Am I a Hoarder? When Loving Stuff Goes Overboard

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WASHINGTON -- Is there so much stuff on your bed that you can't sleep on it? Are kitchen counters so cluttered you can't prepare a meal on them? Or is your dining room table completely covered, preventing the family from sitting down and eating?

Those who answered yes to any of these questions may have a compulsion to hoard. It's estimated one in 20 people can potentially have the disorder.

But there's hope.

Dewayne Strohman is a hoarding success story. He considers the control he finally got over his compulsion nothing short of a miracle.

"Well I prayed a lot," he said.

For 10 years, Strohman's living room was packed full of stuff. Guests couldn't sit on the couch, yet alone get in the door without a struggle. But, like most people who hoard, Strohman was oblivious to his problem.

"You don't recognize it. You don't see it. It looks normal. This stuff looks normal," he told CBN News.

Symptoms of a Hoarder

Hoarders can be described in two key ways.

First, they compulsively acquire items, sometimes in a specific group like books, tools, or even animals. Secondly, they lack the capacity to get rid of the items they acquire.

Together, these traits form the perfect equation for hoarding.

Second, hoarders have difficulty processing information, so making decisions is tough. That usually means they are unorganized.

Although many people with a hoarding disorder go to great lengths to prevent others from seeing inside their home, people can often spot hoarding tendencies if the person has an extremely messy desk or car.

People who hoard save things because they see value in items that other people consider junk. They have intense anxiety about discarding anything, and often experience fear at the thought of parting with an item.

In many cases, doing so is like losing a portion of their identity and can trigger a feeling of grief.

Finding Help

One of the greatest difficulties in helping someone overcome a hoarding disorder is getting the individual to recognize the problem.

This was the case with Strohman.

"I had trash up to the ceiling, touching the ceiling," he recalled. "I didn't know it until my mother came in one day, and she said, 'You have to get help. This is ridiculous.'"

Strohman took his mother's advice, and sought help from hoarding expert Dr. Darnita Payden.

"One of the worst things that a family can do to someone who has a hoarding disorder is to do the cleanup," she explained to CBN News.

"They think they're doing a great thing, and in their minds, they are," she continued. "They'll back up a trash truck to the home and clear everything out without involving the person who has the hoarding disorder."

She added that this can severely damage the relationship and actually ruin any chances that the person who hoards will be open to change.

"So they may come home and find out all their possessions are gone," Payden said. "Imagine how you would feel if someone had completely thrown away all of your items without asking your permission?"

"There's a lack of trust, there's a broken bond of trust," she continued. "There's anger. There's so much anger, there's resentment."

Many family members are not equipped to work with someone who has a hoarding disorder. Therefore, the best approach is to get professional help.

Dr. Payden believes helping people deal with their compulsion to hoard is her calling.

"I'm able to pray for them and with them. I can provide scripture that will help and support and encourage them," she said. "And let them know God will forgive them for the way that they're living."

"That's something that someone with a hoarding disorder may have a stigma about, that 'God is not going to love me because I'm not being a good steward of the things He's given me,'" she explained.

Encouraging Words

Payden said dealing with guilt is a key factor in overcoming hoarding and requires an understanding about the nature of God.

"God will forgive us if we simply ask. And that He can be the strength when you feel that your strength has ended," she said. "So I'm always encouraging my clients if they don't have a prayer life to get one, and I'll pray for them and with them."

Like Payden, Strohman also knows the Lord, and called on Him for help to change.

"I said, 'Lord give me a pair of eyes so I can see this trash," he recalled. "And then it slowly evolved."

Payden then helped Strohman develop a different attitude toward his possessions.

"The main thing I do remember her saying is, 'You know 90 percent of these items you're never going to use again.' And she was right," Strohman remembered.

"During the process of trashing all this stuff, I just repeated to myself '90 percent of these items I will never use,'" he continued.

Getting a 'Purge Partner'

The process of finally getting rid of the bulk of the possessions is a very tricky procedure. It takes a great deal of patience and can't be done alone.

At times, Payden was Strohman's "purge partner." But mostly it was his cousin Dale.

The "purge partner" helps the hoarder evaluate each item to determine whether it stays in the home, is donated, or thrown away. The partner must be patient and loving, but possess the ability to challenge whether the item is worthy of retaining.

One useful habit Payden taught Strohman was putting deadlines on how long things can stay in the home.

The ultimate goal of a person who hoards is function. Function is not to be confused with perfection.

The hoarder should strive to make their home functional, meaning rooms and items should be used for their intended purpose.

Strohman said purging was not easy but that the process gets easier as you go along.

"The reward is the empty space. A clean, empty space, as you can see. Less stress," he said. "The more clutter you have, stress. Every moment. You don't want to come home."

Living through the Struggle

For the first time in 10 years, Strohman said he's no longer embarrassed to have people over and is thrilled to finally enjoy his home.

"It's a great feeling to know I can sit down in my dining room. Absolutely!" he told CBN News. "I was so happy the first day I was able to sit in my dining room."

Still, there is no cure for hoarding. People who finally control this compulsion have to guard against a relapse by avoiding temptation.

Strohman's weakness for hoarding was electronics and tools. Now that he has cleaned out the clutter, he has to stay away from those triggers.

"This is a lifetime struggle," he admitted. "It gets easier, but it is a struggle."

He said each day he wakes up and commits to avoiding temptation.

"You stay out of the second-hand shops. You stay away from the auto shows where they're selling pliers -- you have a million of them at home," Strohman explained.

"This is a process you go through," he added. "You know how hard it is to get out of, so you're not getting back in it. This is very real."

But it's possible to overcome, with education, patience, discipline... and the power of God.

"Like" Lorie Johnson at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN and follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/LorieCBN.

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Lorie  Johnson

Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about health and wellness. Since medicine is constantly changing, she makes sure CBN News viewers are up-to-date on what they need to know in order to live a healthy life.  Follow Lorie on Twitter @LorieCBN and "like" her at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN.