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Hoarders Need Help Cutting Compulsive Clutter

Many people have clutter at home - things they don’t use or need, but somehow, don’t throw away. But when the situation moves from cluttered to chaos, it can be a symptom of a disorder called compulsive hoarding. It’s hard to treat, but therapy can help.

As can a professional organizer, like Fiona Morrissey. She helps clients straighten and manage their closets, paperwork and other belongings while also getting rid of unused items that take up space and collect dust.

People who can’t seem to let go of things - whether it’s newspapers, magazines, empty cans and clothing - are hoarders. Their homes are overstuffed and, often, unlivable.

“One of my clients had a dining room table. She put everything on the dining room table and it took us nine hours to remove the stuff from that table," Morrissey says. "She can now set her table and have people over for dinner.”

Hoarders seem to share some personality traits, says psychologist Elspeth Bell, at the Behavior Therapy Center of Greater Washington.

“Sensitive, intelligent, creative and kind," Bell says. "But when you have those four characteristics combined with the anxiety, with the depression and with the attention issues, you’re much more likely to have a circumstance where an individual who is overwhelmed has difficulty making decisions.”

They may believe an item will be useful someday, or feel an emotional attachment to it. And that can put their health at risk, affect their ability to function and interfere with social relationships.

“Let’s say someone, she’s got a fair amount of clutter in her home for her children to say, ‘Mom, we love you, but we’re not bringing your grandchildren over to visit you because there is too much stuff in your house, there is no safe space for the kids to play around,’” Bell says.

Hoarding occurs in approximately five percent of the population, a far larger number than previously thought, according to experts.

“When we did these community studies, we actually found higher prevalence of hoarding in men than in women," says Jack Samuels, a psychotherapist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Hoarding crosses all socio-economic groups. It’s virtually in all countries, all cultures.”

He adds that about one-third of people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder exhibit hoarding behavior.

"Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric disorder characterized by thoughts that come into your mind against your will, then compulsions are acts you have to do even though you know they’re unreasonable," Samuels says. "We found strong linkage to chromosome 14 in those families with hoarding. So it suggested to us that hoarding is a sub-type of OCD with a different genetic contribution.”

Whatever its cause, Samuels says there is no cure for the compulsion to hoard, but therapy can help improve the behavior.

“The therapist doesn’t discard things for them, but they are there to encourage them, to help them organize-so we teach them organizational skills- and also to really challenge their thoughts.”

That’s what Fiona Morrissey does, by urging her clients to see hoarding as their enemy.

“Clutter is very manipulative, very cruel. It wants to stay in your house," she says. "Stand up to your clutter."

Clutter doesn’t accumulate overnight, she says, and it doesn’t disappear overnight either. Keeping our stuff under control is a never-ending challenge.

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