When Hoarding Becomes a Hazard

Harmless collecting or a serious disorder?

Posted Mar 17, 2014

At first glance, it might look as if I am a hoarder, simply because I have run out of space in my filing cabinets, and things are piling up. I've tried cleaning house, but the last piece of paper I throw away is always the first one I need later on.

Is it possible to be born with the tendency to hoard things? The fact is, I come from a long line of hoarders, although they probably would have called themselves something else, like collectors or hobbyists, who stored or stockpiled treasures of all kinds. And I married into another such line. 

My mother-in-law always insisted that the floor-to-ceiling piles of The L.A. Times  occupying one whole corner of the dining room in the family home were there for a perfectly good reason. She was always going to go through them and clip articles, recipes, etc., before they were thrown away. Pointing out that so much accumulated paper created a fire hazard didn't faze her.

I had a brother-in-law who was known as a "pack rat" for bringing home all manner of junk to be added to the rest of the junk filling up his attic, spare room and basement.  While his wife conducted garage sales to get rid of some of it, he would be out buying even more from neighboring garage sales. "You never know when you're going to need a (you-name-it) and then you'll be glad I've got one!" he would say. 

During World War II, hoarding of scarce commodities on the home front was unpatriotic as well as illegal. Anyone caught with a garage full of new tires or basement shelves accumulating large amounts of canned goods, for example, was subject to fines and imprisonment, not to mention the scorn of their more patriotic neighbors.

What's the difference between hoarding and merely collecting? What was Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, doing with a thousand pairs of shoes? Even more bizarre examples are popping up in the news every day -- a woman who kept 30 dead cats in her freezer, and a man who kept 60 pythons (half of them dead) in closed containers stacked up to the ceiling. Banks are accused of hoarding cash, and people who don't like the new eco-friendly light bulbs are stockpiling old incandescent ones before they go out of production. 

I have heard of a reality TV show about hoarding, called "Buried Alive," and seen ads for discreet services that will send an unmarked van to remove accumulated junk from your house. (By the dark of the moon, maybe?)

So, what exactly is hoarding? The dictionary defines it as "the excessive collection of items and an unwillingness to part with them." So far so good. But, not being a psychologist, the more I read about it, the less I understand. Is it a subdivision of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)? Some say it is, some say it isn't. 

The most alarming thing I have seen on the subject involves the risks to hoarders, their families, neighbors and even animals. In extreme cases, the home becomes so congested that the family cannot function. When sinks, bathtubs and stoves are used for storage they cannot be used for their intended purposes. With fire being the most obvious risk, extreme congestion means that people and pets can't get out in time, and firefighters can't get in. Neighboring homes may also be burned.

Something else I read recently connects hoarding and dementia in the elderly. But let's take that up at another time, shall we? I need to go out and buy a new filing cabinet.