Hoarding intervention: A life-long slob gets organized

Jun 14, 2010

Is Michael Rosenwald the laziest, most nauseating slob in modern U.S. history? Or is something else going on -- something more complicated? Is he a hoarder? Rosenwald and hoarding expert Randy Frost discuss Mike's attachment to things.

Thanks for joining us! There are already some great questions comments in here. Professor Frost and I will weed through them and try to answer as many as we can.

Hi. My name is Randy Frost and I am a professor of psychology at Smith College and author of the recently published book "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things". I've been studying hoarding for over 15 years. I'm happy to be here and take your questions about hoarding.

Mr. Rosenwald: My husband has some hoarding tendencies. Fortunately not nearly to the extent that you describe in your article. He was a college professor and retired nearly 10 years ago. There still are boxes and boxes of books and papers brought home from his office. He has stacks and boxes of newspapers, magazines, and various other papers. All mostly unsorted. And, yes, when I discuss getting rid of old newspapers, he becomes defensive and then puts them elsewhere. There are tax records in heaps -- long past the time that is necessary to keep them. He has shelves stacked with sweaters in spite of the fact that he hasn't worn sweaters for probably 15 years. After reading your article, my reaction is that you really don't want to change and quite possibly can't change in a way that is permanent. You must have worked hard to regain piles in just 2 weeks! I doubt that any ultimatum would really matter to you. As your son gets older, will there really be room for him and his possessions in your house? Is there room for your wife now? It sounds like it is your house -- not hers. I guess my question for you is: In what ways do you see your hoarding now and in the future impacting your relationships with your wife and son?

Thanks for this question. I worry most about my son. I certainly don't want him picking up these habits, and right now, it doesn't appear that he is. He loves to clean. The other day I caught him cleaning up my magazines! So I hope he's off to a good start.

Kudos to you for a very brave article. I have two questions: 1) Do you have a sense of when, exactly, things began to take on this disproportionate sense of importance or meaning for you? You said your bedroom got bad in high school---were there any earlier indications that you felt like your identity was tied up in things and it was painful to get rid of them? 2) Now that you've identified the problem and that it is something deeper than laziness or slovenliness....where do you go from here?

For me, I think it started in high school -- specifically car trips with my family. I can remember needing to buy newspapers (several) every time we stopped for gas. A pile formed in the backseat, and I wouldn't throw the papers away. A moving pile.

For me, the next step is really understand that my stuff isn't me, and I'm not my stuff. I think that's a huge hurdle to get over.


I have tried to analyze my tendency to hoard and why I can't get rid of things and I think it is basically insecurity although I don't know the basis of the insecurity because I am financially stable and have no overwhelming personal problems. Have you seen this tendancy in others?

There is a relationship between hoarding and depression, which might be related to your insecurities. Unfortunately, the question of why hoarding happens is not so simple or easy to answer. There seem to be a host of things involved including problems with information processing, like attention deficit problems and difficulties in categorizing things. In addition, there are overly powerful attachments that form to possessions.

Do you like to shop? Are you a Costco or Sam's Club fan? To what extent do you think your desire to buy things is a part of your hoarding problem?

From our research on hoarding, it is clear that compulsive buying and the excessive acquisition of free things are part of hoarding. In order to solve the problem, these difficulties must be addressed in addition to the difficulty getting rid of stuff and the disorganization. In our new book "Stuff: Compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things" we describe several cases that highlight the role of acquisition.

My husband holds on to multiple copies books and lots and lots of paper, and it pains him to watch me take out the recycling week after week because he thinks that I am throwing away precious items. But one thing that makes it easier on both of us is that so much is available electronically. I am able to get rid of magazines (you can always find the article online), some receipts like hotel and airline receipts (because you could always request another copy) and lots of other paper that would drown us if he didn't maintain such good electronic records. Do you find that being able to access things electronically helps you to get rid of things more easily?

This is a great question. I recently purchased an iPad and my wife has noticed less paper in the house since then. But it is also far, far easier to buy content on an iPad -- click a button and it's yours. So far I've found the device useful though. I haven't overpurchased -- yet. And I'm hoping I won't. (It gets expensive.)

Are you still married?

The writing of the article was within the last six months or so, and yes I am still married. (This was a popular question I got in emails.) Happily married, too. My wife, though annoyed at times, understands I have many other valuable qualities. I think.

What a painful article! The last sentence was just like a punch in the gut. How much, if any, research has been done on a) brain imaging for hoarders to identify what might be going wrong at a neurological level, b) the use of OCD drugs for hoarding and c) if there any link between alcoholism and hoarding? Mike's wife's skeptical comment about having seen him backslide before is the sort of thing the wife of an alcoholic might say.. In addition, Mike's feelings of elation and unreasonable optimism make me wonder if there is any link with bipolar disorder and hoarding?

There are several brain imaging studies of hoarding that suggest some areas of the brain that are implicated. These resemble, but are not identical to, those implicated in OCD. Unfortunately, the drugs that work well for OCD don't seem to work very well for hoarding, but more research is needed. This does, at times, resemble an addiction, particularly the acquisition part of it. However, it doesn't seem to be closely associated with alcoholism. Nor does it seem to be closely associated with bi-polar disorder, though it is associated with depression.

Isn't the title "A life-long slob gets organized" misleading? You didn't get organized; you made a small dent in your piles before they were back in place. Are you still trying to get organized?

I am still getting organized, yes. Every day I try to try something. But it's also about getting organized in my head -- why this stuff happens to me in the first place. Writing this article was organizational from that standpoint for sure. I understand now.

I'm a hoarder now--papers, archives--but I didn't start hoarding until after I got over another obsessive behavior, self-harming, which also made me feel I had control of something in a controlless world. I am afraid if I stop hoarding, I will start to self-harm again, or move on to something else. Is there any literature I can read about this--about self-harming as hoarding or vice versa? I feel like they are two facets of the same thing. I want to stop.

Some forms of hoarding are due to OCD, while others are not. The distinction is sometimes difficult to make. We have seen no studies linking hoarding to self-harming behaviors, however. It would be best to work on this with a therapist who is familiar with both.

How do we learn to let go? I take great pride in (almost) always being able to find "stuff" that someone else needs; thus, I have a big mess, but usually know where to find something! Rosenwald and Frost have made a great contribution.

Thanks for your comment. If you'd like to learn more about hoarding, you can take a look at our new book, "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things"

I am wondering if some hoarders can be happy with the amount of stuff they have? Does that happen? or would you not call them hoarders then? call them antique dealers, museum curators :)

This is a fascinating question. I can truthfully say that I'm never really unhappy about all the piles. To me, that's my stuff. I know where it is. When I was living alone, I could have really cared less. My house. My stuff. Leave me alone. Now that I'm not the only one in the house, I do fret a little more over things, but obviously not as much as I should.

Is it possible/probable that--with enlightened understanding of the problem--a lay person can bring a hoarder to the routine practice of a level of reasonable/tolerable order that is not controlled by layers of hidden psychological compulsions? Or is a doctoral intervention the only way out of the debris?

Good question. There are relatively few therapists who know how to treat hoarding, so we have been experimenting with other strategies like self-help. Unfortunately, the attention and organization problems of people who hoard make complete self-help difficult. We have found that self-help groups following our self-help protocol can be effective. You can find more information about this at the Hoarding Center on the International OCD Foundation website (ocfoundation.org)

It's easy to be unsympathetic to Mr Rosenwald, or even think his situation is funny, until you've been faced with the same thing. A close friend was also a hoarder, going back to high school and by the time she was in her 50's it had really taken over her life. She was so completely miserable you culdn't fuss at her for all the newspapers, etc., that filled her apartment. She was diagnoed w/severe OCD and depression, and after many months they came up with a drug protocol which, although scary to me, has kept this under control for almost 2 years. Is some sort of drug therapy appropriate for Mr. Rosenwald, as well?

Unfortunately, the drugs that work well for other OCD symptoms don't work very well for hoarding. The research suggests that they only help 15-25% of people with hoarding problems. However, more work needs to be done along these lines to find drugs that do.

Thanks for a revealing article. I am curious about the financial ramifications of hoarding. From what I've seen, a lot of hoarders are "shopaholics" and/or are constantly buying new items to replace things that have been lost in the clutter -- like you with books. It also seems that the disorganization would make it very likely that hoarders would be late paying bills and would not able to keep track of their investments. Do you think that your hoarding has adversely affected your financial situation?

Without a doubt. My credit score has gone up in the years since I've been married --- because my wife pays all the bills and she pays them on time. I was constantly losing bills, forgetting to pay them, ignoring them. As for spending money, yeah, I spend way too much money -- often on things I already own, because I want them in a different form (paperback vs. hardcover, for instance) or I forget that I already own them.

Because I don't have a problem with hoarding, I have trouble relating to this artice. You acknowledge that your behavior is embarrassing to your wife (who did not want you to write the article) and potentially to your son, so why do you do it ? The fact that your efforts so far have come to nothing was a real downer, and I imagine it was even worse for those with a similar problem.

Your comment is one I have heard from many people about hoarding. It is difficult to understand how these attachments to things can be so intense. If you'd like to learn a bit more about this, you can see our new book, "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things"

When my apartment is clean and I have the ability to function in it a feeling of tension wells up in me. When there is clutter, and I mean serious clutter ie I need to climb over mounds of stuff just to get around, in a relaxed postition it feels womblike, comfortable. Unfortunately I can't get a freaking thing done, in the apartment under those conditions. Where does this come from? ..... jerry

Hi Jerry,

We frequently see this feeling among people with hoarding problems. Their possessions have come to have what we call "safety signal" value. They are conditioned stimuli for feeling safe and comfortable. It is an exaggeration of what we all experience with our cherished possessions. In order to overcome it, you would be wise to find a therapist to help.

I think one of the reasons we are all so fascinated by hoarding behavior is that most of us can see ourselves, at least a little bit, reflected in that pile of stuff. After all, what are souvenirs and mementos, except for a desire to see an experience -- a part of ourselves -- reflected in an object? Who hasn't hung onto a college sweatshirt that no longer fits, or a childhood toy that stays in the back of a closet? These things become a part of how we see ourselves, and letting go of the thing seems like cutting off part of ourselves. It's just that most of us are better at self-regulating the impulse to see every little acquisition as part of our identity. I would say very few people are completely free of a desire to hang onto unneeded stuff.

This is a good observation. Most of what we see in hoarding is an exaggeration of how all of us related to the possessions in our lives. They have a magical quality and mean much more to us than is apparent from their physical properties. In "Stuff: Compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things", our recent book about hoarding, we go into much more detail about this phenomena.

Not a question, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your article. I identify completely with what you've written--I'm ashamed about the mess and paralyzed about doing anything about it.

I often feel paralyzed by it too. But a reader with the same issues emailed me a fascinating strategy. If she's watching a TV show, every time there's a commericial she gets up and either throws things out or puts them away. She is very rigourous about this practice and doesn't cheat. It seemed to me like a very good idea.

What are some of the treatments used to help hoarders with their affliction?

We have developed a form of cognitive behavior therapy for hoarding and have been testing its efficacy. It looks to be a great improvement over what was available before. You can find therapists who kknow how to do it at the International OCD Foundation website (ocfoundation.org).

Although it seems that "hoarding" is the compulsion du jour, your article was VERY compelling and has made me look hard at some of my own behaviors. Dr Frost - can you speak more on the idea that this may be genetic even when siblings raised in the same home do not share the same behaviors? I have an aunt who is very definitely a hoarder and a mother who is obsessively neat. I veer more towards my aunt's behaviors if truth be told particularly when it comes to possessions which belonged to family members who have passed and - for whatever reason - magazines. Michael - Thanks for your bravery!

Yes, from the beginning of our research we observed a family connection. More first degree relatives of people who hoard display this behavior than relatives of people who don't. There have now been 5 or 6 genetic studies on hoarding, each suggesting that our genes have something to do with it. Unfortunately, we need more specific research to indicate just what is genetic. I suspect it is not hoarding per se, but some of the information processing deficits that contribute to it like indecisiveness and attention deficit problems.

Can a person volunteer to participate in Dr. Randy Frost's study, without necessarily being featured on a television program? How do I contact him?

Certainly. You can email me at rfrost@smith.edu. I will put your name on our mailing list for future studies.

My mother had a heavy-duty cleaning of her house mostly against her will. She wasn't physically able to fill the space up again afterward, but she never had much initiative or enthusiasm for the rest of her life after submitting to the violation she felt. I'm afraid it took a part of her soul away.

This is one of the hardest and saddest parts of the story of hoarding. We always recommend against such severe cleanouts because of the traumatic effect it has on people. Most of the time, the home fills up again in a short time. Officials who face this problem (e.g., health departments) are starting to come to the conclusion that such cleanouts are ineffective at best, and harmful at worst. Sorry for your mother's experience.

I can relate to Mike. We get so much junk mail I have trouble keeping up with it. I'm afraid to toss it without opening it because of the addresses. Can I safely discard charity pleas without opening them? I tend to remove addresses on magazines--is this necessary?

There are some interesting services out there to help with mail overload. Some let you put your mail in a box weekly, you ship to them, they scan it, and then it's always available to you online. No physical piles. One of them is at www.officedrop.com

Four Questions: 1. At what point does "clutter" become hoarding? 2. If for some it starts at adolescence, can it also be caused by other stressful times in a person's life? 3. Also, my husband's hoarding has transferred over to his internet use - an inbox with thousands of e-mails and useless documents never deleted. Is this common? 4. Is hoarding, like the rise in obesity, a problem that is mainly found in affluent North America? Thanks for bringing this important issue to light. Cathy Edmonton, Alberta

In answer to your questions, first clutter becomes hoarding when it causes significant distress or interferes with the ability to live. Second, hoarding is sometimes exacerbated by stress, but it doesn't appear to be caused by stress. 3. The internet/computer hoarding problem is probably a reflection of the information processing problems we see in hoarding (e.g., attention, disorganization, categorization). Finally, we see hoarding behavior almost everywhere in the world. It is not just a problem in affluent societies. That said, it is probably more prevalent in any culture where there are a large number of easily accessible and inexpensive things.

Is there a positive aspect to hoarding? It seems partly genetic so was there a reason to have the genes to continue to remain in the genetic code?

Yes there is. Briefly, people who hoard have a remarkable appreciation of the physical world. They are, I think, more creative than the rest of us. They pay attention to the unusual details of objects.

They are also much more sensitive about waste and not disposing of things that still have value.

Have you tried Flylady? It changed (saved) my life. I couldn't imagine not having my routines and while I can't have people over yet, I have a shiny sink and my stuff is off my counters.

Several readers have suggested Flylady to me. I had not heard of the site but I will be looking into it. If I try it out, I will blog about it for sure.


I am married to a hoarder. He won't admit that it is a problem, however, and calls himself a "collector." He even got mad that I suggested he read the article. After 30 some odd years I am at the end of my rope. I am not asking for much, just to be able to come home after work and not be sick about having to enter the house. I'd like to have friends over once in a while. I grew up in a very working class household and was never ashamed to invite anyone over no matter how much wealthier they were. I am totally ashamed of what my house looks like. I've given up on trying to clean it because I just don't know where I could possibly begin. Sometimes the piles disappear from one place but you just find them somewhere else. Is there really any hope for this kind of person? Give it to me straight, please.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of hoarding. Often families break up over this issue. It is hard for a spouse to intervene, especially if there has been years of conflict over this. However, I think there is hope. You can check out the International OCD Foundation website for information for family members of people who hoard. There are resources there that you can use.

In terms of your interactions with your husband, I would recommend trying to engage him in conversation about the meaning these things have for him while avoiding any hint of trying to get him to get rid of them. That will have to come later. In treatment we usually begin with a discussion of what the person values most in life. We use this to juxtapose against how their hoarding behavior gets in the way of these values.

Hoarding seems to be a problem only in developed/rich countries. This to me indicates that it really isn't a medical condition but a lifestyle choice. Maybe am wrong but are there other medical condition that only affect certain parts of the world and not others?

Actually, we see hoarding in most countries in the world. There are places where it gets out of hand more quickly, however. The prevalence of hoarding seems to be relatively stable in the countries where it has been studied (Germany, Uk, US). Little research has been done in less developed countries, but we do see anecdotal reports of hoarding

I had a few elderly relatives, all siblings, whose homes were filled with paper and other debris. One, who lived in a rental apartment, was threatened with eviction when her place failed a fire inspection. These people were all quite neat in their earlier lives; the hoarding seemed to come on as they aged. When we did some cleaning up, it didn't seem to bother them, but I'm not sure this wasn't simply the result of not caring anymore about anything. Can hoarding be a natural outcome of aging or, possibly, indicate a dementia? Thanks.

some people with dementia collect and save lots of things, mostly, it seems because they need these things to remind them of something. The attachments they have to these things, and their reactions to getting rid of them are not quite the same as what we see in hoarding disorder.

Hoarding behavior tends to be chronic over one's life, but it clearly gets worse as the person ages. The rate of hoarding in the elderly is much higher than in younger people.

Is there a relationship between the hoarding disorder and extreme frugality . . . no compulsive buying, in fact, amost the opposite -- aversion to acquiring new things-- coupled with almost compulsive saving and reuse of what one does have? Does childhood experience of deprivation, or getting by with very little, play a role in some hoarding behavior?

Good question. Yes, there is a relationship. For people who hoard and don't buy compulsively, they often collect excessive amounts of free tings.

Our first hypothesis was that the childhood experience of deprivation may play a role. However, we found no support for that hypothesis in our data.

If all the possessions went up on smoke, what would happen to the person who "owned" them? Would it cripple them?

We've had some interesting responses to this question fro people who hoard. Many of them tell us that it would be easier for them if everything just burned up accidentally. Then they would not have to go through the painful process of trying to get rid of things, or having other people get rid of their things. There is something about the process of working with things that is at issue here.

I understand that EEG biofeedback has been used to treat ADHD and mood and behavior disorders. Is there any research about using it in this context, or any reason to think that it might be helpful for addressing hoarding?

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that EEG biofeedback would help. In the first place, we don't know exactly how brain functioning is different if people who hoard, so trying to increase or decrease EEG activity would be a shot in the dark.

Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you today. I hope you found it helpful.


Randy Frost

Thanks everyone for your great questions and comments. Sorry we didn't get to everyone. I personally want to thank Professor Frost for his insights during this chat, for his patient answering of my own questions, and for the deep compassion that he brings to this complicated issue. I know that many of you out there worry a lot about hoarding, but you can be sure that smart people like Professor Frost are on the case, and I feel confident they are working to improving care. I encourage you to seek out the groups he referenced above.

In This Chat
Mike Rosenwald
Mike Rosenwald is a Washington Post staff writer and admitted hoarder.
Randy Frost
Randy Frost has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and teaches at Smith College. He has a series of ongoing studies of perfectionism and its relation to problems in living, and on hoarding behavior, a variant of obsessive compulsive disorder. He has published two books on compulsive hoarding: "Buried in Treasures," "Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring," and, most recently, "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things."
Recent Chats
  • Next: