About 10 years ago, a good friend of mine was dating a woman who clearly had issues with hoarding. Stacks of mailers were piled high to the ceiling of their small one-bedroom apartment, and everything from stuffed animals and trinkets to clothes and art supplies populated each room.
One afternoon when we were hanging out together, my friend offered to wash my car. In exchange, I offered to help tidy up their place. How difficult could it be? I thought to myself. Boy, was I naive. I sat down with his girlfriend, and we spent about an hour going through a small stack of junk mail that was so old it was starting to yellow at the edges.
For every single piece of paper, she had a reason for holding on to it, whether it was for a future art project, to be used as packaging material, or simply for posterity. At the end of the session, not a single piece of junk mail was thrown out. I realized that the issue was beyond just being lazy or messy – hoarding is a psychological disorder.
When separated from their belongings, extreme hoarders can suffer from anxiety and panic attacks or experience tension with loved ones.
Severe cases of hoarding could be a safety hazard and lead to health issues.
How It Hurts Your Pocketbook
Hoarding affects people of all income levels and backgrounds. Because people may purchase things they don’t need or cling onto items instead of selling or donating them, there are oftentimes financial consequences. “Those who have a hoarding disorder may suffer from financial disorganization,” explains Terry Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding in Detroit. “For instance, they may be late in paying bills or go on spending sprees to collect useless items.”
Why Do People Hoard?
When it comes to hoarding, there is either nature or nurture behind it, says Shulman. There is increasing evidence to show that hoarders exhibit distinct patterns of brain activity and problems with decision-making.
As for the nurture side, those who were raised by hoarders are more likely to suffer from hoarding themselves. Conversely, hoarding may result from growing up in a household where they weren’t allowed to hold on to items for very long. “In some cases, hoarding is a defense against intimacy on some level,” explains Shulman.
“Some people value stuff over people because they may have experienced hurts and trauma from previous relationships.”
Someone may also start to hoard as a result of a drastic change in their financial situation. A new divorcée who has had to significantly downsize her standard of living, for instance, may begin to hold on to things she may no longer need to feel secure.
Not All Hoarding Is the Same
While you typically see extreme hoarding scenarios on the TV show Hoarders, some people experience far milder cases. Some hoarders cover up their useless pile by neatly labeling their excess stuff or hiding them in a storage unit.
And aside from hoarding objects, people can hoard money, which Shulman explains usually stems from early childhood or early adulthood traumatic experiences with loss of income. In order to feel secure and in control, people start to save excessively.
How to Best Approach the Topic
Shulman suggests approaching the situation with kid gloves. “The last thing you want to do is get rid of their stuff when they’re away on vacation,” Shulman says. “You’ve got to come at it with love, care, and curiosity — and not be attached to the outcome.”
Instead of confronting them, lest they get defensive and outright ignore you, have a conversation. For starters, express your concern, and let them know that you’re in their corner. Perhaps mention a book or website on the topic that they could benefit from reading.
If it’s a really bad situation, where your loved one is in an environment that has become unsafe, you may need to get the health department or fire department involved as a last resort, Shulman recommends.
Things will never change overnight. Still, there are things you can do to help those in your life who have a hoarding disorder. By approaching things with good intent, you’ll have a far better chance of helping the loved ones in your life overcome this problem.