Unlike many mental health professionals, I don’t pay much attention to the labels in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Although hoarding is no longer considered in the category of OCD (Obsessive – Compulsive Disorder), it is by all means a compulsive behavior. Hoarders feel compelled to keep items, even if intellectually and rationally they know they probably won’t need them in a practical sense. The “need” is a powerful emotional one, however.
Many of the hoarders I have helped over the years do not (at first, anyway) acknowledge their hoarding as a problem. Some even pride themselves on being great collectors of various types of objects. They are certainly aware that others around them regard their behavior as abnormal, but they may or may not agree. It often takes a near or actual catastrophe (such as fire, divorce, house condemned) to motivate a hoarder to change, but even then it’s not easy. Great levels of anxiety may arise even when letting go of an item that the average person regards as garbage.
Some of my ex-hoarding clients had surrounded themselves with items to keep them company – items that reminded them of memories they want to save. They explained that they felt less lonely and more comforted by the items even though they understood it caused clutter, to say the least. (Cluttering, by the way, is a completely different issue. Many clutterers have no problem discarding items and actually love to get rid of stuff, but they lack a system of organization. As opposed to hoarders, clutterers typically dislike the chaos and dream of having an orderly environment. Cluttering should not at all be lumped into the same category as hoarding.)
My paternal grandmother was a hoarder. She was extremely poor and escaped Poland before she would have been exterminated with much of the rest of her family. In her case, relatives and friends justified that since she lost everything and everyone, she emotionally needed to hold on to all she could when she started her new life in America. However, I have a family history of various compulsive behaviors on that side of my family – eating disorders, continuously counting items and checking the locks on doors (the last two are very typical of OCD). There is also one cousin that hoards in a very similar way that my grandmother did – she refuses to discard newspapers, and obstinately declares this to simply be an interesting hobby (even though one entire room in her house is piled to the ceiling and the door can barely open anymore.)
Was there a biochemical tendency in my grandmother that was brought out by her extreme life circumstances or would she have become a hoarder anyway no matter what? On the same note, would the family history have continued throughout the generations? Are compulsive behaviors biochemical in origin, a result of a person’s situation or a combination of both?
No matter what the answer, as with any other disorder, this compulsive behavior deserves compassion and not judgment. If you’re living with a hoarder or others feel you’re hoarding, you deserve to work with a professional who specializes in this field. Emotionally and behaviorally, the topic needs to be approached with sensitivity, understanding and expertise.