No, please, don’t throw that away!

There's something about hoarders that I sort of understand. Don't get me wrong; I am not a hoarder, but I've read about them in newspapers, have seen them profiled on television, and have known a few in my time.

The way I look at it — hoarding is an impenetrable way of coping, a veritable cluttered path to survival.

I once knew a hoarder who had so much stuff in her apartment that I had to step up onto it just to get inside the door.

Usually, hoarders try to keep their hoarding a secret, which works pretty well, since they rarely let you see inside their lives.

Each little piece of paper, every last plastic container, stacks of unwanted newspapers from weeks, months, even years prior, piles of clothing and boxes of outdated food all serve an important purpose to hoarders.

According to a WebMD article titled "Harmless Pack Rat or Compulsive Hoarder?" by Kathy Doheny, there is a method to this madness, which has been labeled obsessive-compulsive behavior.

In Doheny's article, Sanjaya Saxena, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and hoarding expert at the University of California-San Diego, suggests, "The objects may appear to have limited or no value to others. A hoarder may have newspaper clippings from decades ago that don't involve them or anyone they know; yet, they hesitate to discard them because they feel they may need them someday or someone else might."

Also featured in the report is veteran researcher on hoarding Dr. Randy Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, MS. "Hoarders love to acquire things," Dr. Frost explains. "Whether they buy the objects or get them for free doesn't matter. All objects are treasured. The reasons hoarders give for needing to hold on to the materials vary," said Frost, who notes that sentimentality or a desire not to waste could be contributing factors.

Some years ago, I experienced a glimpse into hoarding from the behavior of a dinner guest.

As I prepared the meal, I proceeded to throw away a food wrapper. As I was tossing it in the garbage, she scolded, "No, don't! What are you doing? You can't throw that away."

"I can't?" I asked, baffled by her strong objection.

"No, you can't. Save it," she pleaded. "I will put it in my purse and take it home."

"You will?" I asked in disbelief. As I dabbed the wrapper with a paper towel and respectfully relinquished it to her care, I could see her anxiety level go down.

I believe hoarders walk a thin line, albeit an imaginary one, between feeling at ease and feeling dis-ease. All that stuff that looks like garbage to us has value to hoarders. Paradoxically, every last chaotic pile in their dwellings is helping them to maintain a sense of balance and order in their chaotic lives.

As difficult and unruly as this type of obsessive-compulsiveness may seem to most of us, it serves as a most powerful companion to hoarders — one that courts and romances and rarely, if ever, abandons its victims.

A resident of Southeast South Dakota, Paula Damon is a national and state award-winning columnist. Her columns have won first-place in National Federation of Press Women, South Dakota Press Women and Iowa Press Women Communications Contests. In the 2009 and 2010 South Dakota Press Women Communications Contest, Paula's columns took first-place statewide. To contact Paula, email, follow her blog at and find her on Facebook.
2010© Paula Damon

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