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Experts: Hoarding compulsion hard to break

Updated: March 17, 2012 10:19AM



People who hoard things have a compulsion not unlike those addicted to alcohol or drugs, experts said Wednesday, one day after a 72-year-old woman was found dead in her trash-filled home in Worth.

“There seems to be a strong behavioral connection between hoarding and other addiction disorders,” said Phil Scherer, director of the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey.

He said a traumatic incident, like the loss of a spouse, can trigger such behavior.

“Often times, hoarders seem to be trying to fill a sense of emptiness in themselves that can be brought on by a traumatic incident where they felt out of control. They need to control their stuff. They can manage that,” Scherer said. “In their minds, they have relationships with things. They have an intention for it. They think they may need it. Even junk mail becomes important to them.

“Newspaper stories trigger an emotional reaction about someone they know, so they save that newspaper although they’ll never follow through with it. Things tend to pile up and they change their value system.”

Neatly kept houses soon change, he said, as hoarders often develop a feeling that “you never know when you’ll need it.”

An intervention sometimes breaks the cycle, he said, but it’s a difficult process.

“The relationships they form with these material things are a lot more solid than a relationship with a bottle of booze,” Scherer said. “So you have to be kind of sensitive to the trauma you may induce when you start to intervene with these people. You have to point out to them that the environment is unsafe, that they can fall down and be trapped there. You have to go in and say you want to help organize this stuff, that this chore has gotten way past the ability for them to do it themselves.”

Even garbage becomes worth saving to such individuals, he said.

“They become used to the smell. Eventually, they don’t notice it,” Scherer said.

John Rowley, of the south suburban chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, called hoarding “a compulsion” that some can’t overcome.

“It’s the ‘waste not, want not’ thinking,” Rowley said.

Those who know someone with a hoarding problem can call the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at (708) 915-4090 for more information.



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