Too Much Stuff

By Diane Ballard

Are you fighting a losing battle with household clutter? You might be a hoarder.


The prevalence of hoarding goes up dramatically after the age of 55.The word comes from the Middle English clotteren, meaning to clot. If your home is clotted with more junk than you know what to do with, you’re not alone. And, while admitting you’re prone to clutter is more acceptable than branding yourself a hoarder, they’re really the same. If hoarder brings to mind a wild-eyed, odorous owner of 75 cats, think again. That’s just the extreme case you’ve seen on TV.

Most hoarders have a less sensational form of the disorder, and they function fairly normally. From 3 percent to 6 percent of the population is estimated to have mild to severe hoarding disorder. And, interestingly, you’re born with it. It may lie dormant until something triggers it or until you grow older.

“If you have it, you’ll probably always have it, but you can control it,” says Jerry Fried (Knoxville ’78, ’79), a clinical social worker who’s treated numerous hoarders. Men and women exhibit the condition in roughly equal numbers. Some people hoard miscellaneous possessions, some a single type. Women are more likely to hoard clothes, while men accumulate tools and hardware, Fried says.

77% of severe hoarders have one or more serious health conditions.How can you tell if you have a serious problem? Fried says, if your living spaces are so cluttered that you can’t use them for the purpose for which they were intended, that’s serious. Clutter can cause physical danger because of increased fire risk, sanitary concerns, danger of tripping and falling, and exits being blocked. But, despite the hazards, many hoarders are resistant to help — they don’t see their accumulated possessions as a problem.

Hoarding stems from four types of deficits, Fried says.

  1. Problems in thinking — can’t concentrate, can’t make decisions, can’t organize or categorize, trouble remembering.
  2. Problems with emotional attachments to possessions.
  3. Erroneous beliefs about the importance of possessions.
  4. Behavioral avoidance or a problem with motivation for change.

Fried says hoarders over-think what should be simple organizational decisions: “This paper clip could go with my office supplies, or I could use it for a craft project or use it in the door if it accidentally gets locked. So where do I put it? I can’t decide. I’ll set it here for now.”

50% of hoarders have major depressive disorder. 20% have an attention disorder.To hoarders, he says, all items have equal priority. A 2-year-old newspaper clipping is just as important as the utility bill. Sentimental attachments, such as saving a broken cup a parent drank from, also make it difficult for hoarders to discard things. They tend to think they may need items later, although there’s no clear purpose for them at present. Hoarders think they eventually will find a use for every possession, but they seldom do because they’re so overwhelmed by the clutter.

“They feel a responsibility to find a use for things, such as planning to have a yard sale or giving items to neighbors,” Fried says. “But they never have the sale or actually take things to the neighbors. Many hoarders are committed to recycling, but they never get the items they’ve collected to the recycling center.”

Amazingly, most hoarders appear normal when they’re away from home, Fried says. They’re generally well groomed and function competently at work. It’s only when confronted with the disorganization at home that they have problems. Many hoarders suffer from depression, but that may be a chicken-and-egg situation, Fried says. “Who wouldn’t be depressed looking at such a mess?”

Fried says not everyone with a cluttered house is a hoarder.

“It’s not hoarding if a person is physically unable to get rid of things, such as people with chronic fatigue syndrome. And there’s a difference between hoarding and collecting. The difference is that a collector takes pride in displaying collections. Hoarders don’t display items with a sense of pride.”

Attack Your Clutter

  • Ask yourself, “Would the man in the street see my house as cluttered?”
  • Make sure that, if you have many objects of one type, such as magazine clippings, they are organized efficiently.
  • Visualize what you would like an uncluttered room to look like.
  • Don’t start a cleanup project thinking you’re going to clear out the whole house. Tackle one area first and then another.
  • Expect your motivation to rise and fall. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Clearing clutter is hard work.
  • If you are unable to do the job by yourself, hire a clinician, “coach” or professional organizer to help you decide what to keep and how to organize it.

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Jerry Fried is a licensed clinical social worker at the Behavioral Medicine Institute in Knoxville.