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THE HUMAN CONDITION / HOARDING : When Things Begin to Pile Up

October 07, 1991|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lessell Jackson sees it but sometimes can't believe it.

"There's wild hoarding every day, all the time," says the marketing manager of Pace Warehouse in Woodland Hills. "People just can't seem to stop themselves."

When the price of motor oil was rising during the Gulf Crisis, a man bought a case, Jackson recalls. When the man heard on TV that the price was going up again, he returned with a truck and loaded 227 cases of oil.

Just the other day, Jackson says, a woman bought a shopping cart full of meat, got home and realized her freezer wasn't big enough. "She returned the meat for us to hold and came back later for it--after she'd bought another freezer."

And consider the case of Kathy Sylvan: Two years after moving into a two-bedroom condo, her place was so cluttered with junk mail, newspapers, unfinished crafts projects, old clothes and broken gadgets that the only spot to sit was on one side of the bed. When Sylvan finally asked a friend for help, he spent 14 hours throwing out her junk--which she reclaimed from the Dumpster as soon as he left. "I told her she was sick," the friend recalls.

The irresistible urge to buy, store and stockpile more than a person needs--or can ever expect to use--affects millions of people every day, psychiatrists say.

But the hoarding syndrome appears in different forms and can range from a relatively minor annoyance--like finding storage for 227 cans of motor oil--to a severe disturbance requiring medical care.

So how does a pack rat know when a little eccentricity is turning into full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as it is known?

Dr. Lorrin Koran, psychiatrist and founder of the obsessive disorder clinic at Stanford University, has an answer: "Pleasure. People who experience pleasure from accumulating things are not compulsive."

A man who routinely orders 40 custom-made shirts, for example, is not compulsive if he eventually wears them. Even if he never puts one on, he's still not compulsive because he may derive pleasure from simply knowing the shirts are there.

"A compulsive hoarder never experiences pleasure. . . . He hoards only to reduce anxiety," Koran said.

Dr. Alexander Bystritsky, psychiatrist and head of the obsessive-compulsive disorder clinic at UCLA, offers two tests to determine the severity of a hoarding impulse:

"How useful is what you save, and how much of it do you save? To keep old newspapers until they're a fire hazard, just because you want to clip some articles, is dysfunctional," he says. "To save professional journals for reference purposes is not."

Another indication, he adds, is whether the person can admit that the pack-rat passion is irrational. "Some people say, 'I know it's crazy to keep all this, but I can't seem to help myself.' Those people can be successfully treated," he says.

"Those who honestly believe something dreadful will happen--that the Earth will open up and swallow them if they throw things away"--are more difficult cases to crack, Bystritsky says. "That's a kind of psychotic illness in which the person's delusional system has to be treated first."

The best therapy, doctors say, is behavioral: Confront the hoarding demons and throw the excess out. And if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

This is never easy to do because even non-compulsive hoarders think they need everything they have, experts say.

Gregg Kilday, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly in Los Angeles, loves books so much that he has them stacked two deep in huge bookcases that dominate his living space. And he continues to collect, although he admits: "I have so many books that I often can't find what I need when I need it. I actually have to go out and buy books that I know I already own."

Lori LeBoy, who owns a graphics design company in Hollywood, saves broken dishes that she intends to glue together. "I never get around to doing it, and I probably never will," she admits.

And she saves copies of drawings she's done for clients over the past decade: "I really don't need them, and I sometimes spend hours deciding which ones to toss. But I wind up keeping them all. I'm proud of my work, and I keep excellent files, so there's no clutter. I'm a hoarder of the neatnik kind. I don't think I have a problem."

Ethan Gorenstein, psychologist and assistant professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, says compulsive hoarding, like all OCDs, "causes people to indulge in certain rituals in order to control their anxiety." Most hoarders function normally in other areas of their lives, he says. But for those with an unstoppable urge to shop till they drop--or to save every scrap of everything--hoarding syndrome can eventually blight daily life.

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