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Posted on Tue, Oct 11, 2011 : 6 a.m.

Are you a hoarder or a collector? Here's how to tell the difference

By Judy DiForte


You name it, somebody collects it — from baseball cards, stamps and corks to staplers, naval fluff, even barf bags.

Enough people collect overdone comestibles that there’s actually a burnt food museum. The Phallological Museum in Iceland features the world's largest collection of... wait for it... ! Any guesses? You got it — penises. No, I'm not kidding. Animal penises. (And I know what you’re wondering... It’s the sperm whale’s, at 1.7 meters long.)

During home clear-outs, The Betty Brigade has come across some pretty bizarre collections: bags of gallstones, containers full of teeth, sugar packets and strange... ummm … sexual items, to name a few.

But when you save a lot of something, how can you tell if its just a large collection, or if you are a hoarder? The Anxiety Disorders Assocation of America (ADAA) offers a list of telltale characteristics of hoarders. Here are a few : (This is by no means a comprehensive list.):

The inability to discard any of the items. People who hoard get nervous and sometimes angry at the suggestion that they part with their items, and even when someone else touches the items.

Cramped living quarters. The person’s home is so crowded that there are only narrow pathways: Sometime there are no pathways at all.

Family disharmony. The person’s spouse and/or children have become upset and disturbed by the quantity of items.

Commonly hoarded items include newspapers, magazines, paper and plastic bags, cardboard boxes, photographs, food and clothing. Some people also collect animals, keeping scores — even hundreds of pets. In these cases, conditions are almost invariably unsanitary.

You can't usually tell just by looking at a household, whether the owner is a hoarder or not, because the key issue is not the condition of the house or the amount of stuff, but how and why it got that way.

If you’ve seen Hoarding, Buried Alive, you’ve probably learned that many things can lead to hoarding. It is a symptom — not a problem in itself. That’s why getting rid of the hoard without treating the person never works.

We only work with hoarders who are in therapy and ready for the de-cluttering process. Otherwise, the clutter would just come back. As long as the reason for hoarding is still there, the junk will return, no matter how often you clear it away.

Without treatment, hoarding usually worsens over time.

For more info, check out the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation website.

Judy DiForte is a professional organizer with The Betty Brigade, a relocation, organizing and event planning service based in Ann Arbor. Email her at



Tue, Oct 11, 2011 : 3:41 p.m.

I've heard that hoarding treatment is only highly effective if hoarding isn't an additional symptom of dementia...not much you can do at that point aside from assisted living as cognitive functioning is too low to permit behavior modification.

Judy DiForte

Tue, Oct 11, 2011 : 10:49 p.m.

My remark about treatment being highly effective was simplistic and potentially misleading. What I should have said is that compulsive hoarding, if left untreated, tends to worsen over time. Treatment often involves a combination of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), desensitization and medication. According to the Department of Psychiatry at University of California at San Diego (UCSD), a combination of medication and CBT appears to be the most effective treatment regimen for most people with the compulsive hoarding syndrome.