Filled with mountains of trash, piles of laundry and infestations of insects, Jennifer and Ron's house was anything but a home. To find his toy cars, their youngest son waded through piles of clothes, toys and old food. In order to eat dinner, the couple and their three children sat on a bed with plates in their laps. "We have a small table in the kitchen, but normally it is so cluttered with stuff, you couldn't even begin to sit down," Jennifer says.
Between her admitted shopping addiction and his fear of letting things go, the couple felt helpless as the clutter climbed out of control. Things were so bad that Jennifer says local authorities were notified. "The city health code inspector came and said that there had been a complaint and that he needed to inspect the house," she says. "I'm afraid that child protective services may step in and say that we're unfit parents."
It was the wake-up call Jennifer and Ron needed to admit the truth—they are hoarders.
Compulsive hoarding is a mental illness that may affect as many as 2 million people in the United States alone. "It's not simply an issue of bad housekeeping, and the answer is not as simple as simply picking up your stuff," says Dr. David Tolin. "The person has a lot of psychological issues that are preventing them from doing that. And they need to overcome those issues before they can really make sustained progress."
Dr. Tolin says hoarding is most commonly seen in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but it can also stem from conditions such as depression, social anxiety, impulse control disorders (like impulsive buying) and bipolar disorder.
The reasons people hoard are varied. For someone like Jennifer, hoarding behavior is often used to fill a void. "It was very hard for me to lose my father," she says. "So I shop. It's nowhere near a replacement of my father, but it provides a moment of joy in a world where that's rare."
Some, like Ron, hoard because they're afraid to throw away something they might one day need. "I probably learned a lot of disorganization in my childhood," he says. "I remember my dad worked on job sites and would bring home something that was salvageable or left over."
Emotional attachment also plays a strong role in compulsive hoarding, Dr. Tolin says. "People have lots of different pathways that they get to this hoarding behavior," he says. "But one thing that we do see is that growing up in this kind of environment leaves a scar, and the children of people who hoard grow up profoundly affected by the environment that they were living in."
In fact, Jennifer and Ron's children were starting to model their parents' behaviors. When the couple called in professional organizers, their oldest son tried to stop a crew member from breaking down an old, unsafe playhouse. "The most difficult part about that for me was understanding what that meant for him," Jennifer says. "That he was already so very much attached to his stuff instead of people."
There's no cure for hoarding, but there is hope. Similar to alcohol, drug or gambling addictions, Dr. Tolin says living clean is a lifelong process—and the first step is to admit there's a problem. "The quick fix doesn't work, and it's not just about the stuff. The person really needs to improve their quality of life and make long-lasting behavioral changes," Dr. Tolin says. "Otherwise, as we see, the problem just starts again."
Although some hoarders respond well to antidepressants, Dr. Tolin says seeking cognitive-behavioral therapy may be more effective. During treatment, a therapist will visit the patient's home and help him learn how to make decisions and think clearly about his possessions.
Jennifer and Ron are both working hard to change and have been forced to make some difficult decisions along the way. Six months after cleaning up their home, the couple decided to live apart. "It's almost like I've got these new tools. I'm clumsy with them. I've got to figure out a way of using them without battling him, because we trigger each other," she says.
Now, Jennifer won't bring home anything she doesn't have a place for. She also says living in a clean home has made life manageable again. "Laundry was an awful task for us. We couldn't ever find anything we needed, and so you would think that you needed more," she says. "I've really figured out that stuff isn't going to give me these human connections. It's really going to prevent me from that."
Ron still lives in the home he shared with Jennifer. "It feels different being in my house, really. Having it more organized and a lot of the stuff out of here, it's freed me up to where I don't have as much negative energy all the time," he says. "I still have a lot of clutter, but it's a world away from where I was."