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Cluttered house: Sign of a problem
A house filled with clutter can be a sign of a big problem

Date published: 6/28/2009

APATIENT I'll call Christine (not her real name) was distressed enough that her mother had cancer and that she needed to go to Ohio to help her mom through chemotherapy.

But when she got there and found the house an unspeakable clutter--and her mother passionately resisting her throwing anything away--she realized she had another problem to contend with.

"There were newspapers, books, ornaments, calendars, clothes, bills, bank statements, food wrappers--everything she had ever used in the last 20 years, I swear," Christine told me.

Christine tried to get the house into some kind of order because she knew home-health nurses and hospice and the like would need to come by.

"She would get very upset whenever I tried to throw something away," Christine said.

Christine's mum had a hoarding problem that caused her to clutter up her house with junk--a problem the mental health advocacy group Mental Health America says a million people nationwide suffer from.

In extreme cases, hoarding and cluttering may be part of more serious mental illnesses such as major depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

My wife, Paula, who used to run with the rescue squad, tells stories of going to the houses of old people in even worse shape than Christine's mother--people who would sit in their one chair, a small island in a sea of often stinking piles of garbage, newspapers, old food and animal feces. These houses had to be fumigated after the resident had been taken to hospital or died.

A DISEASE, NOT A QUIRK

The inability to throw anything away is not such an uncommon problem. Like so many neuroses, we may see a bit of it in ourselves.

A weakness for bargains and freebies, collecting discarded objects, going to yard sales and renting storage space because you have too much "stuff" are all possible signs.

It may be just a minor eccentricity in some. But when you can't find your bills, checkbook or keys, every last surface is covered in clutter and your life is in disarray, it's gotten to the point of being a disease.

Clutterers also suffer emotional symptoms such as worries, regrets, emotional fog and spiritual emptiness.

SCIENCE OF ADDICTION


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If you or a loved one suffers from compulsive hoarding or cluttering, these organizations may be able to help:

Clutterers Anonymous: sites.google.com/site/ clutterersanonymous/home

Mental Health America of Fredericksburg: mhafred.org or 540/371-2704.

Obsessive Compulsive Foundation: ocfoundation .org/hoarding

Dr. Patrick Neustatter is a family practitioner in North Stafford.