The Tormented Hoarder

Most people don’t have trouble getting rid of things that have outlived their usefulness. But some people are unable to resist the urge to acquire or discard possessions even if the objects are completely useless or could unnecessarily risk someone’s health and happiness.

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Most of us have box or two tucked away where we keep things of sentimental value or that we think will have practical use down the road. After all, discarding perfectly good things we no longer use or need seems wasteful. Some people, however, can take this stockpiling to the extreme in a way that not only impacts their own health and wellbeing, but also the people around them.

One of the most infamous cases of accumulators was the Collyer brothers; in the 1920s, they were found dead in their Harlem brownstone buried in a heap of books, newspapers, furniture, musical instruments and rotting garbage. Newspapers of that time referred to them as eccentric hermits. Today they would likely be diagnosed with a debilitating mental health condition called compulsive hoarding, the uncontrollable impulse to collect, save or resist discarding objects.

A Disordered Mess

When hoarding escalates to the point where it has serious personal, relational and health consequences, it becomes disabling and dangerous. People who live in a hoarded household are at risk for injury due to cluttered pathways, disease from overgrowth of bacteria and mold, breathing problems from massive amounts of dust, not to mention contact with insects and vermin.

The behavior usually begins or worsens after a traumatic event such as a death, divorce, fire or other stressful incident. But hints of hoarding can appear in childhood and extend into adulthood. And the behavior runs in families, suggesting an inheritable genetic component. Hoarders often live a lonely life, socially isolated from friends and family.

It can start slowly with what seems like harmless piles, but eventually these piles extend beyond their usual place, taking over living areas. The bed is no long conducive for sleeping, the kitchen is no longer a place to cook, and the whole living situation spirals out of control.

Commonly hoarded items can include clothes, mechanical parts, newspapers, magazines, medications, toiletries, CDs, DVDs, videos and more rarely - animals, waste matter, hair, dirty diapers and decaying food.