Michael A. Tompkins, Ph.D.
Co-Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy
The signs of someone with a significant hoarding problem are obvious. Floorboards rot and sag under the weight of tons of paper and garbage. Food containers litter the home and the smells of rotting food and mildew permeate the air. Every nook and cranny is filled with stuff and what paths there are in the home are carpeted with layer upon layer of damp, dark, and dirty paper, bags, and other litter. However, a significant hoarding problem does not usually happen overnight. It slowly blooms and grows over many years. Here are ten warning signs that your loved one may have a burgeoning hoarding problem.
- Your loved one keeps parts of the home off-limits and the curtains always drawn. People with a hoarding problem often try to hide it. They may close off areas of their home or try to keep others out of their home altogether. They may fear that if you see the state of their home or certain rooms, you will demand they clean the mess, or they may fear that you will touch or remove their possessions without their permission. People will go to great lengths to keep you out of their space. They may tell you that you cannot enter a room because it contains unwrapped gifts they do not want you to see. Other people keep the curtains closed so that others cannot see inside their homes. If your loved one tells you that parts of his home are off-limits, or is overly concerned about others seeing inside his home, this may indicate a hoarding problem.
- You and your loved one talk endlessly about the stuff. A telling sign that a loved one may have a hoarding problem is that you and your loved one talk at great length about the stuff. At first, conversations are gentle and supportive. You might offer suggestions or advice. You might offer to come over on a Saturday to help clear out just a few things. Over the years, however, the conversations become louder and more demanding as pleas turn to threats. You may have threatened to call the authorities and your loved one, in return, may have threatened never to speak to you again. Simply put, if you and your loved one are talking a lot about the stuff, he or she may have a hoarding problem.
- De-cluttering even a small area 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 a hoarding problem. An inability to sort possessions efficiently may distinguish the person with a hoarding problem from someone who is only prone to some disorganization and clutter. That is, if a person without hoarding difficulties intentionally carves out three hours to sit down in front of her piles of stuff, she can usually sort and organize these possessions with some level of efficiency. Conversely, the person who hoards likely cannot because he falls into the trap of considering the many and endless ways he can sort, organize, or store an item. Before you know it, the process overwhelms him and he stops. For this reason, hoarding problems that may look small soon mushroom out of control as the years go on.
- Your loved one often fails to pay bills. Your loved one may have bill collectors hounding him because he has missed payments on his house or credit card even though he has the money to pay these bills. When you call your loved one, you may discover that the telephone company has disconnected the phone again or that she is living without power or heat. Your loved one may not be able to locate bills other important notices or documents because of the clutter in the home.
- Your loved one is in debt because of compulsive shopping. Another warning sign that your loved one may have a hoarding problem is that she spends more money than she has. People who hoard may not admit that they buy things they do not need, in part, because they see it quite differently. They will tell you, and not blink an eye, that it is always good to have extra presents on hand for unexpected guests or last minute celebrations. You may see packages that she has never opened. You may find that your loved one has filled the pantry and closets with many more supplies than she can ever use or that she has filled her freezer with expired or old food that she will not permit you to discard.
- Your loved one has trouble finding things and resists storing things out of sight. Because of the quantity of stuff, your loved one may have trouble finding things. She may complain that she has misplaced her purse or cell phone again. She may arrive late to appointments because she could not find her calendar or the note you sent her about when and where you were to meet. Adding to the problem, people who hoard insist on keeping their things in sight, usually in stacks from floor to ceiling, or littered over most horizontal surfaces. People who hoard are comforted when their possessions are in sight, and they may resist your pleas that they store their things in closets, filing cabinets, or in sealed boxes.
- Your loved one puts off repairs to her home. You may wonder why your loved one complains about the leaky faucet or broken toilet but will not permit you to repair it. She may tell you that the broken toilet is not that bad or that she welcomes the help but wants to clean up the house first before you or the plumber comes by. Over the years, you may watch as the roof caves or weeds choke the front and back yards and still your loved one tells you that things are not that bad.
- Your loved one insists she meet you at your home or at the event. People who hoard often feel uncomfortable with people in their homes. They may fear that you will discover the extent of the hoarding problem or perhaps they are just tired of the endless arguments with you about the stuff. You may wonder why your loved one is eager to meet with you but only if she can meet you at your home or at the event; and, why she always rejects your offers to pick her up or drop her off at her home.
- Your loved one’s garage is overflowing and he rents one or more storage units. Overflowing closets and garages may be an early sign of a hoarding problem. Furthermore, your loved one may have multiple storage units in the back and front yards or has asked you to store things for him in your garage or storage areas. Your loved one may pay rent on several storage units and always seems to be on the lookout for more storage.
- Your loved one will not let you touch or borrow his possessions. When you do visit your loved one, you may have felt hurt when he refused to loan you a saw, a book, or even yesterday’s newspaper. Your loved one may have barked at you when you picked up something of his or when you moved some papers aside to sit down on the sofa. You may have learned to keep your hands in your pockets when you visit and to stand rather than sit in his home.