hoarding
Mental & Emotional Health

4 Warning Signs of a Hoarder

In my early twenties, I lived with a hoarder I’ll call Mae. When I moved in, I saw she had loads of stuff, and I knew instantly she was a poor housekeeper. It wasn’t until I moved out, however, that I realized Mae wasn’t just a person who had a neatness deficit and a high tolerance for roaches. She was a classic example of a genuine hoarder.

We all like our stuff. We chose it, love it, and become attached. Any empty nester can tell you how difficult it is to move from a big house to a smaller one. It’s a challenge to throw out mementos and get rid of things that represent milestones, success, or investment. Not every person attached to their possessions is a hoarder, not even prodigious collectors. Hoarding, like other addictions and mental disorders, can’t always be recognized by outward appearances. Huge piles of clutter may be a symptom, but they aren’t enough for a diagnosis without supporting evidence. Here are a few ways to recognize a hoarding problem and begin to find help.

  1. Inability to part with worthless, useless items
    A serious problem often starts out small. As I look back on my experiences with Mae, the warning signs were all present. Her tables and chairs were stacked with worn-out books, paper bags, and old mail. She bought food in bulk “to save money”. The food often spoiled in the refrigerator, but Mae refused to throw it out. Instead, she created a “compost pile”. While she claimed she was improving the soil in her backyard, she was really only creating a burgeoning problem with bugs. When I noticed she had three copies of the same book, I suggested she get rid of the copy with loose, brittle, and missing pages. She said she was afraid the tattered version might be hurt or destroyed if she didn’t protect it. I now know that rationalizations for holding on to useless items—and even garbage—are classic signs of a disorder.
  2. Insatiable desire for more stuff
    Mae made monthly donations to a neighborhood thrift store, usually consisting of clothing her children had outgrown and items she had recently acquired and with which she had not formed a bond. Whenever she made a donation, Mae also shopped at the thrift store for stuff she felt was “too good to stay in the store”. She usually came home with slightly less than she had left with and elated that she had “pared down”. Then she would order things from catalogs as a reward for good behavior. The result? More stuff. I now know that hoarders often have some awareness of their problematic relationship with possessions, but they can rarely make substantive changes without intervention.
  3. No problem getting rid of other people’s stuff