Hoarding can be a disease but it’s a matter of degree

“How can live this way?”

This thought always crossed my mind when I entered the office of my medical colleague. For years medical journals and other assorted material were stacked a foot or more high all over his desk. In fact, so high that he had to talk to patients in his examining room rather than his office. But it seems he was not alone.

A study conducted in 2008 by Johns Hopkins Medical School revealed that hoarding may be more prevalent than previously thought. Researchers concluded that one in 20 people may suffer from some form of hoarding.

In fact, it appears I’m one of the 20! My wife recently threatened “If you don’t toss out those old shoes, I will.” But I like old shoes, just like old wine, and never want to part with comfortable well-worn foot wear. Fortunately, this hasn’t yet resulted in divorce!

Others are not so lucky. One man I know finds it impossible to toss out anything. His home is loaded with newspapers and magazines dating back to World War II. He has half a dozen bicycles in the hall. Old computers and other technology are stuffed into rooms so they’re inaccessible. Now, his wife has filed for divorce since there’s no room to sit on the sofa, use the kitchen stove, or get into bed.

It’s human nature to collect and save possessions that bring back pleasant memories. Researchers say that children as young as two years of age begin to hold onto treasures of one sort or another. And some of us are more prone to collecting than others. That makes me feel a lot better about my old shoes.

Hoarding can be a disease, but it’s a matter of degree. As one wise sage remarked “Too much of anything is worse than none at all.” So to be classified as a bona-fide hoarder you must cross the line from merely hoarding old shoes to an unlimited, unchecked, uncontrollable desire to save vast amounts of things. For some this means holding onto newspapers, old clothes or keeping outdated food products. And in some instances, having dozens of cats or other animals in the home.

Why do people hoard? Dr. Jack Samuels, a psychologist who specializes in personality disorders at Johns Hopkins Medical School, reports that hoarders are often “overwhelmed by their possessions and unable to make decisions about how to organize or cull them.”

In some instances, hoarding is triggered by the death of a loved one causing the inability to discard clothing and other items of a deceased partner.

So when is it time to seek help? Certainly not when the only problem is simply keeping a few pairs of old shoes. But, if you can no longer get into bed due to the pile of old World War II newspapers, it’s time to either get help or seek a divorce.

But treating hoarders is more difficult than prescribing a pill for hypertension. For one thing many hoarders deny the severity of their problem. In fact, some become angry when criticized that they’re tormenting other members of the family.

Hoarding is a compulsive disorder, but it is not the same as obsessive-compulsive disease (OCD). OCD patients have a compulsion to perform repetitive rituals that they know are totally senseless, but cannot stop performing them. Drugs such as Prozac can be helpful in taming OCD rituals. But studies show that Prozac has no effect on the compulsion to hoard.

The most effective way to curb this condition is by home visits of behavioral therapists who can teach hoarders how to organize their lives. But never expect that one quick visit will convince a hoarder to stop ‘cold turkey.’ It’s impossible to quickly eliminate the feeling that “I might need these possessions someday.”

Dr. Samuels says hoarding tends to increase as we age. This isn’t the news I want to hear. Nor is it the news my wife wants either. So the old shoes may have to go, but her compulsion to throw away has to end with the old wine.

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