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Living in trash: How one woman tries to break the tradition

December 15th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Anya Aether

CACHE COUNTY–Amber Olson has at least three generations of family members suffering from an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) subtype known as compulsive hoarding. After the recent death of her aunt Debbie, who was affected by the disorder, Amber started to think there might be a problem.

“Cleaning out my aunt’s house after she died was when I realized something was wrong,” said Olson. “That hit me pretty hard. I saw just how bad things could get, and I didn’t like it… The sad thing is I knew about it. Everyone in my family did. We just didn’t expect her to have that much stuff.”

Olson began looking for more information on hoarding and found that she was at high risk of developing the disorder. “I already show a lot of symptoms of both OCD and hoarding,” Olson said.

“OCD involves obsessions and compulsions. These two things result in problems in one’s quality of life,” said Michael P. Twohig, a professor at Utah State University who has been researching treatments for anxiety disorders, particularly OCD and OCD spectrum disorders which includes the subtype hoarding. He currently oversees a clinic that treats people with anxiety disorders.

“People who struggle with hoarding have obsessions that they will throw away something of need or value, that they will need something later, or just have an uncomfortable feeling about throwing something away,” said Twohig. “In response they engage in the obsession of gathering and saving items.”

Statistics for the disorder are hard to find, mainly because most people who have it stick to their homes and are usually in denial about the problem.

“I have worked with about 100 people with OCD, and maybe 20 of them the hoarding subtype… best guess is 1 to 2 percent of the population have hoarding issues,” said Twohig. That means about 3 million people in the United States are affected by the disorder.

“I’ve always had a lot of stuff,” said Olson. “In fact, I can’t remember a time I didn’t have lots of stuff. Though I never thought I was hoarding. I just had a lot of stuff and I liked my stuff, I never saw a reason to get rid of it.”

Olson said her father has a hoarding problem but her mother does not. “My mom didn’t put up with it, so my dad’s hoarding was kept under control.”

Twohig said both genetics and the environment contribute to developing a hoarding disorder and sometimes the two contributors cannot be separated. They work together to create the problem.

“It was hard growing up in a house with so much clutter, Olson said. “I like things really clean and most of the time my room was the only clean room in the house. The worst part was unpacking things like Christmas decorations because we had a lot of them. Our entire garage was filled with boxes all the way up to the ceiling.”

I feel like I have it under control,” said Olson. “Debbie knew about it and just accepted it as it was. I am aware of the problem and I take steps to keep myself from getting out of control. For example, I watch what I buy and I always try to replace stuff instead of add to it. If I bring something home, I throw something out.”

“She has complete control over what she does,” Twohig said. “People can certainly stop hoarding. They still might have urges to hoard, but they can get the action under control.”

Twohig said the most successful treatment out there is exposure to the problem with ritual prevention and cognitive behavior therapy, a form of psychotherapy that identifies why a person will perform a specific action and how it makes them feel.

“The treatments are similar to that of OCD, but the treatment of hoarding generally takes longer,” Twohig said.

For people looking for help, Twohig said, “The counseling center here at USU is good for USU students. The Anxiety Specialty Clinic within USU’s psychology department is also good. There is quite a bit of literature out there on hoarding, so many clinicians are pretty aware of what to do for the problem.”


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