Hoarding: Trash as Treasure

When a friend just can't let go—of plain old junk.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 9, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I have a friend who doesn't like to throw away things. He keeps stuff like empty medicine bottles (approximately 100), 20-year-old bank statements, magazines (some 300 issues), paper (six file cabinets and over 20 boxes), clothes as old as 30 years, and so on. I suggested he throw them away but he gets very angry at my suggestion. It got to the point that his girlfriend left him because of his habit. Is this something that I should be concerned with? Is there a cure for his behavior?

For some people, collecting is a passion. For others, it's a disorder. There are 2 million compulsive hoarders in the United States for whom the impulse to collect and save has gone dangerously awry.

The desire to hold onto things is buried deep inside our psyches. For most of human history, food and other resources were generally scarce. Our brains and repertoire of behaviors took shape in an environment of scarcity.

Hoarding, however, is the reflection of anxiety raised to the fever pitch of obsession and compulsion. It pathologically capitalizes on the virtue of saving and involves objects most others deem worthless or useless. One or two empty prescription containers may come in handy, there is no rational way to justify holding onto 100.

No one knows why hoarders alight on the things they do. Some sufferers form emotional attachments to their belongings. Others are indecisive, disorganized, and prone to procrastination. Either way, their attachment to things is pathological when it begins to distort daily life or interfere with relationships—say, there's no place for visitors to sit down. Your friend is already well in that camp.

Hoarding behavior could arise on its own. Or it could be triggered by a loss or other significant life event. It may also occur in persons with dementia.

Most hoarders deny they have a problem. Your friend may insist there will be a time when he'll need a bank statement from 20 years ago or that his old clothes will come roaring back into style.

Compulsive hoarding is a treatable condition. Hoarders need psychotherapy that gets at the root of their anxiety. To help hoarders stop collecting and start trashing, the therapy may be most effective if at some point it takes place in the environment where the patient hoards. For some people, antidepressant drugs may be used in conjunction with the therapy.