Hoarding disorder: 3 million Americans can’t throw away junk
When childhood friends came over to play, Grand Junction resident Andrea Land would tell them to close their eyes until they got to her tidy bedroom. She didn’t want them to see the piles of junk mail, magazines, shoes and books her mother stacked in the other rooms in the house.
“I knew it wasn’t normal and normal people didn’t have piles of paper everywhere,” Land said.
It wasn’t until she was an adult that Land found a name for her mother’s abnormal impulse to shop for and keep items she may never need and others wouldn’t keep. Land says her 55-year-old mother is one of 3 million people in the United States with compulsive hoarding syndrome.
More severe than simple collecting or messiness, hoarding is treated as an addiction and can come paired with obsessive compulsive disorder, according to Steve Landman, a counselor who helps patients battle the condition at the Family Counseling Center, 726 Colorado Ave.
One of Landman’s patients has a thin aisle weaving through the clutter in his apartment. He collects ketchup packets and napkins from fast food restaurants but can’t use his own kitchen because of the clutter. His hoarding tendencies have spread into storage sheds.
There are as many different kinds and levels of hoarders as there are people, Landman said, which makes treatment a challenge. Anti-depressants help some hoarders, but not all.
Sometimes, Landman recommends a 12-step program to clients.
In all cases, he looks for baby steps toward success. Having a cleaning crew and an organizer come in and wipe a house clean, especially if the person is left out of decisions about what stays and what goes, can be devastating for a hoarder who has assigned meaning and emotions to everything in their home, even if some items are worthless, unsanitary or dangerous.
“If I can get this man to clear off a two-foot space so he can sit down, that is major progress,” Landman said.
No laws in Mesa County forbid hoarding inside a person’s home, but code in the county and the city of Grand Junction dictates outdoor storage must be shielded from public view, and there are limits on items such as unusable vehicles.
The Mesa County Department of Human Services can assess and offer cleaning resources if a human services worker finds a home is a health hazard (contains broken glass, animal feces, overflowing toilets or other dangers) or is filthy (food left on stovetops for months, flies, roaches and other insects on food or throughout the home).
If conditions do not improve, children can be removed from a home depending on their ages, developmental needs and the condition of the property.
The county also can offer help to adults and guide them toward therapy at Colorado West Mental Health, Human Services spokeswoman Karen Martsolf said. Anyone concerned about the home conditions of a hoarder can call an adult protection referral help line at 248-2888 and speak to a case manager.
Luckily, Land said her family home never reached the point where it was unsafe. Her mom has “fully acknowledged” her hoarding since moving to an apartment a year ago.
On moving day, though, Land noticed her mother was “much more worried than the average person about people touching her stuff and putting things in the right place.”
Some of Land’s friends came to help and confided they had an aunt or a friend with the same issues.
“I found out I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t need to be so worried about it,” she said.
Land’s mother has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and is also manic-depressive. She shops during her manic cycles and, because of her OCD, she wants to control whether they leave the home or not. The combination exacerbates her hoarding problem, Land said.
Land said she wonders if her grandmother’s “save everything” attitude coming out of the Great Depression may have influenced her mother. Land’s mother also moved a lot as a child and often couldn’t take all of her possessions with her.
There’s no known cause of hoarding and no proven method of prevention, but Land said watching her mother struggle with clutter influenced her not to hoard. The condition can run in families.
“I feel like I could be that way if I wasn’t so aware of it,” Land said.
Her mother still has pathways through her home, but Land said the piles are slowly getting cleared.
“I’m really proud of my mom for how far she’s come, and if my mom can get better, anybody can,” she said.