Like to keep stuff you don’t need? How to find out if you’re a hoarder

Khoo Bee Khim

CNA – With every seasonal celebration coming up, you know it’s that time of the year when spring cleaning and decluttering rise to the top of the to-do list.

And as you sift through all that accumulated stuff – old clothes, gadgets that no longer work, all sorts of bric-a-brac – you pause longer than usual to decide what goes and what stays.

At that point, an inner soft voice that may or may not sound like Marie Kondo whispers: Are you becoming a hoarder? Has your interior become fodder for the next season of the local home makeover TV series RenovAid?

According to a psychiatrist with Gleneagles Hospital Dr Lim Boon Leng, “A hoarder will find himself collecting more and more things that he does not need, and will continue to do so even when he does not have any space left to store them.”

He added, “Despite this, he will have difficulties throwing them away or parting with them regardless of the actual value of the objects. He has a persistent feeling of wanting to save the items, and will be extremely anxious and can become upset and violent if he is compelled to throw the items away or if someone else does so.”

And as it turns out, hoarding is more common than you think. One in 50 people in Singapore will display hoarding behaviour in their lifetime, reported a study by Institute of Mental Health’s (IMH) Research Division.

The 2010 study on over 6,600 respondents also found that 0.8 per cent of them had displayed hoarding behaviour in the past 12 months.

“Hoarding usually starts around ages 11 to 15, and it tends to get worse with age,” noted Mayo Clinic, which highlighted that the condition is “more common in older adults than in younger adults”.

WHY DO SOME PEOPLE HOARD?

There can be many reasons for some people to be more emotionally attached to their belongings than others, said Dr Lim. “Some might have encountered hardships in the past, been poor, and as such, treasure their belongings more.”

He added, “In general, older folks tend to be more attached to their belongings. It could be that they came from a poorer background when young and treasure what they have now more. There can also be existential reasons in that discarding these belongings is akin to getting rid of a part of themselves.”

Some people hoard to help with their memory, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). “They may consider an item a reminder that will jog their memory, thinking that without it they won’t remember an important person or event. Or because they can’t decide where something belongs, it’s better just to keep it.”

Hoarding disorder can also be a sign of a range of mental illnesses, according to a study published in the Singapore Medical Journal (SMJ). The long list of illnesses include: Obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, acquisition-related impulse control disorders (including compulsive buying, kleptomania and acquiring free things), social phobia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, schizophrenia and dementia.

For instance, “a person with schizophrenia may hear voices or hallucinations commanding him or her to collect items”, noted IMH’s website. “However, most of the time, there is no identifiable underlying mental illness that causes hoarding.”

There are risk factors that make one more susceptible to hoarding, according to Mayo Clinic. For one, hoarders tend to be indecisive by nature. In addition, there is a strong association between having a family member who has hoarding disorder and having the disorder yourself. Sometimes, difficulties in coping with a stressful event such as the death of a loved one, divorce, eviction or loss of possessions in a fire can lead to hoarding behaviour.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF A HOARDER?

If family members have complained that you are hoarding, consider how holding on to things make you feel. If you say you’re a collector, you’d be proud of your belongings, and feel good displaying and talking about them. “(Collectors) usually keep their collection organised, feel satisfaction when adding to it, and budget their time and money,” said ADAA.

On the other hand, those “who hoard usually experience embarrassment about their possessions and feel uncomfortable when others see them. They have clutter, often at the expense of livable space, feel sad or ashamed after acquiring additional items, and they are often in debt”, noted ADAA.

People who are sentimental behave differently from hoarders, too. “Sentimental individuals tend to retain only a few items of which they would repeatedly hang on to for the memories that these items are associated with,” said Dr Lim. In contrast, a hoarder “often collects items of little or no value even if they argue that these items might be useful or may be of sentimental value”. “For example, hoarders may keep things like old newspaper, tissues, and even stray animals,” said Dr Lim.

Then, there are the physical signs. Have things accumulated to the point where you have difficulty walking in your apartment? Are spaces such as the table, bed or countertop impossible to use because of the clutter on them? Do you have difficulty finding important things? If you answered “yes”, you may be a hoarder.

DOES HOARDING NEED TO BE TREATED?

The SMJ study recommended seeking medical help if the hoarding behaviour has caused “harmful effects” on you or your family members, or has created “significant distress” at work, in your social life and “other important areas of functioning”. In other words, it’s time to see the doctor if you have received complaints from your family members, colleagues or neighbours.

There are safety and hygiene factors to consider as well. For instance, is the possibility of a fire hazard, tripping over things and having items fall onto you high? Is the apartment harbouring unsanitary conditions that pose a risk to yours and your family’s health?

Hoarding should be treated if the behaviour is caused by an underlying mental illness, highlighted IMH. “The illness could be managed with therapy or medication, which in turn can help to control the hoarding behaviour.”

However, the SMJ study noted that “individuals with hoarding difficulties are often said to lack insight into their own behaviour and are slow to seek help”.

It is a common situation that IMH has also noted: “Many persons who hoard will not seek help as they do not see it as a problem. The majority of patients come to our attention because they are highlighted by our community partners such as Housing & Development Board, grassroots organisations or were brought in by their family. These are cases where a person’s hoarding habits have encroached into common areas and are affecting other residents.”

HOW TO GET RID OF THINGS

So how do you convince yourself to discard things if you sense yourself dealing with hoarding tendencies? Here are five tips from Dr Lim:

1. Get into the habit of clearing things periodically

Don’t put things into storage. The more you accumulate, the more work it is to go through these items and to discard them.

2. Set up rules to help you decide what to discard

For example, define any items you have not used in the past two years as useless and discard them.

3. Go through your storeroom from time to time

There may be many items that have been kept out of sight and simply forgotten which may no longer be useful.

4. Gift or donate items

Many people are unwilling to throw things away as they are still fairly new and functional, although they no longer need them. Giving them away is often easier than throwing them as you will not feel as wasteful.

5. Let someone else do it

If all else fails, seek help from your family. There are also professional de-cluttering experts whom you can enlist for help.