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What It Is, Whom It Affects, and How It Can Be Treated
The neighbors thought of Mrs. Brook as “the crazy cat lady.” All they really knew about the elderly widow was that she would walk her cats on frayed ropes in the evening, peering into trash cans. What many did not know was that she would return to the alleys after dark and drag home broken chairs, appliances with missing cords, big black sacks stuffed with discarded clothing, and stacks of magazines. Each night’s collection would be added to the heaps of objects already covering every surface in her home, reducing the already limited livable space and creating everyday hazards. A neighbor who went into the house only after Mrs. Brooks was injured in a fall described it in terms that demonstrated the seriousness of these issues:
I couldn’t believe anybody could live like that. The poor old lady was sleeping on the edge of her bed because she had piled so many plastic sacks full of garbage on it that there was no room for her. And her kitchen was worse. She could only use one burner of the stove because broken dishes and dented pans were piled up on the others. She had an antique mahogany table, but you couldn’t even see it because it was covered with magazines and unopened mail, and every single chair was piled high with old newspapers.1
It sounds like the stuff of urban legends. No one likes to think about neighbors, friends or loved ones living in the midst of such clutter, and, worse yet, being hurt because they simply have too much stuff. But a number of unexpected risks are associated with hoarding disorder (HD), and more people live with the disorder than most of us realize.
So what is hoarding disorder? Michael G. Wheaton, Laura E. Fabricant, Noah C. Berman and Jonathan S. Abramowitz define it as a compulsion to acquire goods combined with an inability to get rid of them, to the extent that hoarders' use of their living space is impaired, along with their functioning within that space.2 The hoarder acquires an abnormal quantity of goods
1. Kitty Pocket, interview by author, Cheyenne, July 2015.
2. Michael G. Wheaton, et al., “Experiential Avoidance in Individuals with Hoarding Disorder,” Cognitive Therapy & Research 37 (December 2012): 779, accessed July 10, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9511-2.