Hoarding Is Hidden Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Do you ever hate to throw something away, just in case you might need it?

Take a peek at a hoarder's dining room: boxes, used fast food containers, soda cans, and an old Christmas wreath litter the floor. If you went into the basement you would find hundreds of empty boxes that Chris, a hoarder, can't bear to part with.

"There is a lot of shame, and it has been like the big secret — the kids have been afraid to let other kids in the house," Chris tells Good Morning America. She and her family asked that their last name not be used.

"I keep it from most of my friends, and they don't come over to my house at all, and it's really difficult because I know they wonder, why don't we go to Katie's house," Katie, her daughter, says.

A Secret Shame

It's because of an obsessive-compulsive disorder doctors call "hoarding," a secret shame that happens behind doors firmly closed. Those who suffer from this little-known syndrome find it emotionally and physically impossible to throw anything away.

Doctors aren't sure what causes hoarding, though some 50 studies have been done on the disorder, ABCNEWS' Dr. Nancy Snyderman says. It has been linked to a variety of mental illnesses including schizophrenia, but many experts believe it is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorders affect some 2 million Americans. Hoarding seems to affect equal amounts of men and women.

One study found that 80 percent of hoarders had grown up in a house with someone who hoarded, Snyderman said. A study at UCLA used Pet scans to get a closer look at hoarders' brains, and they have found some brain differences, she said.

Experts who study hoarding say the problem goes largely unreported, and is often only revealed because the hoarder faces eviction, a competency hearing, or action by a local health department.

‘It’s Pure Agony’

Chris' family has never known a life without it.

"I really hate this, that I have such a hard time throwing things away," says Chris, "it's pure agony is what it is ... it's pure agony."

Her husband gradually realized that there was a problem.

"I kind of noticed that there was something going on where for me putting out garbage was very simple and no big deal and where Chris had some reservations," says her husband, Wayne.

"A lot of times ... well it would just stay in the house until I really felt comfortable about letting it go," Chris says.

People who hoard wall themselves into a maze of meaningless possessions. Chris tried to throw away a cereal box a year and a half ago, and couldn't. Such objects take on an abnormal degree of sentimentality so that hoarders can't make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.

And tossing things out, even if they are obviously trash, make them anxious and desperate.

A Classic Hoarding Case

But Chris is getting help from Dr. Randy Frost, a psychiatrist from Smith College who agreed to come to her home to help her.

"There are a couple of general manifestations we normally see in hoarding and she has all of them," he says. They include:

Compulsive acquisition — hoarders acquire extras of things, just in case, more than they'll ever use.

Disorganization — hoarders find organization difficult, so things end up in haphazard piles.

Difficulty discarding — they really can't throw anything away without severe anxiety.

Frost carefully walks Chris through an exercise in which she chooses to throw just one item away, such as an empty snack container.

"Remember, don't check," he tells her. "Just throw it away."

Practice Makes Perfect

Frost's method is known as cognitive behavioral therapy. Physically practicing throwing something away may be the only thing that works for patients who hoard. And researchers are on the road to figure out why.

"I would sit and look and not know what to do and I would just cry," says Linda, a hoarder who is in recovery.

It has made a striking difference in the appearance of her home.

"Yeah, yeah, I can't believe that I didn't do this before, I just didn't know how," she says.

At Boston University's Center for Anxiety Disorders, hoarders learn to make decisions, and practice how to let go of objects without distress, cheering each other on as they throw out items.

Linda spent three months at the center in group therapy.

"I really look forward to going on Wednesday nights, you know, being with this group," Linda says. "And I'm just so thankful that I found them"

Chris will begin regular therapy in a few weeks. She and her family don't want to hide any more. Chris' problem came to a head when the Board of Health asked her to leave her home, and had her children stay with other people. When they came back to the house, they expected to find it neat, but they did not understand that Chris was suffering from a mental health problem.

Now, Chris says she wants to be able to open her mini-blinds and let the sun shine. Her husband also wants a return to a normal life.

"[We want] to have our lives back, to have our house back and to be able to not deal with the secret any more," he says.

"I see a big family reunion here in my house and a big, big get-together with all the people too that have helped," Chris says. "I think that would be the neatest thing."