PhotoOne aspect of our consumer society is that we are always buying things. Some things, like food and beverages, we consume and replace. But other things are possessions that tend to accumulate.

Every once in a while, when the clutter gets too great, we gather up things to take to the thrift store or hold a yard sale. At least, that's what most people do.

But some just can't seem to part with something once they've owned it. The possessions, unused and often forgotten, just pile up. These people eventually are surrounded by their “things,” to the point that friends and family members can't help but notice.

Real and serious

These people are called “hoarders,” and psychologists say it's a very real and serious emotional impairment.

“Hoarding, also called compulsive hoarding and compulsive hoarding syndrome, may be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),” the Mayo Clinic says on its website. “But many people who hoard don't have other OCD-related symptoms.” 

What is obvious to everyone else is often lost on the person who hoards. If they don't see it as a problem it makes changing their behavior all the more difficult. But doctors say treatment can help hoarders to live safer, more enjoyable lives.

What problem?

But what's behind this compulsive behavior? Because hoarders don't really consider it a problem, it's hard for clinicians to get a lot of insight into what's going on. A 2007 study found some common symptoms.

For example, hoarders might collect things others might consider worthless, such as old newspapers and junk mail. They might collect consumer items that no longer work and have piles of clothes they could not possibly wear.

The home is likely so full of clutter that large areas of it cannot be used for their intended purpose. Kitchens may be crammed with so much stuff they aren't usable for food preparation. Bathtubs may be so filled with items  the hoarder simply doesn't bathe.

Buried Alive

While they don't recognize a problem, hoarders might feel embarrassed by the clutter and not allow visitors, closing themselves off to social interaction. The condition of common enough that the TLC cable network airs a series called “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” The series showcases bizarre examples of hoarding and tries to explore the psychology behind it.

The International OCD Foundation has set up a special Hoarding Center to deal with the problem. The Center provides help for hoarders and their families, including links to self-help and support groups, therapy and a treatment provider list. 

The Foundation notes that hoarding often begins with too much shopping. It also reports that roughly one in two hoarders excessively correct free things.

The problem has become so widespread that a national cleaning service has begun specializing in helping hoarders and their families clean up. The company, Address Our Mess, has developed a series of interactive guides to help hoarders get started on their road to recovery. Their latest publication entitled Impacts of Hoarding Cleaning for Hoarders and their Helpers, outlines the stressors associated with the hoarding condition and the ways in which finding the right expert can help relieve those stressors.

While it acknowledges that it is no substitute for therapy, the company says calling in a specialized cleaning service can be a first step on the road to recovery. For example, people living among clutter may simply feel overwhelmed with where to begin and how to follow through.

“Hoarding specialists possess the expertise, equipment, patience, and knowledge to get the job done right the very first time,” the company says.

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