleaning up is not going to stop the behavior; the person hoarding will probably just start to accumulate items again to fill the empty space, as well as feel angry or betrayed that you did not respect their possessions.
- Focus your initial discussion on the person’s health and safety. This can reduce defensiveness, as they may be able to at least acknowledge that it would be difficult for someone to help them with piles of stuff everywhere.
- Use nonjudgmental language when expressing your concern. Statements like, “How can you live like a pig?” or “I’m so ashamed of you! What kind of person lives like this?” are not going to help. Better approaches might include saying things like, “I am really worried about your health and safety. How do you feel about your house?” or “I can tell you really care about all of the collections you have, but I’m concerned that if for some reason you were to fall or hurt yourself or get too sick to leave the house, the emergency workers wouldn’t be able to come in here to help you. Can we talk about clearing a path through some of the rooms?”
- Seek your own therapy. Helping a loved one with a hoarding problem is a challenge, and you will likely deal with a lot of resistance. By having your own support, you will be better equipped to handle the anxiety of your loved one’s behavior.
Book: Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding & Compulsive Acquiring by Tamara Hart PhD. and Michael Tompkins, PhD.