THE HUMAN CONDITION / HOARDING : When Things Begin to Pile Up
Lessell Jackson sees it but sometimes can’t believe it.
“There’s wild hoarding every day, all the time,” says the marketing manager of Pace Warehouse in Woodland Hills. “People just can’t seem to stop themselves.”
When the price of motor oil was rising during the Gulf Crisis, a man bought a case, Jackson recalls. When the man heard on TV that the price was going up again, he returned with a truck and loaded 227 cases of oil.
Just the other day, Jackson says, a woman bought a shopping cart full of meat, got home and realized her freezer wasn’t big enough. “She returned the meat for us to hold and came back later for it--after she’d bought another freezer.”
And consider the case of Kathy Sylvan: Two years after moving into a two-bedroom condo, her place was so cluttered with junk mail, newspapers, unfinished crafts projects, old clothes and broken gadgets that the only spot to sit was on one side of the bed. When Sylvan finally asked a friend for help, he spent 14 hours throwing out her junk--which she reclaimed from the Dumpster as soon as he left. “I told her she was sick,” the friend recalls.
The irresistible urge to buy, store and stockpile more than a person needs--or can ever expect to use--affects millions of people every day, psychiatrists say.
But the hoarding syndrome appears in different forms and can range from a relatively minor annoyance--like finding storage for 227 cans of motor oil--to a severe disturbance requiring medical care.
So how does a pack rat know when a little eccentricity is turning into full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as it is known?
Dr. Lorrin Koran, psychiatrist and founder of the obsessive disorder clinic at Stanford University, has an answer: “Pleasure. People who experience pleasure from accumulating things are not compulsive.”
A man who routinely orders 40 custom-made shirts, for example, is not compulsive if he eventually wears them. Even if he never puts one on, he’s still not compulsive because he may derive pleasure from simply knowing the shirts are there.
“A compulsive hoarder never experiences pleasure. . . . He hoards only to reduce anxiety,” Koran said.
Dr. Alexander Bystritsky, psychiatrist and head of the obsessive-compulsive disorder clinic at UCLA, offers two tests to determine the severity of a hoarding impulse:
“How useful is what you save, and how much of it do you save? To keep old newspapers until they’re a fire hazard, just because you want to clip some articles, is dysfunctional,” he says. “To save professional journals for reference purposes is not.”
Another indication, he adds, is whether the person can admit that the pack-rat passion is irrational. “Some people say, ‘I know it’s crazy to keep all this, but I can’t seem to help myself.’ Those people can be successfully treated,” he says.
“Those who honestly believe something dreadful will happen--that the Earth will open up and swallow them if they throw things away”--are more difficult cases to crack, Bystritsky says. “That’s a kind of psychotic illness in which the person’s delusional system has to be treated first.”
The best therapy, doctors say, is behavioral: Confront the hoarding demons and throw the excess out. And if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
This is never easy to do because even non-compulsive hoarders think they need everything they have, experts say.
Gregg Kilday, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly in Los Angeles, loves books so much that he has them stacked two deep in huge bookcases that dominate his living space. And he continues to collect, although he admits: “I have so many books that I often can’t find what I need when I need it. I actually have to go out and buy books that I know I already own.”
Lori LeBoy, who owns a graphics design company in Hollywood, saves broken dishes that she intends to glue together. “I never get around to doing it, and I probably never will,” she admits.
And she saves copies of drawings she’s done for clients over the past decade: “I really don’t need them, and I sometimes spend hours deciding which ones to toss. But I wind up keeping them all. I’m proud of my work, and I keep excellent files, so there’s no clutter. I’m a hoarder of the neatnik kind. I don’t think I have a problem.”
Ethan Gorenstein, psychologist and assistant professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, says compulsive hoarding, like all OCDs, “causes people to indulge in certain rituals in order to control their anxiety.” Most hoarders function normally in other areas of their lives, he says. But for those with an unstoppable urge to shop till they drop--or to save every scrap of everything--hoarding syndrome can eventually blight daily life.
Sylvan, who retrieved her junk from the Dumpster, has a new job in Oregon, a new boyfriend who thinks neatness counts and a new 12-step church group to help with her hoarding problem: “I know it’s irrational, I know it got out of hand and these days I’m trying to live clutter-free.”
A Los Angeles artist, however, can’t get a grip on her urge.
“I have an obsession,” says the artist, who owns four houses. She left them one by one when they became too full. Her fourth house, with a studio attached, is filling up fast. “The newspapers are even creeping into my studio,” she says. “I did not want to allow them in--but they’ve arrived.”
The artist--whose drawings sell for about $12,000--says she feels compelled to save almost everything she considers beautiful, useful, historically important, intellectually satisfying or potentially entertaining. A very partial list of her “collections” includes:
* Videotapes of TV shows she never had time to watch.
* Stones from the beach.
* Paint jars.
* Aluminum tacks.
* About a decade’s worth of the Los Angeles Times.
* Six-foot stacks of art magazines and books.
* Every written word she could find on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
* Every artwork and preliminary drawing she’s made since age 4, every photograph of every artwork she’s ever made and every book and article she could find on women artists.
* And every article she could find about a disease she was diagnosed as having in 1990.
“Of course I had to read up on it,” she says.
But now that she’s well, can’t she throw out the material?
“Possibly--if I could find it,” she says. “But then I’d have to read it all, to see if there’s anything I need to save--and that would take forever.”
Medical experts say that no cause for obsessive-compulsive disorder has been found and that traditional psychotherapy has no effect on the problem. Behavior modification therapy and medication are the treatments of choice. Hoarders constitute from 2% to 15% of the OCD patient population, they say.
Dr. Steven Rasmussen, psychiatrist and director of the obsessive disorder clinic at Butler Hospital in Providence, R.I., is participating in a study of obsessive-compulsive disorders with colleagues at Yale University.
“We have quite a few hoarders in the study, including two sets of twins. There seems to be a familial component,” Rasmussen says, adding that it would be premature to suggest the problem is genetic.
Perhaps the most publicized hoarders were the Collyer brothers--Langley and Homer--whose 1947 deaths in Manhattan made headlines. Sons of a wealthy doctor, the brothers died in a junk-packed brownstone where they had lived in seclusion for 40 years, moving through narrow passages carved in the debris. Homer, 65, was found first; it took police three weeks of foraging to find Langley, 61, who had been smothered by a toppled pile of junk.
“Sure, pack-ratting can get out of hand,” says Peter Krug, a carpenter and songwriter in Guerneville, Calif. “But not for me. I bought a house with 60 steps in front, so I can’t easily haul up the junk I love to save.” And he has a live-in girlfriend who “keeps me neat.”
Still, he says, “I can’t bear to see things go to the dump.” He even wrote a song about the problem, called “Pack Rat Philosophy:”
If you’re throwing it away,
will you give it to me?
I’m a hard core pack rat,
I don’t care if it’s useless,
as long as it’s free.
That’s the pack rat philosophy.