When does collecting cross over to hoarding?

June 16, 2011 

Maggie, a friend of mine, has a house full of clutter. Walk into her bedroom and you will see pile upon pile of newspapers, rubber bands, scattered clothes, old magazines and the like. She has a filing cabinet where she files every piece of mail she gets, even junk mail.

"Some day I may need it," she insists.

Maggie spends so much time on her filing system that she has no time to do much else.

Julia also has a bedroom filled with what looks like junk. She too has piles of books on the bed and papers all over the floor. Her bedroom is filled with things no one else can identify except her. But she's so creative that she always finds a good use for these things.

Most of us know people like Maggie and Julia. Is such saving an ability or disability?

Hoarding seems to be a natural instinct. After all, squirrels hoard nuts for winter. Dogs bury bones. Magpies are famous for collecting objects like coins, jewelry, and other things.

In people, our fat cells are ways of hoarding food so we can survive when famine strikes. That's one reason it's so hard to lose weight. We just naturally try to fill these storage tanks with calories.

Remember the Biblical story of Joseph? Pharaoh dreamed about seven fat cows and seven scrawny cows. Joseph interpreted the dream as seven years of great plenty followed by seven years of terrible famine.

To prepare for the famine, "Joseph collected produce in very large quantity, like the sands of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured."

"The seven years of abundance that the land of Egypt enjoyed came to an end, and the seven years of famine set in, just as Joseph had foretold.

"There was famine in all lands, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread."

We buy food in large quantities when something is cheap. Many people can fruits and vegetables for the winter. In Alaska we store fish in the summer, salmon and halibut.

This is sensible storing, hardly a psychiatric disease.

Hoarding, according to some theories, occurs when our natural instincts to save go awry. In "The Psychology of Hoarding," (Discover Magazine, October 2004) Mary Duenwald says that "humans appear to be the only species that takes hoarding to pathological excess," -- though we may disagree when we stumble over dogs' bones.

Hoarding becomes a disease when people collect so much stuff that it interferes with their lives. The Mayo Clinic defines hoarding as "the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them." People who hoard are compulsive savers. Sometimes their houses are filled with so much clutter they can barely find a path through the rooms.

Some hoarders have huge collections of animals, especially cats. We read newspaper stories of people who hoard animals in such terrible and unsanitary conditions that public health and animal welfare agencies must be called.

Landlords sue tenants who hoard so much stuff that it ruins the house. Their carpets may be full of urine from multiple cats.

Some people hoard friends. Their Facebook page runneth over.

Psychiatrist David Tolin at Yale University School of Medicine, a researcher who studies hoarding, estimates that "two percent to five percent of Americans may meet the criteria for being hoarders."

Since hoarders can be secretive and avoid treatment, this estimate is rough.

The Mayo Clinic lists such symptoms as these:

• "Cluttered living spaces"

• "Inability to discard items."

• "Shame or embarrassment"

•"Excessive attachment to possessions including discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions."

According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding usually starts in adolescence and even earlier with children saving broken toys, pencils, crayons, and the like. In part, hoarding may be genetic since people who hoard often have hoarders in the family. Upbringing may also play a part.

In an article in Psychological Medicine (2008), Tolin and his colleagues studied compulsive hoarders and found that hoarders had different brain patterns and had serious problems in making decisions.

My friend Maggie may need professional help. But Julia is another story. Her systems are expressions of her creative nature, and she is just fine.


Judith Kleinfeld, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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