In modern America, it's not uncommon for a woman to own four pairs of red shoes.
But there's a line between a robust collection of well-worn pumps and a closet so packed with unused footwear that you've forgotten what's in it.
The latter is more likely a case of hoarding – a psychological disorder that causes people to collect items to an unhealthy extreme. Considered by experts to be somewhat of a behind-the-scenes problem, compulsive hoarding disorder is estimated to afflict between 700,000 and 1.4 million people in the U.S. And it's a problem that could be on the rise.
"While we may notice an increase in the hoarding behavior at the present time, the source of the rise is still uncertain," explains Devin Byrd, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at South University – Savannah. "Some individuals point to better reporting techniques in today's day and age and better trained professionals along with a greater dissemination of information to the public."
Indeed, the disorder is in the public eye more today than it's likely ever been. It's spawned the hit cable show Hoarders on A&E and fueled various cleaning and organization shows, such as Clean Sweep on TLC.
But hoarding is not an issue to be taken lightly. The disease poses a serious threat not only to individual hoarders themselves, but to their families, friends, employers, and the broader economy, experts say.
It affects young and old, rich and poor, Hispanic, black, or white.
Hoarding's beginnings are often harmless, says Byrd, a clinical psychologist with an expertise in treating children and adolescents.
"Maybe it starts as a hobby – someone with a baseball card collection," Byrd suggests. "But soon the person stops spending time with family members so they can spend more time engaged in their hoarding behavior."
Depending on how severe the behavior becomes, hoarding can often result in divorce, job loss or financial ruin, Byrd says.
On A&E's Hoarders, every person chosen for the show is on the verge of a crisis, explains Andy Berg, executive producer.
"There has to be some crisis: Eviction; a spouse threatening to leave; someone about to get fired from their job; the city or state threatening to take away their children," Berg says. "These are serious cases and people need immediate help."
Take, for instance Augustine of Louisiana, one of the cases featured on the second season of Hoarders. Augustine hoarded pretty much any object she could find. Her home was littered with 15 to 20 years of stuff, Berg says. Her son, Jason, was removed from her home 14 years ago by Child Protective Services. The woman's hoarding became so severe that she lived without water, gas, heat, or appliances. A court-ordered clean-up prompts Augustine's estranged son, Jason, to try one last time to rescue her.
While Augustine hoarded everything, a hoarder's item of obsession can vary. For some, it's newspapers or old love letters. For others, it's cars or cats. But the root of the behaviors is often the same: Hoarders collect the items to cope with some sort of fear or obsession, Byrd says.
"With folks who hoard, there is often a fear of monetary loss or a sense that they won't be prepared if they don't have the necessary items on hand," Byrd points out. "The average person would be able to say, 'This is not rational. I am going to be OK. I don't need three blenders.' But a hoarder doesn't have that internal mechanism to shut [the obsession] off. It consumes them."
Hoarding is often triggered by some kind of loss, experts say. Classic examples include the death of a parent or child or the end of a marriage. To cope with the pain, people fill the void with possessions, Berg says.
The disorder doesn't discriminate.
"That's the fascinating part of this illness," Berg says. "It affects young and old, rich and poor, Hispanic, black, or white."
And while Byrd and Berg have encountered young hoarders in their teens or 20s, both suggest the behavior seems to intensify with age.
Hoarding is a phenomenon that some insist existed even in ancient times, Byrd says. Many a materialistic king was known to collect valuable items, after all.
But modern society could be contributing to the incidence or severity of the illness.
"It's easier for people to hoard these days," Byrd contends.
Many people realize that their behavior is unacceptable to general society and try to hide it, Byrd says. Working from home and shopping online helps hoarders keep their behavior under wraps.
And in some ways, modern American culture feeds a portion of a hoarder's behavior.
"In American society, we are very materialistic," Byrd says. "There is a great sense of always trying to achieve the next item because it will make us feel better and whole. There are a lot of people who attempt to soothe themselves by buying an item to fill a void."
Professionals try to treat the disorder by exposing hoarders to their worst fear and then prevent a response. That means getting rid of those items they've spent so much time, energy and wherewithal collecting.
"What's most effective is getting them to engage in the process of getting rid of items," Byrd explains. "If you come in as a family member or therapist and you do it, you've accomplished nothing."
The therapists on Hoarders employ the same sort of tactics. Each person or family profiled on the show is offered six months of aftercare, which they can use toward the following: therapy; professional organizers; and cleaning services. Families also have the option to apply the funds towards making the necessary repairs on their homes in order to correct city violations or prepare the house for the return of a parent, child or spouse, Berg says.
"We don't just go in and clean people's houses and leave," Berg says. "That's not how you fix the problem. It's really about relearning behavior. Our therapists work with hoarders to get their brains jump-started. They ask, 'What's more important? Getting your children back or having another slurpy cup?'"
Written by freelance talent for South Source.