A hoarder is not simply a pack rat or a collector, pack rats / collectors differentiate themselves from a complusive hoarder by the inability to get rid of anything - where a collector or pack rat may get rid of some items when they run out of space in the garage, a hoarder will simply moves the stuff into the bath or anywhere else there is room.
Hoarding is a symptom of a mental illness, an anxiety disorder - some experts say obsessive compulsive disorder, while others say it's a category unto itself. It's defined by three primary traits: the obsessive collection of objects that seem useless to almost everyone else, the inability to get rid of any of them and a resulting state of distress or peril.
Hoarding can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex or economic status. It's not clear, though, how common hoarding is. That's partly because researchers have only recently begun to study it, and partly because some people never seek treatment. Problematic hoarding is highly prevalent (approximately 2-5% of the population – that is potentially over 1.2 million people in the UK alone) and, when severe, is associated with substantial disability and represents a great burden for the sufferers, their families and society.
Here are some risk factors and features about hoarding that researchers have come to understand:
Age: Hoarding usually starts in early adolescence, around age 13 or 14, and it tends to get worse with age. Hoarding may even start earlier than the teen years. Younger children may start saving items, such as broken toys, pencil nubs, outdated school papers and broken appliances.
Family history: There is a very strong association between having a family member who is a compulsive hoarder and becoming a hoarder yourself.
Stressful life events: Some people develop hoarding after experiencing a stressful life event that they had difficulty coping with, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, eviction or losing possessions in a fire.
A history of alcohol abuse: About half of hoarders have a history of alcohol dependence.
Social isolation. People who hoard are typically socially withdrawn and isolated. In many cases, the hoarding leads to social isolation. But, on the other hand, some people may turn to the comfort of hoarding because they're lonely.
Like most obsessive behaviors, hoarding starts small like thinking the information in today's newspaper could be useful at some later date, and tomorrow's newspaper and the next day's and so on. Or they begin to wonder if she may have accidentally tossed something valuable in the trash can, and keeps that bag of trash just in case. Maybe a collection of books, or dogs, or records or mail, and living with them every day, so eases symptoms of anxiety that these things become indispensible -- sort of an extreme case of a favorite blanket or a grandmother's locket or the family photos on the wall.
A hoarder might be afraid to waste anything. Or he may be such a perfectionist that he simply can't start sorting through piles of useless things for fear he may not do it exactly right. Hoarding can be an indicator of an intense sense of responsibility or fear of making a mistake.
Not everyone who has lots of cats or piles of books or mail is a hoarder - many of us simply live in cluttered homes, however, there are several tell tale signs that probably mean it's time to seek help.