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Ask the Organizer: How Do I Know If I’m a Hoarder?

Shelton resident Kelly Humiston, president of New Leaf Organizing Service, answers a reader's question about the symptoms of compulsive hoarding and offers some resources for those suffering from it.

Q.  Sometimes I watch those TV shows on hoarding, and I wonder if I might be a hoarder.  How can you determine if you just have a lot of clutter or you’re an actual hoarder?

A.  Due the popularity of several cable TV shows depicting compulsive hoarding, many people wonder with great trepidation if they — or someone they love — are a hoarder or on their way to becoming one.  Lord knows, I’ve watched those shows before going to bed and then have felt compelled to make sure I didn’t leave the toothpaste out on my bathroom counter, out of fear I could become a hoarder!

According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD; www.challengingdisorganization.org; I bet you didn’t know such an organization existed), approximately 2% to 4% of adults in the United States (that’s 6 million to 12 million Americans) suffer from compulsive hoarding, which is generally considered to be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  The good news is that 96% to 98% of adults are NOT hoarders.  But for those who ARE, the negative effects of compulsive hoarding are experienced by not only the hoarders themselves, but also their spouses, loved ones, friends and neighbors. 

So what exactly is the definition of compulsive hoarding?  According to the ICD, compulsive hoarding is characterized by the following:

  • The acquisition of (and failure to discard) possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value.  Hoarders shop online, via TV shopping networks and in stores, as well as thrift shops and yard sales.  Some also engage in “Dumpster diving” and taking items intended for trash pickup from curbs of strangers.  Hoarders also have extreme difficulty letting go of objects, sometimes for sentimental reasons, because the item might serve a useful purpose or because they feel the item, no matter how dirty, has intrinsic beauty.
  • Living spaces that are sufficiently cluttered as to preclude their intended use.  Clutter eventually spreads onto tables, desks, chairs, sofas and beds.  Then piles get larger and eventually topple over.  Stairways and hallways get narrower, doorways get blocked and rooms get filled up, so that they are no longer usable.
  • The clutter creates significant distress or impairment.  Clutter in hoarders’ homes not only inhibits the everyday functioning of the homes, but also limits people’s social activities and often poses health and safety risks, as well.

Many people will be relieved to realize that they are not a compulsive hoarder.  However, if you do meet the above criteria and would like help, resources are available.  One resource is the International Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (www.ocfoundation.org), which educates the public and sufferers about OCD and related disorders; the site also lets you search by state and/or ZIP code for therapists who specialize in treating OCD.  Another resource is the Anxiety Disorders Center at Hartford (CT) Hospital (http://www.harthosp.org/InstituteOfLiving/AnxietyDisordersCenter/CompulsiveHoarding/default.aspx), whose web site offers an online self-assessment tool as well as helpful resources for overcoming compulsive hoarding.

Although there’s no cure at present for hoarding, there are treatments to help hoarders manage their symptoms.  The use of prescribed antidepressants and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) have been found to be most effective.

If you’re motivated to reduce your clutter and need the help of a professional organizer, consider contacting New Leaf Organizing Service at www.newleaforganizingservice.com or at (203) 450-1099.  We organize things big and small — once and for all.

Have an organizing question you’d like me to answer?  Feel free to submit it on Patch.com, via the Comments function, or e-mail it to me directly at kelly@newleaforganizingservice.com.  The more specific the question, the better. 

Coming next time:  How can I teach my young children the basics of being organized?

© 2012 New Leaf Organizing Service. All rights reserved.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Charlene July 11, 2012 at 04:05 PM
I love watching those "hoarding" tv shows. I get the urge to clean the house during the commercials! Win win!
Leslie Yager July 11, 2012 at 07:53 PM
They make me paranoid and bring a bag of stuff pronto to Goodwill.
Vicki July 11, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Such a sad and debilitating disorder...a form of OCD that is difficult to conquer.
ADaniels July 11, 2012 at 10:14 PM
Yes especially if children are involved.
Next_Door July 12, 2012 at 02:51 AM
I believe my wife is a hoarder, right here in Ridgefield. No one knows. When I first met her in NYC, her apartment was filled with cardboard boxes. I thought she had just moved in. No. She had been living there for two years. I should have known back then. We eventually moved to Ridgefield. It was subtle in the beginning. The old electric bills had to be stored on the dryer. The bank statements on top of the fish tank. The recipes on the TV. Nothing could be filed away or thrown out. For bigger things, she took over the spare bedroom, a dirty pillow, a used doormat she found at VP, a broken DVD player. I kept saying the DVD player doesn't work, why don't we throw it out. No, she was saving it for her nephew. He was in high school & liked to take things apart. She would give it to him. That was years ago. Her nephew is now 31 and lives in California. I still remember the depressing day when there was a broken stool in the hallway outside the spare bedroom. I asked what it was doing there. It violated our Geneva convention rule that all junk must be contained in the hoarding room. She said the room was full, but not to worry, she will soon enough make room and fit the stool in there. Ha. The good news is I no longer have to see the stool. The bad news is her junk picking grew and grew and the stool, as well the spare bedroom, as well as that entire hallway, have been buried in mounds of trash. Oh I mean treasure. Right her in Ridgefield folks, right here in RIdgefield.
John Symon July 12, 2012 at 03:14 AM
D I V O R C E Seriously.... God forbid there's a fire. That happened, right here in Ridgefield, and the delay caused by the 'stuff' resulted in an older gentleman dying.
Joan July 12, 2012 at 08:17 AM
Mental Illness shows NO socioeconomic boundaries.
Glen K Dunbar July 12, 2012 at 11:28 AM
Actually, honestly speaking....I am just the OPPOSITE. Really. Still very bad. I LOVE to throw things out. Can't stop. As soon as I get something I toss it out. Not sure why. GLEN
Kelly Humiston July 12, 2012 at 12:26 PM
Glen, it sounds as though you're an ANTI-hoarder! :-)
Glen K Dunbar July 12, 2012 at 01:02 PM
True Kelly. True. To be honest I have gotten in trouble over the years because I toss something out just because I could not read it or understand it. My wife too throws a fit saying I am wasting. Grown ups...Go figure !! GLEN
Sushi July 12, 2012 at 07:36 PM
The sanitation dept might be a good place to pursue these skills of yours. Recycling and upcyling is a growing industry especially if you like to throw stuff out so much!
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