The habit of hoarding

The doors have been opened to the secret lives of hoarders and as we look inside we see the piles of garbage, trails made through the madness and excessive numbers of pets that simply can’t be cared for in the mess. Hoarding has stepped into the limelight and people are becoming more and more aware of this issue with stories on shows like Oprah or the A&E show Hoarders, dedicated to pulling people out of their hazardous living conditions.

Most individuals aren’t likely to admit a fault that they have, whether it’s an unflattering character trait or a quirk they are simply unwilling to own; for hoarders this is no less true. Hoarders start out by seeing themselves as mere collectors, but slowly they become fixated. Compulsive hoarding goes beyond being a packrat — it’s an obsessive need to acquire or an inability to discard items. Watching an episode of Hoarders, you see the ramifications of this lifestyle as they face eviction, the loss of their children, jail time or divorce. The show provides hoarders with the help they need to get out of their crowded situation, including professionals and an organizer. In just 60 minutes, minus commercial time, we see the struggling that people endure as their beloved “stuff” is thrown out the window and watch the healing process of letting go. Each episode features two different stories, and at the end of the episode they show who has kept their hoarding behaviour under control and who has begun collecting once again.

At times, hoarders are keeping things in their homes that are dangerous, unsanitary or simply worthless garbage. These are people who walk out that front door and live their lives just like anybody else. You may walk by their front door everyday not knowing the “treasures” they are holding hostage in the homes. This was the case with Carina De Ocampo of Jacksonville, Fla.. She was an odd and private person whose own family left food at her front door and drove away. But last October her body was discovered in the narrow trails she had made through the garbage in her house.

The number of people who would be considered hoarders is difficult to measure. Hoarders could be fined tens of thousands of dollars by local authorities for zoning, health code violations or animal abuse, but for this to occur there needs to be someone reporting the cases to the authorities. Neighbours may not even know that this is going on right across the street and families may give up in frustration, unable to fight against the junk.
Hoarding experts appreciate that the media’s attention to compulsive hoarding may allow hoarders-in-hiding to find the confidence they need to step out of their overstuffed homes and seek help. However, there is a concern that the media’s frenzy around this problem is making solutions out to be easier than they really are.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has been connected to the issue of hoarding by a number of studies, however compulsive hoarding does not respond to the same drugs (which target serotonin). And although we like neat and tidy solutions that are as simple and easy as popping a pill, this is not the case. Hoarding could have roots in a number of areas. Positron emission tomography scans have shown that the cerebral glucose metabolism patterns of hoarders displays a decreased activity of the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, a part of the brain that is responsible for focus, attention and decision-making. In other words, they can’t decide what to throw out. As Paula Kotakis a 51-year old self-admitted former hoarder expressed, “If I get rid of this, I may need this sometime.”

That is the way Paula thought before she used many of the same tools that were used to treat her obsessive-compulsive hand-washing to treat her hoarding.

While reading books and seeing movies and TV shows has sparked curiosity about the way these people live, people remain trapped in their inability to let go. It’s difficult to understand for some, but nothing will encourage you to clean your house or apartment like watching 60-odd minutes of another person’s den of junk.