'Compulsive Hoarders' Can't Throw Things Away

ByABC News via logo

Feb. 11, 2006 — -- Linda Mackintosh is drowning in treasures. Piled high to the ceiling of her Connecticut home, her collection of paper bags, boxes, yogurt containers, office supplies and so much more allows only a narrow path to get from room to jam-packed room.

"Everybody thinks it's just a pile of old news, but to me it's a treasure!" Mackintosh said of her collection of old newspapers.

Mackintosh is one of at least 2 million people in this country with a condition known as compulsive hoarding. They suffer from a powerful urge to acquire and a paralyzing inability to discard.

"When I go to throw something out, I get nauseous, a headache," she said. "I break out in a sweat."

Mackintosh's disorder caused her to lose her job as a lab technician. It was also the demise of a romantic relationship.

"I recently was involved in a very serious relationship," Mackintosh said. "We were engaged, and it was broken off partly because of the hoarding."

She recalls that she fist felt the urge to hoard when she was just 7.

"Someone had thrown out a notebook and I thought, 'Oh my God, I can use that,' " she said.

If you can recognize a little bit of Mackintosh's behavior in your own life, you are not alone.

"Hoarding probably is an extreme version of something that happens to a lot of us," said Dr. David Tolin, an expert in hoarding behavior and director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at The Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn.

"GMA Weekend Edition" asked Tolin to help Mackintosh. He arranged for her to get an MRI to show how her brain operates when throwing away the most basic of trash -- junk mail.

When shredding a piece of mail, Mackintosh classified her anxiety level as "much to extreme."

The MRI confirmed that she sees discarding an item as being punished, whereas most people see it as a rewarding experience.

Mackintosh has gotten one element of her hoarding under control: She no longer goes Dumpster diving. But a drive with Tolin revealed she still fights her powerful urges.

"Just driving down the street on trash day, it's like going past a million bars for an alcoholic," she said.

When the car pulled over and she saw a table someone threw away, Mackintosh called it a "definite keeper."

"This is killing me!" she said.

Luckily, Tolin was there to help her cope with her feelings.

"You're reminding yourself that this is not a person," he said.

"Right," she replied.

"You're not rescuing somebody," he said.

"Right," she replied.

"That is a thing," he said.

When Tolin arrived at Mackintosh's house, he saw that it is much harder for her to let go of the things she already has -- even an old cardboard box full of mouse droppings. She called the box "irreplaceable" because it was made so well.

"She's so good at thinking about ways to use items that she forgot to figure out whether she actually could carry it out," Tolin said.

Hoarding can't be cured, just managed, according to Tolin. Because it's so difficult for Mackintosh to see something go to waste, "GMA Weekend Edition" asked professional organizer Patricia Diesel (www.keepitsimplenow.com) to help her choose some things to donate to people living in a transitional shelter.

Mackintosh said she wants to have her house "spic and span."

"I want to have it clean and empty," she said. "I want to have it ready for someone else to move in with me. Someone that I love."

For more information on compulsive hoarding, click here.

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