The elderly woman was nice enough, so Vicenzo Mallari agreed to the cheap rent for a tiny room in one of the less-photogenic areas of plush Makati. The young professional was starting out in the world, and he had no plans of throwing away his hard-earned money on a fancy condo. So bedspacing would have to do for now.
He immediately noticed the unusual way everything in the apartment was juxtaposed: about seven or eight cabinets facing or standing next to each other, all filled to the maximum with items in plastic or paper wrapping. A small table intended for dining was also supporting a few other items on one side, from old coffee jars to knickknacks from God knows where.
Plastic, tents, tarpaulin, mosquito nets, and all manner of material covered just about every corner, here and there bulging from the hidden objects underneath. In a backroom, about twelve unused umbrellas were hanging from the window. Vicenzo had to walk sideways in some of the areas of the apartment, all occupied by stuff he could barely make out in the dim, blocked lighting.
Vicenzo settled in, despite the eccentricities of the place. Then one day, when the signs of a strong downpour made themselves felt—the calm before a storm—he began to hear tiny feet whisking about. The young man was not new to Metro Manila, and he immediately sat up on his bed, knowing those tiny feet belonged to cockroaches. The irksome, filthy little critters took flight until the dim LED bulbs on the ceiling were covered with their silhouette. A rat the size of a small cat ran across the room from under his bed.
The woman called out to Vicenzo, “Don’t worry, they will leave soon, when the rain hits.” When the rain did hit, the murky water came in. Vicenzo grabbed his brand new pair of Nike Hyperquickness from the floor and in them were a few more roaches scuttling around for safety.
Welcome to the lair of the compulsive hoarder.
What is compulsive hoarding?
Compulsive hoarding or hoarding disorder describes the behavior of people who acquire and keep large quantities of objects. They are typically unwilling or unable to convince themselves to discard their “hoard,” even when the objects have begun to occupy almost all living spaces of their home.
In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) listed compulsive hoarding as a mental disorder. Researchers were still unclear then as to whether hoarding disorder was an isolated ailment, or possibly a symptom of a different condition, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The current edition of DSM now recognizes it as both a mental disorder and a possible OCD symptom.
Although researchers are only just beginning to look at hoarding, some evidence suggests it may start during childhood or adolescence and progress through adult life. Psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as avoidance traits, alcohol abuse, and paranoid schizotypal (severe social anxiety), all seem to have a link to hoarding.
Two to five percent of adults suffer from compulsive hoarding.
Different from collecting
Former President Fidel V. Ramos has been known to collect and keep things, but he is far from having a hoarding disorder. He even keeps pamphlets, brochures and newspaper clippings, reminders of travel, etc. But he has them arranged neatly in his massive library at home, none touching the floor or keeping the living areas obstructed from view.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, compulsive hoarding differs from being a collector. A collector looks for specific items—stamps, model cars, comics— and may even display them in an organized fashion. A hoarding disorder sufferer tends to save random items anywhere they can place them.
A regular packrat is very different from someone with a hoarding disorder. You may have an extra room in the house that has been taking on bodega duties for a while, but the fact that you keep unused items stashed (perhaps even organized) in a room to protect the rest of your home is indicative of your sense of order and neatness. Perhaps at some point you will open that room, discard the items you no longer need or haven’t used for at least a year, and clean the room out once and for all.
You may hesitate to throw out an item that once meant something to you (a Crunch wrapper from your ex, the price tag from your first Lacoste), but if you threw them out anyway you know you wouldn’t lose any sleep. It’s normal to feel attached to things, to play the “sentimental value” card for a while—an old bike, your bed from childhood days—but to keep EVERYTHING and refuse to get rid of it no matter what, that's when things get problematic.
Living with a compulsive hoarder
For a compulsive hoarder, throwing out their beloved stockpile is painful, almost sacrilegious. Even if it affects their family, they would rather go through a particularly nasty argument with their loved ones before they would toss a yellowed KFC bucket from 1999.
Vicenzo’s landlady has a son who lives with his wife and child. Whenever the son and his family came to visit, Vicenzo would hear him making a joke about how his mom’s bedspacers had to squeeze between mountains of stuff to get to their rooms, essentially masking a comment regarding throwing out his mother’s pile of junk. The elderly woman would not be pulled into the conversation, and the son knew better than to push it.
Now and then the woman would show Vicenzo and the other bedspacers a new find—some old desk clock, several ladies’ bags with busted zippers—and happily say she would give them as gifts to friends. She never did. The bags would hang for years from a rusty wire that used to be there for drying clothes, collecting dust and becoming home to hundreds of roaches. Right beneath the bags a collection of stinking things has been steadily growing. There the desk clock found its perch.
“Swollen with belongings”
“An apartment so swollen with belongings that the tenant, a woman, died standing up, unable to collapse to the floor.”—From a New York Times investigative report.
Some people who suffer from the disorder are ashamed of their hoard, keeping it a secret from friends, family, or coworkers, meeting them at their homes or at a public place such as a restaurant, just to keep them away from the house brimming with accumulated junk.
In some cases, the situation becomes so bad the hoarder would have no place to sleep, sit, or eat. Even if a hoarder’s family tries to intervene, there is no assurance that their relative would actually throw out the objects they've grown so emotionally attached to.
Many hoarders live alone because their family couldn’t stand the junk and the filthy living conditions, causing disease and embarrassment. It is not uncommon to find out that the hoarder’s children left as soon as they were old enough to do so, and the spouse long gone before that. It is a testament to the severity of the disorder that a sufferer would rather live away from their family than part with their precious collection of things they would never use.
Problems associated with hoarding
Serious hoarding strains relationships. It may also make working or studying difficult. Socialization becomes a challenge, too, so a hoarder would rather be alone instead.
1) With all the items packed in one place, it only takes one discarded cigarette or a match to start a fire. All that accumulated junk can make getting out to safety difficult. It can make rescue impossible.
2) A 51-year-old man died in Spain when his mountain of junk ended up crushing him. This is another real danger that hoarders and their families face. With stockpiles reaching the ceiling, an avalanche of accumulated objects can be deadly.
3) Vermin are attracted to filthy places. Roaches, rats, ants, termites all love a compulsive hoarder’s place. The problem can spill over to neighbors, especially in an apartment building or a crowded compound. Neighbors are very likely to complain about the smell, too.
4) With all the items stacked on top of each other, cleaning is out of the question. Moisture accumulates in packed areas like that, and moisture and darkness are mold’s best friend. Mold can cause respiratory problems, allergies, and other diseases, even deadly ones.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication can help treat a person suffering from compulsive hoarding. This kind of treatment involves helping the patient learn how to discard unnecessary items in a gradual fashion and diminishing their desire to keep items or their perceived need for them. They may also learn skills such as decision-making, organization, and relaxation. Some patients may respond well to medication as part of the program.
A compulsive hoarder may not see anything wrong with their need to keep items, which they sometimes believe they would use or give away at some point. Or they may see their problem but are helpless to do anything about it on their own. Intervention is important. Only therapy can possibly help a compulsive hoarder.
If you know someone who suffers from this disorder, talk to them or their family about therapy. You could be saving them from the dangers of compulsive hoarding.