The Truth About Hoarding Disorder—And 6 Signs You May Have It

I moved recently and it put me face to face with how much stuff I have. Over the years, I’ve learned epic storage hacks that let me fill in every spare inch of space—so that my clutter can at least be organized and out of the way. Even packing for a long weekend, I somehow end up bringing twice as many things as I really need.

People joke that I’m a hoarder, and I’m only mostly sure when I say I’m not. I see friends whose coffee tables are clutter free (even flawlessly styled!), who throw just the necessities into a tiny overnight bag. Who don’t have a drawer under their beds that’s basically a CVS aisle. When I really stop and take notice, I start to wonder, Are they right? Is my penchant for saving a sign of a clinical problem?

Hoarding disorder is marked by an urge to acquire and a difficulty discarding or parting with objects that results in the accumulation of possessions and cluttering of living areas, which causes distress and interferes with daily life, Michael A. Tompkins, Ph.D., co-director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy, tells SELF. But true hoarders may not be aware there’s a problem. “An individual may see they have a lot of stuff but don’t see the risk they’re facing because of their living environment,” Tompkins adds—health risks, fire hazards, social isolation.

There are two kinds of hoarding: object hoarding and animal hoarding.

“For people who hoard objects, the number one thing that is hoarded is paper, lots and lots of paper,” says Tompkins. Different people may hoard other things though, depending on their interests. “Someone who has always been into arts and crafts might hoard those possessions,” for example. While animal hoarding is not usually deliberate animal cruelty, having more pets than a person can care for often results in illness and death of the animals.

Most hoarding situations start out small and build up over the years.

Onset of hoarding symptoms usually occurs in young adulthood or adolescence. It may not be bad at first, but will snowball over the years until it’s a situation like you see on TLC’s Hoarders. “These are adults living in their homes for years have been doing it for years. As the environment fills and they age, their ability to maintain the space degrades, and over time the environment just becomes more burdensome and unhealthy and dangerous,” Tompkins explains.

There are certain traits common among people with hoarding disorder.

Simply collecting and holding onto belongings does not a hoarder make. These are the signs that your habits may actually be a cause for concern:

1. You have an irresistible urge to acquire more things. For someone with hoarding disorder, these urges to acquire are too strong. “People may be saying, ‘You have too many things,’ but they can’t stop,” Tompkins says.

2. Your living space is becoming increasingly cluttered, to the point that it’s hard to go about daily life. If you can’t walk from one room to the next without tripping over stuff, or you have nowhere to sit because objects are adorning every chair or surface, that’s a sign things are getting out of hand.

3. Your relationships are becoming strained. “If [someone with hoarding disorder] is living in a home with other people, those other people will start to argue and push them and threaten them to get them to let go of things,” says Tompkins. Hoarding often becomes a point of contention and can cause strife in personal relationships. If a person with hoarding disorder lives alone, they may begin to pull away and isolate themselves.

4. You’re afraid of letting people touch your things. Hoarding disorder makes you overprotective of your things, so much so that you may get angry if someone tries to touch something, or become fearful they’re going to break or ruin it.

5. Denial that there’s a problem. This is unfortunately much easier to see in others than yourself. Those with a real hoarding problem tend to have “low insight,” Tompkins explains, or the inability to recognize that the hoarding behavior and resulting living conditions are problematic.

6. Refusal to accept help. “People’s unwillingness to accept help may be due to the stigmatization they experience,” Tompkins says. Although there’s a certain stigma around mental health conditions in general, depression and anxiety are generally more accepted in our society than hoarding. “Something in our culture causes people to be repulsed by the conditions in which these people live,” even though it’s not their fault, Tompkins explains. “People with this problem don’t choose to live in these environments any more than people with major depression want to have major depression.”

You can display hoarding behaviors without having hoarding disorder.

Sometimes the behaviors are a result of unrelated conditions. Someone with dementia or paranoia may display some hoarding behaviors, but it doesn’t mean they have the disorder. ADHD can also result in organizational problems, therefore, a cluttered environment, but the person is usually aware of this problem. Any time another medical condition or neurological disorder can explain the acquiring of belongings and inability to get rid of them, it’s not hoarding disorder. (The cause of hoarding disorder is hard to pinpoint and experts believe is a combination of both genetics and environmental influence, like many other mental health disorders.)

Then there are people like me. People whose desks and closets are cluttered with acquisitions. Drawers spill over. Keeping things organized is a constant process. Talking to Tompkins helped me distinguish this from clinical hoarding, though, because I don’t hit the criteria. I can stop myself from acquiring. I am aware that I have a problem, and if someone told me they’d help me purge some stuff, I’d welcome it with open arms—but definitely plead that they donate it instead of letting it go to waste. I just can’t bear the idea of throwing away perfectly good and useful things—even if it’s possible I was never going to use them.

If you think you or someone you know may have hoarding disorder, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness for resources and to learn how to get help.

SELF – Culture