by Harvey Widroe, M.D.
American Reporter Correspondent
September 19, 2007
OBSESSIVE 'COLLECTORS' ARE HARD TO CURE
ORINDA, Calif. -- Ann's husband had fled years ago because he couldn't stand the ever-expanding mess. She was a collector, but that wasn't how she thought of herself. Her idea was that all the stuff she collected - the things she bought at garage sales, from secondhand stores, on eBay, from the Shopping Channel, and assorted items of junk she found at the curb or in an alley - was going to be usable, at least someday.
She never knew, she reasoned, when she would need an extra set of dishes, or two, or even three. Or how about scraps of cloth that someday could be made into something or other? It didn't seem at all strange to her that she now had half a dozen new can openers, most not yet removed from their boxes.
The price on each had seemed so reasonable at the time she bought them. And it was just as important to keep the wrapping paper or boxes, too. It just might be handy for wrapping something someday. Over time her six-room house - three bedrooms, dining room, living room and kitchen - had become cluttered, then crowded, and finally overwhelmed by her possessions. She kept acquiring items, but almost never threw anything away. As the piles of belongings, both treasures and rubbish, became towering, they multiplied in number until they took over one room, then another, and finally all of the rooms.
Her bedroom was no longer available for sleep because she couldn't get to the bed; and she took to sleeping on a couch located along an aisle in the living room between tall stacks of boxes. Getting to the bathroom was a challenge. Getting into the bathroom - itself piled high with assorted stuff - was a challenge. Ann would periodically wander around rearranging things, but would stop in the middle of a project to attend to something else. She made many resolutions to herself about "getting at it all," but the resolve was always fleeting. Despite the apparent chaos and disorder, Ann didn't see that she had a problem. She felt lonely and depressed at times, because other people didn't seem to like her or to understand her. She came to regard isolation as a way of avoiding crabby people. She disregarded a few notes from neighbors about the old furniture and machinery parts in her front yard. That was all her own private business, not a community issue. What she did on her own property was none of their affair. She didn't become unhappy until the county health official arrived, having been summoned by complaining neighbors. Ann was given a notice to have the yard cleaned up by a certain date. She then made some half-hearted, futile efforts to bring more of her belongings into the house and moved some things to the back yard, less visible from the street. The inspector returned periodically in what became an ongoing battle. Ann had a truckload of trash carted off to the dump, but new purchases and acquisitions soon took the place of the items that had been disposed of. Notes from neighbors now threatened suit.
Ann's unusual condition is a sub-type of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Victims of this illness are clearly driven to acquire things, often in an apparently random fashion, and cannot conceive of disposing of them. The items acquired are usually not restricted to a particular class, such as newspapers, junk mail or magazines; the assemblage often extends to encompass the collection or retention of all types of rubbish - even garbage or human waste. Any motivation to part with anything is prompted only by external pressure of family, neighbors, or health officials. A rampage of house cleaning by well intended family members is greeted with a torrent of protest, even rage. A good house cleaning is usually impossible, simply because the sheer volume of junk exceeds anyone's expectations. And whatever is disposed of is replaced by different junk in fairly short order.
Given their propensities, it is unusual for collectors to maintain a real job since their work is invariably left unfinished or with many errors, resulting in little productivity. They are typically unable to relate to others in an appropriate way. Family members who live with collectors are driven to distraction, much more likely, themselves, to seek psychiatric help or counseling, trying to figure out how to deal with the collector. As for marriage, separation and divorce are almost the rule. Those with collector's disorder never seek treatment for the illness itself. They don't think anything is wrong with what they are doing, and they want nothing to do with psychiatric treatment. If collectors do come for help it is usually because of some other problem, such as incapacitating depression or anxiety. The collector may seek psychiatric treatment but only through the insistence of a spouse or adult children. Unless the family has informed the psychiatrist, the very existence of the collecting problem is often kept secret. The collector's anxiety or depression can be successfully treated, but the collecting behaviors remain unchanged. The types of medication or psychotherapy that are very helpful in most types of depression, anxiety problems, or other obsessive compulsive conditions are typically ineffectual in treating the collector's disorder. Historically, years ago, some of these patients were given electroconvulsive treatments or even lobotomy, all with minimal effect. Sad as it may be, the overall outlook for those with this serious disturbance does not seem to be very good. Here is one area where we shrinks have made little progress.
Harvey Widroe, a longtime practicing psychiatrist, is the author of the recently published, "THE SMART DIETER'S CHEATING GUIDE: Eat and Watch Pounds Melt Away," with Ron Kenner (Outskirts Press 2007)