Every room on every floor was overflowing with paper bags and boxes full of junk.
Only a very narrow trail allowed visitors to move through the three-story Victorian home up for sale 10 years ago.
It was the worst case of hoarding Dr. Pete Marcelo had seen, and it wasn’t even in his professional role. He was looking to buy a home with his family, but the Realtor was unable to convince the homeowner to clean up.
“The Realtor informed me that she had tried to get the owner to do so prior to listing the property, but the owner didn’t see the situation as a problem,” said Marcelo, a licensed clinical psychologist and social worker in Huntley.
“This is a concrete example of denial and rationalization.”
Hoarding, a mental disorder characterized by the excessive collection of items and the inability to discard them, is more than just a phenomenon on TV. But because of its popularity on the hit A&E show, “Hoarders,” some local therapists said they thought an important topic was being brought to light.
Considered a subtype of obsessive-compulsive personality disorders, Marcelo said hoarding can become a mental illness depending on the intensity, frequency and effect on a person’s daily life.
Hoarding also can be a symptom of psychosis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, senility and anorexia.
“Typically, hoarders’ personalities are rigid and perfectionistic,” Marcelo said. “They may be socially isolated and often do not recognize that their behaviors and thoughts are unusual. They may even try to spin their maladaptive behavior into a positive situation like, ‘waste not, want not.’”
Mary Krueger, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical professional counselor in Cary, said hoarders tend to be people who are anxious and can’t let go of certain mental or emotional attachments to objects.
“They hold on to everything, just in case,” she said.
About 25 percent of Krueger’s clients are hoarders, but that number is mostly based on the high amount of anxiety cases she handles.
The general population of hoarders isn’t exactly quantifiable, but the disorder is estimated to affect between 700,000 and 1.4 million Americans, according to the NeuroBehavioral Institute.
“People who become like that tend to be ashamed of it,” said Krueger. “They can’t bring themselves to look at it as an issue.”
But, family members and friends take notice of hoarding tendencies in loved ones. Some people develop hoarding after a stressful life event, like divorce or a death in the family.
People are more likely to hoard if they have close family members who engage in compulsive hoarding, and the disorder usually starts in early adolescence and tends to get worse with age, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Treatments can range from medications to good support systems, including therapy and an outlet for new hobbies. If untreated, hoarding can lead to unsanitary conditions and health risks, social isolation, or fire hazards.
There is no known prevention for the disorder, and it’s a lifelong battle.
“If somebody doesn’t learn other ways to cope with their anxiety, it’s something you can easily go back to,” Krueger said.
But, the hoarder has to want change.
“Often, they are pushed into treatment by a family member or friend. This may result in feelings of anger,” Marcelo said. “[All] too often hoarding continues for years without treatment, and by the time someone seeks treatment, they may have so much work ahead of them with uncluttering and discarding that it seems daunting.”
At 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, the junk removal service featured on the show “Hoarders,” workers can find anything in a home, from broken furniture to rotting food – even multiple animals, alive or dead.
Chris Becker, the general manager of the Chicago North franchise that serves McHenry County, said he’s only seen two hoarding cases, both in Chicago. In one, workers removed three 400-cubic-foot truckloads of waste. In the other, they removed six.
“The feedback I get is, people see the show and they call us up to prevent that from happening to them,” Becker said.
Where to turn
If you or a loved one has symptoms of hoarding, talk with a doctor or mental health provider as soon as possible. For referrals, the McHenry County Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 800-892-8900.
Possible signs of hoarding
• Cluttered living spaces.
• Inability to discard items.
• Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines, or junk mail.
• Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything.
• Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, including trash.
• Difficulty managing daily activities, including procrastination and trouble making decisions.
• Difficulty organizing items.
• Excessive attachment to possessions, and discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions.
• Limited or no social interactions.
Source: The Mayo Clinic