I’ve discussed previously some of the aspects of extreme hoarding, and perhaps why people do it.
Some people begin hoarding from depression; they just stop throwing out what they don’t need, or what is useless, or even what is trash. They stop cleaning, so unwashed clothes and dirty dishes accumulate and new ones are purchased rather than the old ones cleaned. They stop caring about themselves, and have no energy for personal care and household maintenance. They start blocking out all that is too much to comprehend and address, turning inward to amusement in television, the internet or even shopping, in efforts to treat their own depression. Substance abuse and overeating go along with this.
Others are suffering grief – they have lost a spouse, parent or child; they have been fired from a much-loved job or their business went bankrupt. Depression is part of the problem, but the grief causes them to hang on to anything that reminds them of the happier, more successful past. They can’t part with any of the things the loved one owned; they buy or bring in more items that reinforce the sense of the past as a better place. They may turn to collecting pleasing objects such as clothing, jewelry, books, art, or craft supplies and for men, guns or sports equipment. (Men may collect any of the other categories as well, but women seem rarely to gravitate toward sports or hunting in collecting.) I suspect they have a very active fantasy life built around the loss, and they begin to act it out by hoarding, as if the objects will help make the fantasy come true.
Some hoarders are desperate to build a real life out of imagination in much the same way. They have a perfect image of what their life should look like, if they had the objects to make it that way. They do not take into account people they live with, or the impossibility of building the dream castle in their three-bedroom suburban bungalow. When everything is just right, they know they will have the dream home, the dream family, the dream life. These people may not be able to address some disappointment in their lives, that they did not achieve a goal they treasured, or that old goals no longer match reality. Some women begin to hoard when their children move out, trying to fill the emotional gap by filling the physical space.
Hoarding can be related to pathologies – dementias and other organic brain illnesses. We may be seeing some of this in elderly people who can’t seem to sort out the contents of their houses, or accumulate truly useless things such as empty bottles or broken items found on the street. Others may be manifesting symptoms from old brain injuries, or may be forming a brain lesion. Anyone whose hoarding is a change in their personality that can’t be explained by emotional trauma needs to be examined to see if there is a brain injury or illness.
Emotionally based hoarding may be a result of a spiritual emptiness pervasive in our culture. We were hunter-gatherers in our ancestral past, and some of that still clings to us. Some people are hunters, who thrill to the chase. I’m one of those people, both physically and emotionally. I have the muscle structure of a marathoner, a mind that stays on edge while working, and I prefer to seek rather than to find. Some people are gatherers, who enjoy the social aspects of being in the “field” (the shopping mall, for instance) and are more thrilled with the result than the pursuit. But we now have a culture that doesn’t value group effort, or sharing. The rewarding aspects of gathering – spending time with the group, supplying the needs of many, a sense of security in a preserved harvest – are lost while the gratification of accumulation is over-emphasized.
I think I feel very sorry for those who are attempting to build a fantasy life instead of living in real time. Daydreams are useful on several levels: They can give relief from boredom or depressing conditions; they can help define goals. But when the daydream overtakes reality, then severe interpersonal problems develop. The real people with whom we have messy and complicated relationships get pushed out because they don’t match the furnishings, so to speak. The intended goal – the perfect life in the perfect house with the perfect spouse and family – is negated by the hoarding behaviour. It overwhelms them emotionally and physically. The whole “perfect life” concept is a product of advertising, worldliness and the selling of fantasy, whether in a romance novel, on the television or at Disneyland. While the occasional indulgence can be fun and relaxing, a break from routine, too much exposure seems to disorient susceptible people; they can’t tell the difference between fantasy and their own life. They may not be aware of the script playing in their heads, although they may realize that things around them are not at all satisfactory. They can’t settle in and be grateful for their blessings; they are always petitioning for the better blessings.
Every minute spent shopping for more than the necessities of life should be countered with ten minutes of prayer. Every minute spent watching fiction on television should be answered with ten minutes of scripture reading. I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, but a more balanced spiritual life will insulate us from the depredations of culture.