The visible signs that a loved one has Hoarding Disorder (HD) can, in some cases, be pretty obvious. It’s difficult to walk through rooms in your loved one’s home because of the large number possessions. It’s difficult for your loved one to locate or to store items in the home because of clutter covers every surface and blocks access to rooms, closets, and storage spaces.
Last, the clutter and the resulting disorganization make it nearly impossible for your loved on to use the rooms as they were intended to be used. In short, the amount of clutter in your loved one’s home has completely taken over your loved one’s life — and possibly your life too.
That said, extreme clutter does not happen overnight. It takes time for the amount of clutter to reach the level that your loved one can no longer live comfortably and safely in his or her home. There are early warning signs that your loved one may have HD and the sooner you see these early signs the sooner you will be able to help.
Here are ten warning signs that your loved one may have HD.
- Your loved one keeps parts of the home (or the entire home) off-limits. People with HD often try to hide the clutter from others — they may close off areas of their home or try to keep others out altogether. They may fear that if you see the state of their homes or certain rooms, that you will demand they throw away possessions. They may also fear that you will touch or remove their possessions without permission. People with HD will go to great lengths to keep other people out of their homes. If your loved one tells you that parts of his or her home is off-limits, or is overly concerned about others seeing inside the home, this may be a sign that your loved one is struggling with HD.
- You and your loved one talk a lot about the stuff. At first, conversations with your loved one may be gentle and supportive. You might offer suggestions or advice on controlling the growing clutter, or you might offer to help clear things out. Over time, however, these conversations can become more heated and emotional if the clutter continues to grow. If you and your loved one are talking a lot about the stuff, particularly if these talks lead to conflicts, arguments, and hurt feelings on both sides, then your loved one may have HD.
- De-cluttering even a small area of the home is a major job that would take more than a few hours or days. Even a relatively small amount of clutter can pose an organizational nightmare to a person with HD. The inability to sort possessions efficiently may distinguish the person with HD from someone who is simply prone to disorganization and clutter. If a person without HD wishes to declutter a room or desk, for example, the person without HD can usually sort and organize the possessions efficiently. A person with HD typically cannot organize, categorize, and make the many decisions necessary to declutter a space efficiently. The persons with HD often feels overwhelmed by the many ways they can sort, organize, or store an item and then stops the entire process. For this reason, even a loved one who is motivated to work on the clutter may fail without assistance and a lot of it.
- Your loved one often fails to pay bills. Your loved one may have bill collectors calling because of missed payments on house or credit card bills, even though your loved one has the money to pay these bills. When you try to call your loved one, you may discover that the telephone company has disconnected the phone or that your loved one is living without power or heat. The ability to pay bills promptly requires your loved one locating the bills, locating his or her checkbook, locating stamps to mail the bills. Little tasks such as paying bills become big and overwhelming tasks when your loved one tries to do the task in a highly cluttered home.
- Your loved one is in debt because of excessive shopping. Another warning sign that someone may have HD is that they spend more money than they have. People with HD may not admit that they buy things they do not need, in part because they see these things as necessary or useful. You may see packages among the extreme clutter that have never been opened. You may find that your loved one has filled the pantry and closets with many more supplies than they can ever use, “just in case.” Excessive shopping may be a sign that your loved one struggles with HD.
- Your loved one has trouble finding things and resists storing things out of sight. Because of the quantity of stuff, people with HD often have trouble finding things. They may complain about misplaced purses or cell phones. They may arrive late to appointments because they could not find their toothbrush or clean socks. Adding to the problem, people with HD often insist on keeping all of their things in sight, usually in stacks from floor to ceiling or spread out over counters, tabletops, sofas, and the floor. People with HD are comforted when their possessions are in sight, and may resist storing things in closets, filing cabinets, or cardboard boxes.
- Your loved one puts off repairs to the home. As the clutter grows, your loved one’s home may fall into disrepair. Your loved one might complain about the leaky faucet or broken toilet, for example, but your loved one will not let you fix anything. If the idea of calling a repair person or landlord is brought up, your loved one may insist on cleaning the house first, but your loved one never gets around to it and therefore the refrigerator, ceiling, radiator is never repaired. Over the years, you watch as your loved one’s home deteriorates and yet your loved one insists that things are not that bad.
- Your loved one insists on meeting you at your home or at the event. People with HD often feel uncomfortable having people in their homes. They may fear that you will discover the extent of the hoarding problem, or that if you visit you will take or accidentally damage their things. Or, perhaps they are tired of arguing with you about the clutter and the state of his or her home.
- Your loved one’s garage is overflowing or your loved one rents one or more storage units. Overflowing closets and garages may be an early sign of HD. Your loved one may have asked you to store his or her things in your garage or home. Your loved one may use her or his car to store items or in the front and back yards of the home. Your loved one may pay to rent one or more storage units and always seems to be on the lookout for more space for her or his stuff.
- Your loved one will not let you touch or borrow his or her possessions. When you do visit your loved one’s home, your loved one may refuse to loan you a tool or other items even though they have several of them. Your loved one may snap at you if you pick up one of his or her possessions or if you moved something aside in order to sit on a chair or sofa. You may have learned to keep your hands to yourself when you visit, and to stand rather than to sit in the home.
Tompkins, M. A., & Hartl, T. L. (2009). Digging out: Helping your loved one manage clutter, hoarding, and compulsive acquiring. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Tompkins, M. A. (2014). Clinician’s guide to severe hoarding: A harm reduction approach. New York: Springer Publications.