1. Clear the home from all the stuff, and the problem is solved.
Hoarding disorder can be quite complex and often debilitating. There is extensive comorbidity with depression and significant comorbidity with anxiety and other disorders. The “stuff” is just the outward symptom of what’s going on underneath the surface. Without addressing root causes, coping mechanisms, behaviors, and habits, “clearing out” is like putting a band-aid on a wound that needs further medical attention.
2. A fast clear-out is the most effective way to help someone with hoarding disorder.
Thanks to tv shows like Hoarders, the quick clear-out tactic is well known. Many situations necessitate clear-outs, such as looming evictions or the ability to return home safely for recovery from major surgery. However, an unfortunate side effect can be reaccumulation to previous levels in less time than it occurred before the clear-out.
When the situation is not so dire, a steadier approach can be helpful. The individual has time to work with a therapist (or support group such as Buried in Treasures). They learn the “why” behind the acquiring behavior and the inability to let go and use healthier strategies to cope with difficult emotions.
Simultaneously, they can work with a professional organizer, such as yours truly, who obtained specialized training to work with those who have hoarding disorder. As they work with me, they put their new coping skills into practice to decrease the volume. They’re able to challenge the gut-level reactions (that tempt them to keep too many objects) that compete with goals such as having grandchildren over again. They gain competence and the ability to discern what is truly important.
3. People with hoarding disorder are just stubborn and could quickly get rid of the stuff if they wanted to.
To family and friends, it can seem that their loved one is just belligerent. There is a lot more, though, than meets the eye. Many who struggle with hoarding disorder have experienced trauma. While trauma doesn’t cause hoarding disorder, it can make the symptoms more extreme. Some clients have told me how the hoarding behavior helped them cope with challenging feelings before working with therapists and support groups to find better coping mechanisms.
Additionally, many people with hoarding disorder have low insight. (One 2018 presentation showed that less than 20% had excellent or good insight. More than 65% had either poor or only fair insight.) Until individuals gain enough insight, treatment options will have limited success. Fortunately, there are various ways to help reduce ambivalence about behavior change. Non-clinicians can even use some tactics.
4. “I have hoarding disorder because my parents grew up in the Depression.”
Some say that they have hoarding disorder because their parents needed to save everything during the Great Depression. While there seems to be a familial link, researchers are still unsure if it results from genetics or learned behavior. At that same 2018 conference referenced above, I learned that there is no link between “material deprivation” and hoarding disorder. While the Depression must have been challenging and individuals certainly needed to save items as much as possible, hoarding behavior did not suddenly become the norm. During the later years of the Depression, newspapers published the sensational (and quite sad) story of the Collyer Brothers. If hoarding had become commonplace, that story would never have been newsworthy. Traumas such as living through a depression can undoubtedly exacerbate symptoms, but they don’t cause the disorder.
5. There’s no help available for those with HD or their families.
Thankfully, there is help available for those who struggle with hoarding disorder and their families. One can start by reading helpful books such as Buried in Treasures and Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring. Hoarding task forces throughout the country work to help those in local communities who struggle with the disorder.
Additionally, therapists and clinicians (who have extensively trained in this area) can be of great help. Individuals gain insight and work towards less detrimental behaviors. Peer support groups work as well. Some of the most effective groups are based on Buried in Treasures (often referred to as BIT groups).
Lastly, Friends and Family support groups focus on helping those affected by their loved one’s hoarding behavior.
6. “They’ll never notice stuff that I toss out when they’re not looking.”
Throwing items away might appear helpful, but it can backfire in significant ways if there’s no prior consent. One of the best ways to erode trust in a relationship is to toss items without permission. If someone notices missing items, they will most likely become less trustful not only of the individual who threw things out but also of trained professionals who might otherwise be helpful in the future.
Untrained professional organizers have the best of intentions but can do more harm than good. I’ve witnessed those repercussions at conferences when people share their experiences and how they feel afterward.
It can be rough for friends and family members who the behavior has hurt. I find it helpful is to imagine how I would feel if someone started throwing away my possessions without my input or guidelines. It’s not a pleasant feeling, by any means. If you’re struggling to avoid tossing without permission, this visualization might be helpful.
7. People with hoarding disorder must not be smart to let situations get so seemingly out of control.
I have worked with incredibly bright individuals who have held down high-level jobs while secretly struggling with this disorder at home. Those who work with me have usually have good insight and intellectually know that the behavior doesn’t make sense on the surface. That doesn’t make it emotionally easier to conquer. We all have various battles in life where we intellectually know the behavior isn’t good for us. Still, we struggle to stop doing it anyway because of the strong emotions involved.
8. You can tell that someone has hoarding disorder just by looking at their home.
While visible signs can point to hoarding disorder, it’s never a sure bet. Before a clinician can diagnose it, other disorders with similar symptoms have to be ruled out. Someone might have a lot of clutter in the home, but it might be due to a motivational struggle due to depression. Perhaps someone is having a hard time touching items because of unchecked OCD symptoms (hoarding disorder is no longer considered a form of OCD). Maybe the individual is dealing with dementia or a traumatic brain injury. In any cluttered situation, hoarded or not, knowing the root cause gives one the capability to apply the appropriate strategies to reduce the clutter.
9. “I’m just a packrat.”
Many describe themselves as “packrats” or “collectors.” Clutter might be due to these reasons. It’s also entirely possible, though, that the “pack rat” tendencies they are struggling with are symptoms of undiagnosed hoarding disorder. If that’s the case, it can be helpful to review the definition of the disorder, along with the requirements of diagnosis: https://hoarding.iocdf.org/professionals/diagnosing-hoarding-disorder/.
10. “It’s hopeless; I’ll never change.” Or “It’s hopeless; they’ll never change.”
Thankfully, this does not have to be the case. I have witnessed clients make massive transformations as we work together and as they continued to work on the emotional underpinnings with trained clinicians and support groups. That’s not to say it’s easy. It might be one of the most demanding endeavors they face. As they commit to the work, though, they experience the massive value it brings into their lives. I’ve witnessed clients clear out the excess so that they feel relaxed at home, so they can close multiple storage units that cost tens of thousands of dollars (and more) over the years, so they can spend more time with family and on hobbies, and generally get their lives back. For those willing to commit to the work, it can truly be transformative.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.