Most of you have probably known someone who can be described as a hoarder. There are different levels of hoarding, from the avid baseball card collector to the person who cannot get out of his house because it is covered from floor to ceiling with a variety of items.
Hoarding behavior can be seen in both animals and humans. Squirrels and hamsters, for example, often collect large amounts of food and store it in a single place. This natural behavior serves to protect the animals from going hungry during expected periods of food scarcity, and thus allows for species survival. The hoarded food, in this case, is eventually consumed.
Hoarding behavior in humans can also have the similar function of species survival, at times where there is a real fear of imminent society-wide danger or food shortage. Wars and natural disasters may lead people to collect essentials that they believe will be in short supply. In these cases, the hoarded items are also eventually consumed.
Compulsive hoarding (or pathological hoarding) is something quite different from this. It refers to the acquisition of and failure to use or discard such a large number of seemingly useless possessions that it causes significant clutter and impairment to basic living activities. A person who engages in such compulsive hoarding is often called a "pack rat."
This kind of hoarding results from underlying feelings of anxiety. The hoarder often struggles with an Obsessive Compulsive disorder that leaves him or her plagued with anxiety about the idea of letting go. But what is it exactly that they are so fearful of letting go of? Certainly, it is not the old clock radio that no longer works, the three hundred volumes of the New York Times or the scores of empty Perrier bottles, is it? No, it is not the objects, per se, but what the objects represent that evokes the fear of letting go.
For the hoarder, the objects have become invested with such significant meaning that the loss of them appears to represent the loss of something significant. Thus, the hoarder likely is a person with much unresolved issues in his or her early life. There is a both powerful underlying anxiety and an equally powerful need for soothing. Like the hamster and the chipmunk who are driven to hoard because of fears around species survival, the hoarder, in this case, is driven to hoard because of fears around emotional survival.
Typically, in early life, if all goes well, childhood anxieties are met by the presence of a soothing (often maternal) figure who helps to emotionally regulate the infant and who provides a sense of security and safety. (I will use the term 'mommy' throughout this article to represent any primary caregiver - mother, father, grandmother, etc.)
If all goes well enough, and this mommy figure is consistent and available enough, the infant can eventually internalize this soothing, calming mommy who is available to be 'conjured' up when the child needs her. This allows the infant to tolerate separation without too much distress, reassured by the feeling of this mommy, now felt to be inside her, to calm and soothe her.
Before the infant gets to this point of being able to 'conjure' up the mental representation of the soothing mommy in the face of anxiety, there is a transitional period where there is sometimes a need for an actual transitional object. During this period, the child invests in a special, comforting object all of the features of the comforting mommy that it knows. As a result, during periods of separation and anxiety, the child is able to tolerate the evoked feelings because of the presence of this transitional object which represents mommy. These transitional objects are often the special stuffed animals and the must-always-be-with-me baby blankies that young children sometimes carry with them. This transitional period represents a period of normal psychological immaturity, where the child is not yet able to fully mentally represent the mommy in her absence, and thus relies on the concrete object, imbued with 'mommyness', in the transition. In periods of uncertainty, adults can sometimes find that they too rely on the magical solutions used during this early period. The use of 'lucky charms' in normal adults is an example of such an attempt at a magical solution in adulthood - that is, the use of a special object that is invested with magical qualities to provide security and soothing in the face of uncertainty or anxiety.
The compulsive hoarder's relationship with objects is considerably more complex than the normal adult's use of a lucky charm, however, and reflects both significant anxiety and significant psychological immaturity. The hoarder is a highly anxious person, even if he is not aware of the level of his anxiety. In fact, it is his hoarding behavior that often keeps the anxiety from his consciousness.
At the heart of the hoarder's dilemma is anxiety and fear of deprivation and of loss of security. The hoarder, filled with an unnameable anxiety resulting from feared (or sometimes actual) loss and deprivation, unconsciously projects onto various objects the soothing and containing mommy that she needs. Her psychological immaturity, due to an insufficient personality structure, does not allow for a mental representation of mommy to be sufficient to provide comfort. Instead, she relies on the excessive collection of physical objects (or, sometimes, excessive collection of food or small animals) to provide the comfort and reassurance that she needs. However, this anxiety is only momentarily abated, until the fear of loss and deprivation arises again. This eventually results in the compulsion to have yet another object to quell the anxiety.
The hoarder fears giving up or losing the hoarded objects, as much as he fears giving up or losing the secure, soothing mommy that he has unconsciously invested in the objects, leaving him alone with his anxiety and feelings of insecurity and emptiness. One object is never enough, for as soon as the anxiety or fear is assuaged by hoarding one object, the underlying anxiety and fear of loss and deprivation emerges again, necessitating further soothing and thus further objects.
The hoarder will often find it hard to articulate why the hoarded objects feel to be so necessary to hold on to, but does have some sense of discomfort if forced to give up the loved objects or if he is prevented from hoarding. There is no consciousness of what has been invested in the hoarded objects that make them feel like necessary objects - the hoarder only knows that he is compelled to have them.
Cleaning out the hoarder's dwelling is not a sufficient solution to this complex problem. The best treatment for hoarding is a combination of medication that impacts serotonin in the brain and is implicated in obsessive/compulsive behaviors (such as a SSRI antidepressant) and intensive psychotherapy. Family members of hoarders should understand the complexity of this disorder in order to provide appropriate support and guidance towards treatment.