The blinds are closed and the curtains drawn. If someone knocks, you open the door just a crack to hide the mess inside. Is this you or someone you know? And if so, does all that stuff you’ve accumulated mean you’re a hoarder?

Hoarding disorder is a serious psychiatric condition that affects an estimated 2 percent to 5 percent of the population. How can you tell whether you or someone else is a hoarder? Here are six sure-fire signs that you’re a hoarder (or somebody you know is).

1. Your Home Becomes Unsafe and Unlivable.
Stacked possessions fill most rooms, covering tables, countertops and floors. Often, hoarders don’t have water or heat because they’re embarrassed to let workers inside their homes, said Dena Rabinowitz, a clinical psychologist who specializes in hoarding. A hoarder might not have a spot to eat or sleep because all the useable space is consumed by hoarded items.

2. You Make Endless Acquisitions.
Hoarders have an intense need to acquire, often through shopping, garage sales or curbside salvaging. Hoarded items often seem to be of no value: empty yogurt cups, pill bottles, milk cartons, bottle caps. Other items, like clothing, appliances and toys, are bought but never used.


3. You Get Stressed Out if You Let Things Go.
Imagine a mother who realizes her child is missing from a crowded street. That’s the panic a hoarder feels at the thought of losing his or her stuff, Rabinowitz said. She once tried to persuade a disabled hoarder to clear a path to the door for emergency workers in case she fell. “I’d rather die from a broken leg than give up my boxes,” the woman told her. Rabinowitz has known lawyers who’ve hoarded magazine and newspaper articles. “They fear that if they throw out information, it won’t be there when they need it,” she said.

4. You Prevent People from Coming In.
Hoarders may isolate themselves or allow friends to pick them up only at the door. Some go to extremes to hide their living conditions, according to Ellen Hankes, a professional organizer specializing in chronic disorganization and hoarding. Hankes met a woman in a hoarder support group who wore suits to her high-paying management job but was too ashamed to let apartment maintenance workers inside to fix her broken shower. Instead, she rose early each morning to secretly shower at the YMCA and dress for work.

5. Your Hoarding Habit Spreads.
A hoarder’s piles can outgrow the walls of the home. When that happens, hoarders seek additional space in cars or self-storage units. “Many of my clients have multiple storage units,” said Hankes, who once discovered a client’s self-storage notices at the bottom of a pile as they de-cluttered the home. A hoarder’s storage unit may be packed to the brim with anything, ranging from boxes of unopened online purchases to nothing but rolled-up newspapers.


6. Your Hoarding Interferes with Relationships.
Spouses threaten divorce, children refuse to visit, and holiday celebrations at a hoarder’s home are out of the question. Hoarders rarely seek help on their own. “Most people in treatment for hoarding are there because someone intimately involved tells them, ‘You can’t live like this,’” Rabinowitz said.

Here are three pieces of advice on how to overcome hoarding.

1. Seek Professional Help.
Hoarders hold onto underlying beliefs that must be addressed by a therapist. Accumulating objects can be an attempt to fill emptiness created by a loss such as a divorce or death. To a hoarder, donating her dead husband’s coffee mug to a thrift store degrades their relationship and destroys his memory. Tossing an empty soda bottle means discarding the great day connected with it.

Sentimentality is normal, but memories live in our minds, not in our objects, Rabinowitz said. She and her clients look at emotional barriers–feelings of loss, fear of being wasteful and a belief that they are responsible for an object–that interfere with decisions about what to keep or throw out. “If a person can acknowledge the problem and say, ‘I’m a hoarder and I want help,’ they are halfway there,” Rabinowitz said.

2. Set Positive Goals.
A hoarder might want to use the kitchen again or host Thanksgiving dinner at home. Cleaning up the home may help avoid eviction or divorce.


3. Don’t Do a Ruthless Cleanup.
Never get rid of all that “junk” without a hoarder’s involvement. An item that appears worthless still holds value to that person. Hoarders are chronically disorganized and have trouble making decisions. They may take hours to figure out whether to throw away an envelope. To clear out the hoarded clutter, hire a professional organizer who’s compassionate and informed.

“I always tell them they’re the boss of their stuff,” said Hankes, who begins with a small goal like clearing a table.

It could take several sessions to get a table cleared, Hankes said, and take months or years to tackle the entire house. Amid the piles, a hoarder might discover financial documents, gift cards, cash, or lost keys or letters.

“It’s hard work for everyone involved,” Hankes said. “There has to be a saying goodbye for that person, coming to peace with giving things up.”

Relapse Rate Is High
The relapse rate for hoarders is high, and a practical approach helps prevent future hoarding. Rabinowitz and her clients make rules such as keeping only enough clothing to fit neatly inside drawers and closets. They place a shredder by the front door to prevent junk mail from piling up.

“We practice organizational skills and how to deal with living in an object-focused world,” Rabinowitz said. “The amount of stuff that comes through the front door is astounding.”

Photos courtesy of si-restoration.com, globalprioritycleanup.com, nfpa.org, torontohoardingservices.ca