Monday, June 1, 2009

The Tragedy of Hoarding Disorder

The incidence of hoarding disorder appears to be increasing in this country.  Or is it just more noticeable these days?

I have touched on this subject in the past, but it bears addressing again, as hoarding disorder can be devastating to one's finances.

It is unclear to me whether hoarding disorder is on the rise, or merely more apparent than before. What is clear is that people with hoarding disorder are more visible today than in the past. There could be a number of reasons for this:
1. We are a wealthier country than in the past, so it is easier to accumulate junk than before, as people are throwing things away more.

2. There is some chemical in the environment that is triggering this disorder.

3. There is some sort of societal stress that is inducing the disorder in more and more people.

4. The disorder is harder to keep hidden as our society becomes more and more crowded.
Perhaps it is a combination of these factors that is causing the apparent rise in hoarding disorder. As noted in "Do We Control Our Own Destiny?" we are finding out that a combination of brain chemicals can alter behavior. A drug given for Parkinson's disease, for example, causes people to gamble uncontrollably.

Obviously, the causes of hoarding disorder are the subject for scientific study.  However, I believe they are related to our current obesity epidemic (over-consumption food being an aspect of hoarding disorder, in my opinion).  And hoarding disorder takes on a number of other forms as well – such as the desire to hoard animals, for example, which I touched upon in "The Pet Trap".

Mental illnesses and disorders are subject of some controversy and social stigma. The medical profession tells us these are illnesses, and should be treated as such.  Society, on the other hand, ostracizes the mentally ill and those with behavioral disorders as being responsible for their own plight.

Where does the truth lie?  Well, I think somewhere in the middle. Yes, our behaviors are largely dictated by our brain chemistry.  But, to adopt an entire brain chemistry model is to negate the entire concept of self-awareness, freedom of action, and choice.  While we can acknowledge that we have predispositions to certain behaviors, we can also acknowledge that we can counteract, to some extent our predispositions.   In other words, we can take responsibility for our actions, at least to a certain extent.

Hoarding disorder, I think, is one of those behavioral predispositions that is present in every human being. The desire to keep and hang onto things is, no doubt, a survival skill bred from our ancestors. That sharp rock may look like junk, but it may come in useful to scrape a hide or attack an enemy. The urge to keep things, in other words, is a survival skill encoded in our DNA.

But, somewhere along the way, this urge to keep things gets out of hand and becomes a major problem. How can we distinguish the difference between the ordinary need to keep things of value and the harmful behavior of hoarding disorder?

After meeting and dealing with many people with this problem, I think there are a number of indicia that characterize hoarding disorder from ordinary collecting.  And I think it is possible to take steps to prevent yourself from sliding down this slippery slope from collector to crazy.  If you see yourself starting to do any of these things, stop now and take corrective action.  Perhaps you have no choice in the matter, but its worth a try, anyway.

You may have hoarding disorder, if.... The following are indicia I have noted of this disorder:

1. The Hoarder Collects Disparate Objects

The first hoarder I met was at an apartment building I lived in when I first moved to Alexandria.  He was a nice enough fellow, but the fact that he drove a Chevrolet Step Van (large square commerical cargo van) as his choice of personal transportation should have been a tip-off.  The van was full of stuff – old broken lawnmowers (a favorite of male hoarders) and other junk.

He invited me to his apartment one day to give me some car magazines, and I was shocked to see that it was literally two to three feet deep in stuff. When I say "Stuff" I mean everything from magazines, to books, to car parts, to furniture, to broken lamps, to cookware. You name it. There was no rhyme or reason to his collection. He was not a car enthusiast, but yet had a collection of car magazines. He knew nothing about small engine repair, yet his van was filled with broken lawnmowers.

If you collect stamps, you are a stamp collector.  But if you find an old stamp collection and then throw it onto your pile of "junk" then you are merely a hoarder. What distinguishes the hoarder from the aficionado is discrimination. The hoarder will take anything that appears to be "of value" even if it is not, on the premise that "people collect these things."  A collector will discriminately select only certain items for his collection, and then limit himself to certain areas of collection, which he researches avidly.  The hoarder collects all sorts of stuff, without much discrimination between what is good and bad, only that he has more.

A variation of this effect is the car hoarder.  I know one fellow who had a collection of BMWs. Collection is a subjective word here, as his neighbors (and the County zoning board) call it an unlicensed junk yard. He had over 50 cars, many of which he claims are "significant" but none of which are in running condition or indeed even very good condition for restoration.   He has no money to repair or restore any of them, and realistically, no intention of doing so.  He merely hangs onto them because he perceives them to be of value to someone, and enjoys, in his mind, the "status" of being a car collector, even if he arrives at every BMW car meet in an old Subaru.

If you find yourself taking something for free (or at a low price) on the premise that it is valuable to someone else (but of little or no value to you) then you are merely hoarding, not collecting or acquiring useful things.  If you collect disparate objects with no connection to one another, you are merely hoarding, not collecting.  If you collect things of one type, but do no discriminate between good and bad things, you are merely hoarding.

2. The Hoarder Does Not Take Care of the Objects

As my apartment neighbor example illustrates, the hoarder generally does not take care of the objects they hoard.  On the contrary, once they obtain the objects, they often allow them to go to utter waste.

Thus, for example, the old man who collects broken lawnmowers does not carefully repair them and place them in his garage, but rather lets them sit out in his yard in a pile to rust and degrade. My apartment neighbor piled his prized possessions in a mat two feet thick, which he walked upon, until most of the things he "salvaged" from the trash were broken or useless (or more useless than they were before).

If something hoarded has multiple parts, the hoarder typically tends to scatter them among his possessions (or ironically, throw them away), usually losing critical parts in the process, rendering the rest of the item useless.  (Note that methamphetamine addicts do this, and they even have a name for it - "tweeking" - taking apart the stereo, for example, and then scatting the parts to the four winds.  Perhaps chemical imbalance is to blame for hoarding).

Thus, for example, a hoarder may "collect" an interesting old lamp from the trash, but then put the shade in one place, the base in another, and the unique bracket that mounts the shade to the lamp somewhere else (or throw it away). Eventually, the shade gets stepped on, the lamp is knocked over, and it is all utterly worthless (if it was worth anything to begin with). What might have been a "funky collectable" is utterly destroyed.

The hoarder does not carefully organize or pack things away, but rather puts things in piles, often with the most delicate breakable items on the bottom. Hoarders often tend to put things that should not get wet (furniture, appliances) outdoors, and then wonder why they end up destroyed.

To the hoarder, the acquisition is the thing, not the owning. This is why they hoard so much. They have a need to GET things, and thus continually obtain more and more junk, while neglecting, if not actively destroying what they already have.

To normal people, the behavior of the hoarder is particularly galling in this regard. The hoarder is often poor or pleading poverty, and yet allows thousands of dollars of possessions to go to waste, for no reason at all. Even items of value, that the hoarder has paid for, are usualy sqandered by the hoarder.

My friend with the "collection" of "rare" junked BMWs is the same way. They sit out in the yard, rusting (again, the hoarder does not take care of his hoard) and he refuses to sell any of them. I told him to sell most of them and use the money to restore one or two - at least that way, he would have a nice ride, and the other cars could be salvaged. His widow will sell the rusty cars, years from now, probably as scap metal. Mutiply this story times a million and you can see the extent of the junked car problem in America.

3. The Hoarder Does Not Want to Part With the Objects

This part is almost humorous, if it were not so tragic. Watching a hoarder try to have a garage sale is a joke, because they cannot part with anything. They may put things out for sale, but put outrageous prices on things, or, after someone expresses an interest in an item, decide, "that's not for sale."

My apartment neighbor was a case in point. I was working on my car one day and he came out to chat. He said "your hands will get dirty working on the car, and I found a box of rubber gloves the other day, do you want them?" Initially, I said "no thanks" but he persisted. He came back from his apartment with a box of surgical gloves. The rest was comical.

"Here, you can have this," he said, handing me the box. "Uh, gee, thanks," I said, not really wanting them. "On second thought," he replied, "maybe I will need some of these down the road, so why don't you just take two for now and I can give you more later?"

"Well, OK" I replied, not even wanting the gloves in the first place. He peeled off two gloves from the box and held them out, then hesitated, drawing his hand back. It was killing him to give these away, even though the whole idea was his. To him, these gloves had value to someone. But he did not want to part with them. He finally relinquished the gloves, which I had not asked for in the first place.

He clearly was a lonely man. As I worked on the car, he kept asking me questions and talking to me. "I have a lot of old hot rod magazines in my apartment, do you want them?" Old car magazines are a lot of fun to read, so I said "Yes". He invited me to his apartment, where I saw the staggering mess he had. He dug through the mounds on the floor and came up with a stack of mid-1960's copies of "Hot Rod" magazine. Again, the tug of war ensued. As I reached out to take them, he pulled back, having second thoughts. "Well, maybe you can BORROW them," he said, reconsidering the offer. Even that seemed too much. "Perhaps you can borrow a FEW for now, and come back for the others later."

Eventually, I left with one magazine, which he nagged me to return later that day. Of course, since it had been piled in his apartment, it was wrinkled and stepped on. A collection of old Playboy magazines, carefully cataloged, or old National Geographics, can be a joy to read. But a pile of old magazines that are tossed in a corner is not a collection.

I have seen this behavior with other hoarders as well. They seem to enjoy the idea that people think they have something of value, and then play a game of not wanting to part with it. For example, another neighbor had an old Mercedes parked in his driveway. Like any typical hoarder, he was allowing it to waste, by leaving the windows down in the rain – for 10 years. It was worth $25,000 if restored, but as a "parts car" might be worth only a thousand or two.

Neighbors asked him if he was selling the car, and he mistook their horror at his front lawn junkyard as an expression of interest. "Everyone keeps asking me if I'll sell that car" he said, "But I'm keeping it! It's my retirement! That car is worth $300,000!" Unfortunately, he was confusing his junker with a more expensive and collectible model Mercedes, which, if restored, might fetch that price. The reality is, his widow would end up selling the car for its real value, as he had no intention of ever parting with it. To the hoarder, part of the appeal is the perception that they have something of value – something that people want.

Keeping things thus is the name of the game.

4. The Hoarder Cannot See They Have a Problem

Things tend to accumulate in any household, and after a while, one does not "see" junk in the house. This is, to some extent, normal. But with the hoarder, it becomes a major problem.

Has it ever happened to you that you come into the house and set down a box or something and say "I'll put that away later". Weeks go by and you suddenly realize, to your horror, that you've had a cardboard box in your hallway for nearly a month?

Oftentimes, when we go away on vacation and come back, we "see" things like that for the first time. Or, as an outsider in someone else's apartment or home, you see this sort of junk that the resident has become so used to that they no longer can perceive it.

The hoarder is this way as well, but on steroids. One classic symptom of the hoarder is the use of aisles or pathways to get around the house. A hard-core hoarder will occupy every surface and space in the house with "stuff" until there is only a small pathway through the house from Point A to Point B.

A friend of mine had parents this way, and she was horrified to discover that they had made "paths" throughout the house, and in some instances, entire rooms were inaccessible or full of "things". Not only was this unattractive, but it was also a fire hazard.

Similarly, the lawn full of junk is invisible to the hoarder, who sees nothing different in his piles of crap as opposed to your neat and tidy life. In fact, hoarders often will say that a neat home looks "too sterile" and express the opinion that piles of junk make a home look "lived in".

The hoarder makes junk invisible by mentally processing how things should be as opposed to how they are. So the broken lamp, will be "fixed some day" and the piled up furniture is, mentally, arranged tastefully in their mind. But of course, it never ends up that way.

Again, the junk car collector works the same way. They cannot "see" the junked cars under tarps on their lawn (although the neighbors certainly can) and they cannot understand why they are being "hassled" by the zoning authorites for their junked car collection. My friend with the yard load of old BMWs was mystified why his "asshole" neighbors complained to the authorities about his cars - cars which he had moved from his previous home to his new neighborhood.

Living next door to a hoarder can be mildly annoying at best. At worst, it can be unhealthy and/or dangerous. Unfortunately, many hoarders develop anti-social behaviors as well, probably as a result of the disorder, or perhaps as one of the causes of it.

5. The Hoarder has a Car Full of Crap, Too.

It is not hard to spot a hoarder's car, as the springs are usually sagging in the back. In one tragic case, a neighbor of mine had a son with hoarding disorder. Only 18 years old, he started collecting junk in his Volkswagen Jetta, until it was filled to the windows. Only a small space was available in the cockpit for him to drive, with all other seats and the trunk being full - of junk. What were the precious collectables he had to keep in his car? Old magazines, food wrappers, laundry, books, CDs, odd items pulled from the trash - you name it. He had that car chinked full of crap. I have even seen people add cargo carriers to the roof of their cars and load those as well.

Another example is my neighbor with the step van, who took hoarding-while-you-drive to new heights. Hoarders tend to cruise neighborhoods on the night before trash day, to scout for new finds (broken lawnmowers, old lamps, furniture). So it is not atypical that they have a car load of junk. They rarely unload their cars, however, or leave their "finds" in the car for weeks or months, unloading them only so they can acquire more.

6. The Hoarder has Other Mental Illnesses

My apartment neighbor turned out to be an outpatient of a local mental hospital. He was functional, somewhat, despite his disorder. Hard core hoarders usually have other mental illnesses as well, which is tragic. Hoarding may be related to these illnesses, chemical imbalances or the like. Or perhaps it causes it. I am no expert. I do know, however, that people with mental illnesses can be dangerous to be around, and also drag you down emotionally (See, "Emotional Vampires"). Being friends with a hoarder is never fun. Being neighbros with one can be downright dangerous.

A neighbor of one of my tenants was a full-blown hoarder. His apartment was also knee-deep in trash, and he had a stack of four door mats in front of his apartment door. He had a crazed look and always tried to start fights with the other neighbors (but always backed down, as he was an utter coward at heart). He decided to take over the parking spot for my rental condo, going so far as to paint his apartment number on the space. His urge to hoard had spread to parking spaces. My tenant was understandable upset, and this sort of passive-aggressive type action is typical of the hoarder (Passive aggressives are an annoying pain in the ass, period).

I confronted him on the issue, and he got all blustery and shouted at me, but he backed down eventually. He tried to argue that he was entitled to two parking spaces, but I pointed out to him that everyone else in the development had only one, and the development map clearly showed where my tenant's space was supposed to be.

Again, he turned out to be an outpatient of a mental facility, which I discovered after he was found dead in his apartment. The rise of outpatient treatment for mental illness may be another factor in the rise of hoarding disorder - or the rise in the apparentness of it.

Hoarders can often be unstable and thus dangerous. Some may be hoarding weapons. Approach with caution. As a landlord, the hoarder can be a nightmare tenant. Some live in their own filth to the point where the smell drives out other neighbors. Some collect garbage in their yard, which attracts rats and other pests. Pet hoarders can cause health problems for neighbors, as their neglected animals become sick and die (and the smells from the large amount of pet excrement become staggering).

Hoarding disorder isn't funny, really, even if the behavior of the hoarder sometimes seems amusing. The victim of the disorder certainly isn't happy, and their actions can make others unhappy as well.

So What Can You Do?

While full-blown hoarding disorder is clearly a mental illness that requires treatment, I think that creeping hoarding disorder can occur to any person over time, and it is necessary to be vigilant to prevent yourself from sliding down that slippery slope of mental health. There are steps you can take to help prevent yourself from slipping into hoarding habits.

1. Stop Acquiring Junk:

It is tempting to stop at the curb and pick through someone's trash, particularly when they are throwing away "good stuff". Salvaging a lamp or a table or some other valuable item is fun, and you feel you are getting something for "free" which is always the best deal in the world.

But unless you have a specific need for the item RIGHT NOW, just walk away. If you see a perfectly good chair being thrown out, and you think, "You know, that will fill that empty spot in my living room" then it may be a good deal. On the other hand, if you are merely collecting the chair because it is "good" and "worth something to somebody" but have no place to put it, then you are merely hoarding.

Note also that broken things can backfire in a big way. Acquiring something that "just needs a little work" is a bad idea, if the amount of work (and parts) needed exceeds the value of the item. So a broken desk needing a new leg is no deal, if a new leg costs $100 and ht edesk is worth maybe fifty bucks.

Also, broken things are no bargain if you have no abilities, inclination, talent, time, or tools to fix them. Broken lawnmower collectors often have dozens in their yards, basements, and garages, but lack the time, tools, skills, parts, or know-how to repair them. And often, there is a very sound reason people throw such things away - they are utterly shot, ruined, or worn out, and the cost of repairing them exceeds the cost of a new one. With more and more things made inexpensively overseas, it just isn't worth repairing many consumer items anymore (this goes for computers, televisions, radios, or any electronics, small engines, and even cars, after a certain age).

2. Pick One Thing:

If you collect old coins, that's great. But collecting hundreds of different things, merely because they are free (or nearly free) is not being a "collector," merely a junk collector. If you find you have an eclectic mixture of stuff that you got merely because it seemed valuable to someone else, rethink your collection.

I found some items in my basement that I had collected, not because I was a collector, but because they seemed cool and valuable, and relatively inexpensive. Old phones, radios and the like ARE collectables. But I am not a phone or radio collector. So I sold them on eBay to someone who was.

3. Take Care of Things:

If you acquire something, but then leave it out in the rain or pile it somewhere where it will fall over and break, then something isn't right. A real collector will clean, maintain, and organize things, rather than let them sit around in a pile. If the stuff you are collecting is going to waste, then you have a problem. If you have something that is lying around and getting knocked over, kicked, or otherwise slowly destroyed, but you don't want to part with it because "it is valuable" then maybe it is time to part with it!

4. Get A Fresh View:

Go through your house and try to look at it through a stranger's eyes. Look for boxes, magazines, bags, and other things that are out of place. Is there too much furniture in your rooms? Is it hard to navigate through your house because of stuff? Do you bump into things or have to do a two-step to get around something?

It takes some time, but it is worthwhile to do this now and again, to help you "see" things that the mind tends to blank out. For example, I had a cabinet in my office that was sitting on the floor. The movers had broken the legs on it, and I intended to fix it. It sat there, on the floor, at an odd angle....for three years.

One day, after coming home from a hoarder friends house of horrors, I started looking around, and I could "see" for the first time a number of potential hoarding horrors starting to fester in my own home. Vigilance is necessary to prevent such things from accumulating in your own life.


It is temping to "keep things" that might be worth something to you down the road. But, as I noted in another blog entry, if you can't find something you want, it is like not owning it at all. Keeping things organized is the key to keeping things at all.

I tend to keep old car parts, as they are useful in repairing cars. However, broken parts are of no use to anyone, and should be thrown away. And if you keep a part, and don't know where it is when you need it, then it is like not having the part at all. I bought several totes for tractor, boat, and car parts, and then carefully went through my collection and tossed those things that were broken or unsalvageable and put the rest in the totes, which I have stored on shelves in my shop. Not only is this visually more appealing, it makes it easy to find the parts when I need them.


It is unfashionable to throw things away these days, and this unfortunately tends to reinforce hoarding behavior. Hoarders can now claim to be "Green" and "recycling" instead of just running an unlicensed junk yard.

However difficult or politically incorrect it may be, it pays to toss things away sometimes. If clutter prevents you from finding the things you DO need, then clutter is, in effect, costing you money. Things of little or no intrinsic value should not be saved, period.

One friend had a mother who saved the plastic trays that meat comes packaged in. It is tempting to save containers these days, as packaging has become so complex that it seems a shame to throw away such well-engineered containerage. A simple plastic water bottle is a miracle of engineering. Throwing it away seems so – well, wasteful! But it has no intrinsic value. The best you can do is to recycle it.


Scrap values have risen in recent years, and selling junk, even for scrap value, is always a good idea. As I noted in "Money, the Greatest Invention", you can liquidate almost anything you own, and then later on, if you decide you want it back, buy nearly the same thing for about the same price (factoring in inflation and storage fees). Money is nice and liquid and doesn't clutter up your life.

For example, during a recent move, we sold off a set of wicker furniture. It was a shame to sell it, but we did get $150 for it and didn't have to move it (which costs money) or store it (which costs money). Meanwhile, that $150 was freed up to pay other expenses or be invested (and earn money).

Years later, we decided we wanted that wicker furniture back. We found almost the exact same set at a yard sale for $200. Not having to move and store that furniture for five years was well worth $50, believe me. It is far easier to liquidate and re-acquire than to hold onto things. And that original set? Well, it would be five years older by now, and probably damaged to boot.

Today, we have eBay, Craig's List, local shopper's magazines, and of course, the trusty garage (tag) sale, all of which are excellent outlets for unloading things that you no longer need. With eBay and Craig's List, you can reach a large audience for little or no money and liquidate things you don't need and use the money to buy other things you might need instead. It is a game, and it can be a fun game to play, if played correctly.


Hoarding is a habit, and countering this habit requires developing other habits. When you come home every night, take EVERYTHING out of your car and PUT IT AWAY. Get in the HABIT of putting things away or throwing them away if they have no use.

Hoarding does not "just happen" but like other disorders, grows over time. It starts with a book left on the floor and then morphs into dirty dishes in the sink, then laundry left on the sofa. Before you know it, the whole house is full of junk.

Countering hoarding disorder, I believe, requires constant mental discipline. Like the alcoholic, you cannot afford to "fall off the wagon" and take "one little drink". Once collecting junk starts, it goes downhill quickly.

A visit to a hoarder's home can be a frightening thing - but educational as well. After one such recent visit, I came home and "saw" my home in a new light. Suddenly, small things that were hardly "clutter" jumped out at me. I did not want to end up like my hoarder friend. In that regard, while knowing a hoarder can be a nightmare, it can also be instructive, or as Kurt Vonnegaut called it, "dancing lessons from God". You cannot change the hoarder, of course, but you can learn a lesson from them.

* * *

Hoarding Disorder is a tragic thing, as it can destroy the lives of the people involved, both financially and emotionally. Unfortunately, so many factors in our society seem to feed this disorder – the materialistic need to acquire things, the availability of so many inexpensive consumer goods, and the large amount of stuff discarded every year. I believe you can fight this disorder, but it takes conscious effort on your part.