Compulsive Hoarding Goes Mainstream

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For three weeks, Jesse and Thelma Gaston were buried alive in their own house, pinned beneath piles of festering trash, old clothing and leftover food. When the Chicago fire department finally arrived to rescue the couple earlier this week, the firemen had to wear special hazardous materials suits just to deal with the horrible stench emanating from inside. After pushing past containers of rotten milk and oil cans, and carefully maneuvering through flimsy towers of debris, the firemen managed to pull the elderly couple out. The Gastons left their bloated home looking as frail as skeletons and remain in critical condition.

How did this couple manage to transform their home sweet home into a foul death trap? According to reports, the Gastons were extreme hoarders. One of their neighbors told the Chicago Sun Times that Mr. Gaston “was always collecting junk” and “wouldn’t let anyone in” the house. Neighbors had complained to authorities several times over the years about the couple’s unseemliness, but there is nothing illegal about hoarding junk. Ultimately, it took a near tragedy to pry open the Gastons’ home and let the world peer inside.

Every household has someone who could qualify as a collector, or at the very least, someone who stubbornly refuses to let go of specific possessions, usually because of sentimental value. In fact, chances are that the latter is true of each and every one of us. But it takes much more than that to be classified as a true compulsive hoarder.

“The major distinction has to do with the extent to which the behavior or the clutter causes significant distress or interferes with your ability to live,” said Randy Frost, a psychology professor and co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and The Meaning of Things. “If they can’t sit on their couch or sleep in their bed or eat at the kitchen table, that interferes with their ability to live and that’s what changes it from an eccentricity into a threat.”

Many argue that Americans have become a more materialistic culture in the past few decades, focused on buying up the newest gadgets and fashions. The rise of mega stores like Wal-Mart and CostCo has turned us into shopaholics and fueled our ability to spend less while buying more than we need. According to Frost, this has also arguably made it easier for hoarders to acquire more junk. Yet, while most of us are quick to throw away those purchases (perhaps too quick) in favor of the next new thing, hoarders don’t have it in them to let go.

One day before the Gastons were rescued, Fox 5 NY reported on a hoarder who had terrorized fellow tenants in her Manhattan apartment building by refusing to discard “rotted food and bags of soiled cat litter.” In 2008, authorizes seized 800 dogs from an elderly couple who had hoarded the animals in their trailer, even though they were unable to care for the pets. There is the story of a man who inexplicably filled his house with 5,000 bike parts and the tale of a mother who had so much junk that it blocked the bathrooms in her home, forcing her family to bring a port-a-pottie inside. Some hoarders even collect stuff like body parts, hair and finger nails.

In his book, Frost describes one woman he studied named Irene who collected plastic bottle caps and was incapable of even throwing away a receipt. “One time she picked up an ATM envelope that was five years old, on which she’d written what she had spent the money on. And she put that envelope in the recycling box and cried because she said she felt like she was losing that day or her life, that she was losing too much of herself,” Frost said.

One thing is clear: These are not your ordinary collectors.

We may chide friends and family members who accrue junk, but those who hoard it obsessively have little control over their actions. Researchers are still working to fully understand this condition, but compulsive hoarding appears to combine several psychological elements including serious attention problems and an altered way of processing and contextualizing information. When hoarders feel the urge to claim something, the rest of the world becomes irrelevant to them. Similarly, they experience an intense attachment to their possessions mixed with a passion for not wasting them, which makes it almost impossible to seperate them from their junk. The condition, also known as disposophobia, is currently listed as a subset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but researchers are hoping to get it listed on its own.

For years, the most recognizable example of this disorder (perhaps the only recognizable example) has been the Collyer brothers who lived in Harlem. In 1947, the brothers, Homer and Langly, were found dead in their brownstone, buried underneath columns of newspapers, furniture, 14 pianos and a Model-T Ford. The brothers had died of starvation.

Yet in recent years, hoarding seems to have entered the mainstream. A documentary about the condition aired last year and there is now a TV show called Hoarders on A&E. Several books have been written about compulsive hoarding in recent years including Buried Treasures and Digging Out, and E.L. Doctorow, the author of Ragtime, recently released a fictionalized retelling of the story of the Collyer brothers. Frost’s book is the most recent addition to the literature on this condition.

“It’s become more of a focus of attention now because of the shows on TV,” Frost said. “More people are recognizing this in themselves. Now I get two or three e-mails a day from people who just identify this in themselves or a family member.” As of last year, researchers thought that 2% of the population may be hoarders, but Frost says the number now looks to be as much as 5%. That would mean there are more than 6 million hoarders in America alone.

So how do you go about treating this condition?

Rather than trying to pry possessions out of hoarders’ hands, the most important objective is to get them talking. In time, hoarders may start to hear themselves and recognize the peculiarity of their own behavior, according to Frost.

There are a number of support groups for hoarders to help facilitate this process including Children of Hoarders and Messies Anonymous.  And the International OCD Foundation recently added a section to their site to help educate the public about compulsive hoarding, http://www.ocfoundation.org/hoarding/ which includes links to therapists nearby who can help.

Unfortunately, there is no effective drug yet, but researchers are in the process of developing new treatments. Frost, for his part, claims to have had some early success with a cognitive therapy treatment that tries to alter the thought process of hoarders when they are about to acquire new possessions. Patients undergo a process called “drive by non-shopping,” where they learn to pass by stores where they feel an urge to shop without buying anything. Eventually, they work their way up to being face to face with the object of their desire and practice turning it down. Frost also forces patients to bring a list of questions to ask themselves before they acquire something. Do I own it already? Can I afford it? What would my friends and family say? These are the questions that we all normally ask ourselves before making a purchase, but which compulsive hoarders tune out while focusing on their urge to acquire.

Despite all of the physical and mental health risks that compulsive hoarders and those close to them may face, there may still be something we can all learn from the condition. Unlike many of us, hoarders do understand the worth of objects and recognize beauty in places that we often overlook. “We throw things into the landfill that still have value. We live in such abundance that we’ve lost the ability to shepherd resources,” Frost said. “We all get busy and ignore the beauty around us but for the people who hoard, they get locked into that and unfortunately it backfires on them. It’s a form of creativity, a creativity that’s gone awry.”

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