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My Mom is a Hoarder: Part Two

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When does collecting cross the line into mental illness? In one mom's case, it was when hoarding got so bad she was literally pushed out of her house and living homeless. Hear her story and what our expert says are warning signs.

Yesterday, we told you about the Buzzfeed pictures of a "packrat" mom's house, and explored the topic of hoarding.

When collecting reaches this point, it's called "compulsive hoarding disorder" -- and it's no joke. Hoarders put themselves and neighbors in danger due to fire hazards, unsanitary conditions, and even the real possibility of getting buried under an avalanche of junk.

Yesterday, in Part One of our two-part series, we met Jennifer, a wife and mother of two, a self-proclaimed collector and "hoarder" who says that the thousands of things she has amassed from flea markets, thrift stores, and the streets are treasures. 

Today we'll meet Cynthia Lester, a documentary filmmaker whose mother, Eugenia, suffers from obsessive hoarding disorder. At her worst, her mother was so bad that she was living in her garden because she couldn't get into her house anymore. Things got so bad that the city threatened to take her mom's home away, so she and her brothers stepped in. Cynthia actually documented everything in her documentary "My Mother's Garden" -- and what happened next was something no one expected. She captured it all on film.

True hoarders are not your average shoe or bag collectors; instead, they may collect large quantities of old newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, bottles, junk mail, plastic containers, broken appliances, old clothes, shoes, and furniture, among other things.

Unlike most people who throw things away once they break, compulsive hoarders save broken and useless things -- they also tend to save quantities of stuff that can greatly go beyond what a person could possibly ever need. This could include buying things such as several cases of soap or paper goods at a time or dozens of an item that might be on sale, but of which most people would only own one.

We wanted to delve further into the psychology of hoarding, so we talked to Dr. Oakley, a licensed clinical psychologist, full-time clinical professor at the UCLA Department of Psychology, and director of the Center for Cognitive Therapy.

ML: Is hoarding a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder?
Dr. Oakley: There is considerable debate about whether hoarding should be considered a sub-type of OCD or an entirely different disorder. There is a program of research on compulsive hoarding currently conducted that may lead to further clarification of the diagnostic status of this condition.

ML: How common is compulsive hoarding and what are its features?
Dr. Oakley: Hoarding is a relatively common symptom of OCD with estimates of 18% of those with OCD exhibiting hoarding as a symptom, according to Rasmussen and Eisen. OCD afflicts approximately 1-2% of the population.

The features of hoarding include (1) the acquisition of and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value; (2) living spaces sufficiently cluttered to an extent that precludes activities for which those living spaces are designed; and (3) significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.

ML: How can you tell if someone is an over-avid collector or a hoarder?
Dr. Oakley: The main distinguishing features are the value of the objects and the degree of clutter caused by the collection. With hoarding, the objects are without value and the clutter is to an extent that it precludes activities for which those living spaces are designed.

ML: What are the causes of hoarding and/or OCD?
Dr. Oakley: Hoarding and OCD have no specific cause. There is no currently identifiable gene for OCD, although there tend to be genetic determinants for anxiety disorders in general.

ML: Are there treatments available for hoarding
Dr. Oakley: There are cognitive-behavioral treatments that are helpful with hoarding, although it tends to be a difficult sub-type to treat.  Exposure-response prevention, where the individual identifies and tests beliefs associated with the resulting anxiety in discarding items and a hierarchy of difficulty with discarding items is established, are key elements. Decision-making rules about discarding items is also developed. As with OCD in general, hoarding does not tend to improve without treatment.

To see more of Cynthia Lester's documentary "My Mother's Garden," please visit

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29 comments so far | Post a comment now
ame i. May 6, 2009, 10:32 PM

I’ve known (and still know) people on both ends of the spectrum.
The Mom of one of my sisters-in-law grew up at the tail end of the Drepression. She has 3 or more of everything she could ever need. The first time I visited her home I was amazed that she could even use her stove because spicc bottles were stacked all over it. She “stocks up” on various items even if she doesn’t need them.
Until she had children, this sister-in-law kept her home spotless. After having 2 children & dealing with her husband’s affair with a co-worker, she has become her mother’s daughter. No one can walk through her dining room b/c she has bags and bags of rummage sale clothes in sizes that don’t fit her children. We have to move stacks of stuff from her 12-seater kitchen table to have dinner. I’m a bit of a Messy myself, but I find myself having the urge to ask her husband (my late-husband’s brother) if I can come over while they are on vacation to box some of the clutter just to clear a path. I wouldn’t discard anything, just box and stack to clear floor space. I suspect depression is the cause for the state of her home.
I’m not judging either of these women. After my husband died, I hyper-focused on my kids. As long as they had clean clothes and good food to eat I felt I was doing my job. I’m still playing catch up on my own clutter.

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stephanie December 15, 2009, 8:07 PM

my name is stephanie. I’m 27 yrs old and recently moved back to my dad’s house oct. 31st. Since then I’ve noticed that my brother’s been doing a good job cleaning the house to make it look nice. But my mom and sister get so angry at the meaningless things my brother throws away, but the things he is not sure of he boxes them and has put them into a storage unit. my brother today told me how he mentally feels about the stress he gets from cleaning and our mom and sister always on him asking”where’s this where’s that” has to my opinion gotten out of hand. It’s pretty much caused him to mentally feel suicidal, I don’t feel i have much saying or doing in this because i’ve lived out of the house for the past 5 years, that this is all a slap in the face to me. I’ve always been the one to put family first when i can help them, but because this has gotten out of control and beyond my knowledge, how can i help them out? my dad has spent so much money already trying to get the house cleaned and then now a storage unit for all the junk…that i honestly feel bad and feel like this is slowly getting a hand on me to just pack my things and disappear period. help!

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