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Buried under clutter

People who have a tough time discarding belongings they no longer need may need therapy to clear their homes, Sanchita Sharma reports.

health and fitness Updated: Aug 11, 2013 22:54 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Udayan Bagchi’s family was as proud of his enviable collection of books and old magazines and newspapers as he was, until they started getting in the way of their moving around their home. Next, his wife Damayanti noticed he spent more time collecting than actually reading them.

When the books spilled over from bookshelves to cartons to the floor and the magazine and newspaper stacks stayed around for years, she told him that she would walk out if he did not clear up his clutter.

She did, and the books stayed in the bedroom, guestroom and livingroom of his Greater Kailash-II home. That was three years ago and Bagchi, now 43, sleeps in the kitchen. He still hasn’t got around to reading what he’s stored.

Earlier this year, Bagchi was diagnosed with disposophobia or compulsive hoarding. “His wife said he subscribed to two daily newspapers and a monthly magazine and has not discarded a single copy over the past 15 years. He came to me when the newspapers blocked the main door to his home and he was forced to use the back door,” said Dr Samir Parikh, head of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare.

The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the tome that all psychologists swear by) categorises disposophobia as a distinct disorder characterised by a chronic inability to get rid of personal belongings, regardless of the value or usefulness.

Unlike collectors who spend time and money seeking things they like, compulsive hoarders are fixated on things they are not attached to and live in homes where nothing is ever thrown out, just stacked, transferred and stacked again.

“Compulsive hoarders have a problem discarding things even when they know it is of no use. They put it away thinking it will be used sometime in the future and, in most cases, do not even remember where they put it,” says Dr Parikh.

They end up cluttering their lives with stacks of old newspapers, empty bottles, broken gadgets, old clothes and whatnot. While trying to create more space, hoarders usually move the items from one place to another without throwing away anything, so the problem remains.

Hoarding was once considered a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), but recent studies have shown that only 20% of people who hoard have OCD. Just the thought of giving or throwing away things is distressing and, in some cases, causes depression. About 50% of hoarders suffer from depression.

In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in August 2012, brain scans of people who hoarded were compared to those of OCD patients and healthy people. When asked to throw out junk mail and newspapers, the hoarders registered abnormal activity in the decision-making areas of the brain -- the anterior cingulate cortex and insula -- while brain activity in the other two groups remained normal.

“Patients who seek treatment are usually between 25 and 65 years, with men and women being diagnosed with the problem in equal numbers,” says Dr Sameer Malhotra, head, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Healthcare.

Most hoarders, like Bagchi, are unsocial and prefer to sit amidst their clutter, getting irritable when asked to get rid of their possessions. “Hoarders develop affection for the things they acquire but have a tough time developing social ties with people. They are usually loners who eventually risk becoming isolated,” says Malhotra.

Some hoarders understand they have a problem, but don’t know what to do to solve it. “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which includes techniques intended to redirect hoarding impulses by encouraging discarding and then reducing what came into the home. Treatment takes time as it involves building skills to control their behaviour and create a new environment free from clutter and unnecessary stuff,” says Dr Parikh.

HT Quiz: Are you a hoarder?