Are you a hoarder? Here’s how to tell.

Have you ever considered if you’re a hoarder? You know what I’m talking about. You may have thought about it when you folded away jeans you “can’t fit into right now.” Or when you stowed away plastic bags under your sink, even though you have enough plastic bags to line your bins from now until 2084. Or perhaps when you gently opened your fridge door, so that your stash of ketchup packets didn’t come spilling out.

There’s a fine line between being a pack rat and being a hoarder. We spoke to two experts to shed some light on the topic and define that line. 

What is a hoarder?

Although previously viewed as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding was recently classified as a distinct mental illness in the DSM-5 in 2013. An estimated 2 to 3 per cent of the world’s population are hoarders and around 80 to 90 per cent of hoarders suffer from depression, anxiety or some form of trauma, says Cory Chalmers, an ex fire captain and an expert on the A&E series “Hoarders.”

“It doesn’t have to be multiple deaths or anything real tragic. It can just be children moving away to college and they lose their identity because taking care of their kids is all they know,” he says.

Anyone can be a hoarder but the majority of the hoarders Chalmers has encountered are older than 50. He attributes this to the increased likelihood of having experienced depression and traumas, and the increased chances that the person is living alone after the children have left the nest or after the death of a spouse.

“When you’re living alone, you lose that responsibility and accountability to others,” says Chalmers. “They’re used to ‘Hey honey, throw out the garbage.’ but they don’t have that anymore.”

Stages of hoarding

Before you begin a panicked purge of your plastic bag and ketchup collection, you may want to make a note of the scale of your clutter.

There are five various stages of hoarding, says Chalmers, and although clutter can become progressively worse over the course of each stage, the reverse can occur too.

Level 1: Minor clutter. About 95 per cent of households across the world have this amount of clutter.

Level 2: You start to cover up horizontal surfaces like tabletops and counters. Things start stacking up and you start to lose functionality of the home as clutter begins to obstruct living areas.

Level 3: Now your horizontal surfaces and closets are full so things start to spill out into the open spaces and along the perimeters. You start stacking things along the sides of the walls because you’re still trying to leave your floor space open. Clutter now obstructs functions of key living spaces and builds up around exits, entrances, hallways and stairs.

Level 4: Your walkways get narrower and narrower; several rooms are cluttered to the extent where they can’t be used for its intended purposes. Hazardous or combustible materials are exposed and inhibiting access to doorways, hallways and stairs.

Level 5: All rooms are blocked off and can’t be used for intended purposes. Home is poorly maintained — toilets, sinks and tubs are not functioning. You have severe problems accessing stairs, doors and windows.

“Functionality of the home doesn’t disappear overnight. So when you notice there’s clutter around, don’t just put your blinders on,” says Chalmers. “Pick up the object and ask yourself if it’s actually serving a purpose.”

Why do people hoard?

According to Robert Holbrook, a psychiatric social worker with more than 15 years of therapy experience in Toronto Western Hospital and Toronto East General, hoarding is a vicious cycle.

“Hoarding relieves their intolerable anxiety temporarily and the idea of throwing anything away worsens the anxiety, so they keep the stuff to relieve the anxiety. That’s how compulsive behaviours develop,” he says.

Chalmers describes it as “trying to fill an emotional void but the stuff doesn’t replace what they’re truly missing.”

He gives an example of a lady he met from Ohio whose home was full of clothing racks, each one packed with her mother’s dresses and clothes from when she was still alive.

“The home looked more like a clothing store,” he says. “When I asked her why, she said ‘I can picture her in a lot of this clothing and I remember how happy she was.’”

Sentimental values aren’t the only reasons behind the clutter. The phrase “waste not want not” appears to be a common motto between hoarders.

“A lot of hoarders try to save things from going to the landfills because in their mind they think they’re going to use it or repair it but in the long run it just turns their home into a landfill where the item never gets used anyway,” says Chalmers.

Holbrook describes these people as a generally older population with a “depression era mentality.”

“Back then you didn’t throw things away. You finished a margarine container and you kept it as Tupperware,” he says. “That’s because this was before Dollar Stores.”

Dangers of hoarding

Poor air quality, unsanitary conditions and structural damage – hoarders vast collections aren’t just an eyesore to neighbours and the public; they can be a disaster waiting to happen.

Many hoarder’s homes are one spark or one cigarette butt away from a three-alarm fire and clutter only exacerbates the problem.

Most electrical outlets are blocked causing people to overload the one or two available circuits. Smoke detectors are likely not working because there’s no space to open a ladder and change its batteries. Not to mention, all the clutter becomes tonnes and tonnes of perfect kindling.

Five out of 10 hoarding-related fires result in fatalities, says Chalmers, because the clutter makes it almost impossible for the hoarder to get out and for the firemen to get in.

Lack of household maintenance can also be a danger, resulting in dust and mold accumulation which can be hazardous to the occupants.

“I’ve met people who lived in hoarded homes that needed oxygen tanks and after we cleaned out their homes, they didn’t need them any longer,” he says. “It was actually the house that was causing them to be sick! And one was even a doctor!”

How to treat hoarding

As with any compulsive disorder, the first and perhaps hardest step is admitting that you have a problem and be willing to seek help.

“Family and friends just have to be very patient and non judgmental,” says Holbrook. “Do not just start throwing their stuff away! It can escalate their anxiety to a panic attack and make the hoarding behavior worse. They may even shy away from getting any help after.”

Holbrook recommends that anyone with a hoarding problem see their family doctor first to get a diagnosis and if necessary, get a referral to a psychiatrist or a mental health professional.

“Losing your identity is a big part of clearing up the hoard. Each time we throw stuff away we throw a little piece of that person away,” says Chalmers. “That’s why therapy is so important because we aren’t just clearing out a home, we’re rebuilding a person.”