Monday, March 15, 2010
Psychologists use the word "hoarder" to describe people who compulsively collect stuff they are unable to throw away. Hoarders become community problems when the piles of junk collect outside their homes, or when their homes become unsanitary and attract vermin. One hoarder, named Jack, lives in Oceanside.
SAN DIEGO Psychologists use the word "hoarder" to describe people who compulsively collect stuff they are unable to throw away. Hoarders become community problems when the piles of junk collect outside their homes, or when their homes become unsanitary and attract vermin. One hoarder, named Jack, lives in Oceanside.
From the outside, his modest Oceanside home looks like any other house on the street. It seems well cared for. The landscaping is neat and trim.
But walk through the front door and you'll see why Jack's house is different from his neighbors. Jack asked that we not use his last name. Every flat surface in his home is covered with layers and layers of stuff. Boxes, papers, books, cassette tapes, little American flags. Spare coat hangers dangle from the tops of door frames. Stacks of empty styrofoam food containers balance atop piles of stuff in the kitchen. Jack tried to explain how a person starts to accumulate all this junk.
"You get mail," he said. "You come in, you sit, you open it, and you put in on the table. And you get more mail the next day. You open it and put in on the table. And you build up a mountain of junk, you know."
Sometimes, Jack collects too much stuff because he can't turn down a good deal.
"I'd see something on sale, and I'd say, 'Oh, this is a good buy. I normally pay $1 and now it's 60 cents' or whatever. I'll buy four of them. I buy four, get around to using two, and the other two go bad," said Jack.
Jack is 78 years old. He moved here from Texas almost 40 years ago. There's nothing about him that seems anxious or unbalanced. But he's begun to see a therapist to help him with his hoarding problem. Hoarding seems to run in his family. He says his mother was a "collector" of things. Jack says he got started as a child, collecting rags.
"To get a rag to wipe down my bicycle and keep it clean I had to really scrounge around because any rags in the house went to my father. He had a machine shop," he said.
So Jack created his own rag collection. But his habit of collecting rags did not stop when he left his father's home.
"When I moved to California I started collecting seriously," said Jack. "And I ended up with trash cans full of rags. I still have a trash can in the garage. I can't get to it. But it's full of rags, so I'm rag rich!"
Jack walks through his house, using a narrow path that's lined with piles of possessions.
He lives alone. Jack's bedroom contains a double-bed, half of which is covered with boxes. Jack sleeps on the other half. It's impossible to know how many compulsive hoarders live in San Diego County. Hoarders can be invisible if they, like Jack, never have people over to their homes and don't cause a neighborhood nuisance.
UCSD psychiatrist Sanjaya Saxena is one of a handful of experts on compulsive hoarding. He estimates, and studies have shown, that two to five percent of the general population is made up of compulsive hoarders. He said hoarding is closely related to obsessive compulsive disorder, and evidence of psychiatric problems can be seen in brain scans of hoarders.
"If we take, say, 25 people with compulsive hoarding and compare their brain images to 25 people without, or with no psychiatric disorder, you'll see a significant statistical difference, maybe on the order of 5 to 10 percent, of abnormally low activity in a particular area of the brain," said Saxena.
He added that hoarding disorders can be treated. Hoarders respond well to psychiatric medicine developed for obsessive compulsive disorder. Saxena said behavioral therapy is also effective. This involves getting people to make hard decisions, about throwing things away. Jack is doing that kind of program. He showed several sheets of paper, given to him by his therapist.
"And the ground rules -- here's where she has the ground rules," said Jack. "We developed this together. To toss any financial papers that belong to me, prior to 2009. And it was okay for them to throw away any old magazines, newspapers, junk mail. Shoes, we threw away some shoes, we didn't get around to the hats."
Asked if he considers himself compulsive, Jack pointed to his many piles of things and said, "you can see the evidence." His goal is to get rid of all that evidence -- the boxes, the papers, the rags, all the old name tags he's kept from conferences he attended, and live clutter-free.