Piles of dung, urine, sticks, and other garbage dimple the landscape of the Southeast United States. These heaps of refuse are the country homes of nature’s most cunning collector, the woodrat. More appropriately dubbed the packrat, these tiny hoarders put together extravagant medleys of knickknacks, making even the most sophisticated collectors jealous. Much like their human counterparts, the packrat creates aggregations of what most would consider useless junk. But to the hoarder and the packrat alike the seemingly useless trinkets serve some unperceivable but necessary purpose.
For decades, experts have viewed compulsive hoarding as a symptom and a subset manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Recent in depth studies suggest it is more aptly a distinct disorder with its own whacky effect on brain chemistry. Not only that, but just as the diagnostic floodgates gave way to ADD, increasingly more people are being diagnosed with disposophobia, the compulsion to stockpile.
Brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, were known to stow away everything within their home in Harlem, N.Y. They kept everything in their house, from towers of newspapers that resembled Roman columns, to a half-built car, to at least a dozen pianos. For their syndrome, they paid the ultimate price. After a tremendous, multistory avalanche within their home, both were trapped. On March 21, 1947, firemen found Homer already dead from starvation and dehydration. It took another 18 days for officials to dig out the smothered body of Langley, asphyxiated by a mound of old Christmas trees and newspaper.
The urge to hoard is clearly based on years of adaptation, said Tom Waite, a biologist at Ohio State University. In the animal world, the instinct to stockpile has been evolutionary significant to survival. This skill is observed in most wildlife trying to make it through tough times. The packing away of nuts by squirrels and bulking up of bears in preparation for winter is just one example.
Waite also suggested that this same urge to hoard may originate from mating practices. Before pairing with a mate, some male penguins stockpile stones and a few varieties of fish. “It’s called resource-holding potential, and it’s a way of advertising to a mate your true Darwinian fitness,” Waite stated in the October 2004 issue of Discover. In humans with disposophobia, this primitive survival instinct goes berserk. They hold on to everything, because their subconscious loses control over the primal instinct to hoard.
A 61-year-old man from Hartford, Conn. once kept his house in such disarray that he lost a six-figure check from the sale of his parents’ house. “You can’t imagine my total embarrassment at having to call the real estate attorney and ask for a new one,” he said at a meeting of the Clutter Workshop, a support group for compulsive hoarders. Embarrassment is a common effect of the disorder. Most become embarrassed to have friends over, especially their children’s friends. In some cases, hoarders fill every nook and cranny of their houses to the point where they can no longer open doors to rooms, use their bed, or reach the sink. Their ability to keep organized completely breaks down.
“Some nights I don’t sleep, just clean — I want my things to be organized,” said Katie Ryan, a second year Photography major. “I keep lists — to do lists, movie lists, and book lists. They are color-coded, alphabetized, and arranged by genre.”
Ryan considers herself a hoarder. She finds herself collecting random odds and ends like bottle caps, wine bottles and journals. In the past year, she has filled four journals, each about 200 pages, give or take. Every page is decorated with drawing, quotes, pictures and the occasional movie stub. She is hoarding her own memories. Ryan’s current focus, however, is on cigarette packs; she is collecting as many as she can, although she has “no idea” what she will use them for yet.
The shelves in Ryan’s bedroom are completely covered with knickknacks, and the abundant wine bottles that sometimes give people the wrong impression about her. “I don’t even really like wine. Only a few of them were even mine.”
Ryan believes her hoarding nature has a familial origin. Her mother and grandmother were both considered hoarders. Small mountains of books piled clutter the corners of her mother’s house, as well as a rather large teacup collection. And never once has she deleted a single email from her inbox. Her grandma was known to hold on to pieces of paper. Ryan said she had even seen her grandma’s absentee slip for missing seventh grade basketball practice.
How many people have disposophobia, and why is it so pronounced in certain individuals? To answer these questions, researchers would have to get passed the realm of the secrecy that hoarders often create to conceal their compulsion. Despite the shyness of sufferers, some revealing insights have been made about the origins of the disorder. It is often a family trait, as observed for Ryan.
For some affected individuals, they would view a slip of paper with great emotion attaching all their experiences that led to finding it to it, much like the emotion placed on an engagement ring. Many psychologists turn the blame on modeling and genetics like Randy Frost of Smith College. The actual technical working of it may be emotional or the inability to make a decision. Sufferers may simply not be able to decide whether to throw an item away or simply keep it, just in case they need it again.
Ryan’s compulsion may stem from an artistic personality. She has made several of her wine bottles into vases and lamps and uses them as props in practical jokes. “My friends and I once arranged the bottles as if a huge party took place the night before. When my friends’ parents came by, we each held bottles to feign like we were drunk.”
For Ryan, it may be the joy and continual use she gets from her collections that compels her to stockpile. There is no sure-fire way to rid an individual of this disorder because it is completely psychological. Sometimes a hoarder will never stockpile again after a weekend of cleaning everything out. Others will revert back. No one really knows how to treat the disorder and only the future may bring a cure. Until then, these packrats will continue to hoard, reinforcing the old adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”