The sudden death of Gary’s younger brother was a shock to our family, but the revelation of how he actually lived his life was an even greater surprise. You know I am not one to withhold information that I think would benefit others, so I have asked Gary’s permission to share the basics of his brother’s malady.
First of all I must tell you that we had not been in Mike’s home in thirty years. During our visits to California Mike always met us at our daughter’s home in another town. It was just more convenient for all of us. We realized during our most recent vacation visit that his mental and physical condition had deteriorated, but we were totally unaware that his living conditions might be a factor.
Mike died at home so the county coroner was the person who informed us that his home was “hazardous” and we should use extreme caution when entering it. We weren’t quite sure what that meant, but I told Gary at the time that a “woman coroner” might have cleanliness issues and higher expectations for sanitation than a single man. We decided to keep an open mind. We should have trusted the coroner’s professional opinion.
It came as a heart-breaking shock to discover that Mike was an extreme hoarder. We’ve all seen the television shows. Caddo always had a couple of hoarders. I grew up living next door to one of them. But it is a different experience to walk into a home that is uninhabitable by anyone’s standards, and to know that a loved one had been living that way, most likely for decades.
Since we came home I’ve been reading about hoarding and the signs and symptoms of Mike’s addiction were always there- we just didn’t recognize them. And according to what I’ve read, there isn’t much we could have done even if we had realized Mike was a hoarder. Hoarders are not easily rehabilitated. Hoarding is not even officially recognized as a distinct psychological disorder, but is connected to other disorders such as bipolar disorder, social anxiety, and depression.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America , “Hoarding is the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value…Commonly hoarded items may be newspapers, magazines, paper and plastic bags, cardboard boxes, photographs, household supplies, food, and clothing. Hoarding can be related to compulsive buying (such as never passing up a bargain), the compulsive acquisition of free items (such as collecting flyers), or the compulsive search for perfect or unique items (which may not appear to others as unique, such as an old container).”
I was surprised to read on the Mayo Clinic site that the symptoms of hoarding often begin very early: “Clutter and difficulty discarding things are usually the first signs and symptoms of hoarding disorder, which often surfaces during the teenage years. As the person grows older, he or she typically starts acquiring things for which there is no need or space. By middle age, symptoms are often severe and may be harder to treat.”
Here are some of the signs and symptoms:
- Persistent inability to part with any possession, regardless of its value
- Excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow them or distress at the idea of letting an item go
- Cluttered living spaces, making areas of the home unusable for the intended purpose, such as not being able to cook in the kitchen or use the bathroom to bathe
- Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail
- Letting food or trash build up to unusually excessive, unsanitary levels
- Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, such as trash or napkins from a restaurant
- Difficulty managing daily activities because of procrastination and trouble making decisions
- Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything
- Difficulty organizing items, sometimes losing important items in the clutter
- Shame or embarrassment
- Limited or no social interactions
Unfortunately even the experts don’t know exactly what causes hoarders to become obsessive about their things. Genetics, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and traumatic life experiences all seem to be connected to the disorder, but no clear cause or cure is evident...yet. And according to most experts, a hoarder's behavior may improve with cognitive therapy and sometimes medications to treat an underlying medical problem, but it is a chronic condition that at this time cannot be cured.
I hope sharing this will make you more aware of those friends and family members who may be living a secret life. It is estimated that from 14 to 19 million people in the US are hoarders. Now that you know the signs and symptoms you may be able to help someone improve their living conditions. Most hoarders will NOT seek help alone because they do not perceive that they have a problem. It’s up to us to offer it.