The question that can immediately enter your mind when you witness a hoarding situation is “Why would someone live this way?” When you witness this situation you might have thoughts such as “They must be too lazy to clean” or “I know if I junked all this stuff they would be relieved”. The first thought is labelling the person in a negative light, and this only adds insult to injury. Acting on the second thought could be dangerous and send the hoarder into an emotional tailspin – possibly leading to suicide or hospitalization. It is very important to move past judgment and labelling. The success of intervention depends on a different approach.
One must try to understand that the hoarder does not “choose” to live the way they do. Similar to the case of one who suffers from diabetes, a diabetic does not “choose” to have a pancreas that does not produce insulin. This is not a matter of choice – the behaviour of hoarding is driven by a very real anxiety disorder. This does not mean the person is “weak” – rather they have a clinical illness that can be treated and eventually corrected. A person who hoards does so to avoid extreme anxiety that occurs when they even have a thought of discarding an item. If you are a parent you may have experienced anxiety at this level when you thought you lost your child in a public place. In the case of hoarding, the anxiety disappears when the item is safely stored. Thus the circle occurs – the hoarder picks up an item, has a panic attack when they think about getting rid of it, and the anxiety disappears when the item is saved.
This same pattern of anxiety onset and relief can happen with hand washing. The compulsive hand washer believes that there are germs on his hands, he washes his hands which relieves the anxiety – upon finishing the hand washing regime he starts to believe the germs are growing again – causing anxiety. This is known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In this case, germs are the Obsession and Hand Washing is the Compulsive Behaviour – and it is a disorder because it has a negative impact on the quality of life for all involved.