“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” or so the old adage goes. But for a group of people, particularly those afflicted with a potentially disabling problem called compulsive hoarding, being able to understand the difference between trash and treasure becomes a virtually impossible process. They take the term “pack rat” to a whole new level. In the United States alone, this may affect up to 2 million people. Researchers estimate that this affects 1 in 50 people but it could actually be present in as many as 1 in 20.
Compulsive hoarding, also known as disposophobia and pathological hoarding, refers to the excessive acquisition of material possessions as well as the failure to utilize or discard them. This holds true even if the items are unsanitary, worthless and hazardous. This not only impairs mobility but it also interferes with basic daily activities like sleeping, showering, bathing, cleaning and cooking. This also has an impact on a person’s job and relationships with others. To date, it is not clear if this is a symptom of another condition, more specifically obsessive-compulsive disorder or is an isolated disorder.
Symptoms of this are easily noticeable. Stairways, desks, stoves, sinks, countertops and all other surface areas are usually stacked high with so much useless stuff – junk mail, magazines, newspapers and even trash. If there is no more room inside, the clutter may reach the yard, the garage and even vehicles. Other signs include difficulty in organizing articles and managing everyday activities, including trouble reaching decisions and procrastination. A person undergoing this usually has limited or even no social interactions at all.
Hoarding poses a continuous threat to an individual with respect to his or her environment and surroundings. Large volumes of materials that are combustible are a fire hazard. This is a danger not only for the resident himself but also for the neighbors. Unsteady stacks of heavy materials can trap or crush people, and access to them can be obstructed because of blocked doors and windows. The uninterrupted accumulation of animal waste, trash and food can lead to insect and/or vermin infestation and harmful diseases. This is also a violation of health ordinances and other laws.
Probably the most challenging part of compulsive hoarding is that people who hoard do not see it as a problem. They do not recognize that this is an impairment or even a dangerous situation. In fact, they may even feel that deep down, their actions are beneficial and sensible. The good news is that with intensive treatment, those who suffer this affliction can live a more enjoyable and safer life without the hoarding.