Friday, April 8, 2011

The psychology of hoarding, cluttering and the fantasy of returning to the womb

The phenomena of hoarding, which recently has become such a darling of media because of their discovery that humans are fascinated and repelled at the same time by coprophilic mess, lends itself to easy psychoanalytic interpretation.

It is another manifestation of obsessional neurosis.

That is nothing new you want to tell me. Any second year psychiatric resident can flip through his  his DSM IV [The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of APA] and take me to the exact spot where hoarding is given as another symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
But the issue is not so much as to which diagnostic category hoarding should be officially lumped with but as to why people hoard in the first place. Why the thought of separation from his piles of relics from the past provokes such a dreadful panic in the afflicted?
And here we find that our strutting experts who spent years and years composing the DSMs are as much in the dark as the laity.
Perhaps worse off than the non-experts who by naming the TV show that gives us a voyeur's perspective into this phenomena as "Buried alive" make us wonder whether hidden in that laconic phrase is not the essence of this strange illness.
For hoarding, which all of us suffer from in varying degrees, in its extreme form is nothing short of burying oneself alive in the safety of one's home.
The hoarder does turn his house into a tomb out of which he rarely comes out. He wants to deal with the world from the safety of his own home, on his terms and not other people's. For one is king in one's own castle. 
Now we know that obsessional neurotics are forever competing with others. They have to take measure of every person they come across and come out a winner against them. If they cannot win outright they try to get even through stubbornness and refusing to go along with other people's agenda. The more defeats they suffer they more obstinate they become.
Refusing to go along with other people (world's) agenda they increasingly turns into withdrawing themselves from the common goals of society, taking up esoteric and eccentric hobbies. In these solitary pursuits the person continues to battle with his enemies [the world]. But now done in displacement and symbolic fashion which makes it difficult to recognize that in these behaviors there is intent to harm one's [original] enemies. 
Instead of going face to face with the people he has an ax to grind with, the obsessional neurotic now starts collecting the objects that in his unconscious he can somehow connect with his enemies. He holds on to these objects with as much tenacity as to the memory of the original humiliation that embittered him towards the world. It is nursing of the past humiliations to get even one day which lies at the heart of hoarding. 
Hoarder to use a somewhat ridiculous analogy is the opposite of a Christian. A hoarder cannot forgive and forget his past slights. He nurses them by holding on to objects that he can connect with his enemies, even if it requires great leaps of displacement in his unconscious. Also by holding on to these objects he not only keeps the memory of humiliation green, but he hopes to understand the functioning of his enemies as well. He hopes to learn from those objects things about the enemies, that will make his revenge successful when the day of confrontation finally arrives. This explains as to why hoarders are especially inclined to not discard newspapers and magazines. There is so much valuable information about the world in these publications which one wants to master before discarding it, and all in order to get even with the world. He is especially fascinated by articles on health and prolongation of life. By mastering those articles he hopes to outlive everyone else and emerge a winner at least in this respect.
You may be wondering if this kind of revengeful thinking has a parallel in some other human behavior which may bolster my contention. I find such a parallel in the logic of Voodoo magic. Practitioners of voodoo get even with their enemies by making their effigies (voodoo dolls) and  sticking needles where they think the enemies vital organs reside. The voodoo logic is that by sticking the pin in those spots the enemy's vital organs are getting diseased. The hoarder also hopes to harm his enemies through such mumbo jumbo means and hence wants to collect all kinds of things which he hopes to use in some remote future.
Another parallel that springs to mind is the behavior of the pharaohs of Egypt who on their last journey [death] would take their important possessions into the pyramid (tomb) to continue their earthly struggles into the afterlife. In ancient China the emperors would take armies of terra cotta soldiers to their grave no doubt to continue waging wars in heaven where they expected their deceased former enemies to be now residing.
While it is the pile of junk in the hoarders house that we want to gawk at when the TV show starts, the primary illness is not so much a gluttony for material objects on part of the hoarders, but a pathological intensification of the womb fantasy.
What is womb fantasy?
Before I explain that let me tell you a little about a phobia that quite a few people possess. It is the fear of being buried alive by mistake. Many of these phobic folks shudder at the thought of entering old buildings, dilapidated mansions, ruins, museums, churches, and funeral homes. These old statuesque structures represent the mother to them, and entering them symbolizes return to mother's womb. And the phobic reaction is generated to prevent the overwhelming desire to reunite with the mother. These phobic folks sometimes dream of being trapped inside a coffin, a nightmare from which they wake up in cold sweat.
What is common factor linking the hoarders and those who dream of being buried alive?
It is a wish to be dead to a painful world but yet not giving up on dear life altogether. It is fulfillment of the wish to retire from the strife ridden world but not to the point of becoming totally dead.
What is the normal prototype of this wish to be dead and yet alive?
It lies in our daily ritual of sleep. Every night we try to shut out all the worldly disturbances, create a womb like ambiance of warmth and security, and then fall asleep. Babies who are still not far from their womb existence, even regularly adopt the fetal position.
Now this withdrawal from the world and the wish to return to the womb, where there was no danger, and life's every need was taken care of without effort, may become pathologically intensified in some.
Is hoarding another variation of this wish to return to the womb, carried from sleep to the waking state?
The only case of severe hoarding that I came across in my practice suffered from incredibly severe agoraphobia. She did treat her home as a sanctuary from a dangerous and frightening world.
And why did she find the world dangerous?
Behind the fear of the world was her own hostility towards men. Her father was abusive towards her throughout her childhood and adolescence. To get even with him she had eloped with a Mexican at age of 17. This was in the 1940's, when for a WASP debutante to do something like that was highly frowned upon. She did that to spite her father who, along with his wife, patient's step-mother - her mother had died when she was just one - had used her from earliest childhood to do the work more befitting a maid, to run his restaurant.
Since it was a marriage of revenge, it lasted for less than an year. But not before creating a permanent wedge between the father and daughter and the bitterness persisted to his deathbed. He not only disowned her but made sure to not leave a penny for her in his will, despite her being his only child.
Now her revenge against her dead father had to find outlet against all other men. Her second marriage which was with somebody from her own class, soon turned into turning her husband into a father substitute and making his life miserable. But not without giving him plenty of love and happiness as well. But the discharge of revenge against the father became the primary purpose of the marriage.
She had four sons, and had highly ambivalent relationship with all of them. It was unclear if her love for them or her hate for them was the stronger emotion. One of her son became a homosexual out of fear of women and their dominant ways, anticipating his mother's image and behavior in them. Another turned into a severe alcoholic. The third turned into a great musician with a voice as good as the greatest tenor of the world. Perhaps his resounding voice was a magnified shouting for help from a mother who he feared to the core of his being. Only one son turned out average, having tuned her out from early childhood.
Once the children grew up, her rage towards men ran out of outlets. Only her husband was left as the whipping boy. But this father substitute made his escape too by hardly spending time at home, choosing to be always on the golf course.
With no men left in her life she had only memories of them to get even with.
And thus begun the hoarding in earnest. Prior to that she had difficulties in throwing away trivia, but now the obsession reached ridiculous heights.
She resorted to not throwing anything that could even vaguely be connected with the past. And analysis repeatedly revealed that holding on to these useless objects was to find a way to reverse the original humiliations and defeat and to come out a winner this time.
Herein lies the psychology of hoarding. All the hoarded material are somehow connected with a past which cannot be let go. Obsessional neurotics have memory of an elephant. In autistic disorders, which are extreme form of OCD, the memory can be astounding. And behind the phenomenal memory of autism lies the impulse to harm the person who put a block to their first steps to discharge aggression upon the world [their first caretaker] and forced that aggresion to turn against one's own self. The autistic person, carrying the genes common to OCD and autism, does not want to let go off the slight, even from the tenderest age, when his immature nervous system and psychic development does not allow him to develop obsessive symptoms, and thus develops the bizarre autistic defenses. And autistic patients, no less than obsessives, want to come back another day and turn tables upon the enemy. And in order for the revenge to be successful try to remember the terrain where the original defeat occurred, and everything that subsequently can be connected with that terrain, to a phenomenal extent. Interestingly the person of the original enemy is always forgotten. Instead everything connected with that person is memorized and soon this starts getting displaced on to ever new things till what is committed to memory is so remote from the person towards whom it was originally directed that one is hard pressed to understand as to why the autistic person commits to memory such trivia. For example an autistic patient of mine remembers the streets and city where someone lives and their birthday after hearing it once. And he can recall these details on hundreds of people that he considers his friend - in his unconscious his enemies. But when he recalls, he often makes subtle mistakes. For example he knows that I live in Bloomfield and that I was born in 1951. On recalling these factoids he will usually declare that I live in West Bloomfield and I was born in 1950. Making this slightest error is his way of taking revenge on me. Knowing the trivia about me is honoring me while making the error in its recall is cutting me down and saying, in his autistic way, that after all you are not so high and mighty as to be remembered with perfection.
Hoarding is another form of remembering. Objects which are reminder of people with whom one has to take revenge are now accumulated. They are reminder of those people with whom one has to get even with. The hoarder cannot discard the object lest he dilute the resolve to avenge. It is similar to putting knots in one's handkerchief to remind one that something has to be done yet. I will not be surprised if the psychology behind people's fascination with trivia and trivial pursuit is identical with those who hoard objects instead of mental facts.
We know how people with OCD love to make lists and then scratch off one item after another. As if with each scratch they have triumphed [wiped out an enemy]. With hoarders each item that is held back and not discarded is like a knot. Unless the enemy associated with that knot is vanquished it is impossible for the person to throw the item away.
With time the fight against the wider world keeps receding into ever smaller circle. The ambition shrinks from the desire to conquer the entire world, like Alexander the Great, to just one's immediate circle. The original wish for revenge had originated within the family circle anyway. In our patient's case, she had ceased to interact with anybody but her husband. And her revenge on him had narrowed to making it impossible for him to even move in his own house. Hoarding had found a new way of seeking revenge. The clutter was used as an obstruction to her husband's path. The revenge had shrunk from destroying the enemy to putting obstructions in his path. And herein lies the psychology of clutter.
Clutter is a way of getting even with other people by misplacing things and putting them out of order to obstruct them from reaching their goal. Currently I am treating a hoarder, or more specifically a clutterer, who has turned her house into a maze of obstructions for her children. Yet, interestingly she made her living by cleaning houses, and would beg me to find her hoarders whose house she could go to and declutter. The impulse to clutter in her was finding expression in her own house and the reaction formation to it was being given outlet in houses of others. I will not be surprised if this neurotic mechanism underlies behind the fascination of many otherwise quite intelligent people to take up the lowly profession of janitor.
Along with choosing ever trivial enemy to find revenge, and in ever more trivial ways, there is also withdrawal into ever more smaller space, with the person restricting himself to not emerge out of his own house, sometime his or her own basement, which of course once again symbolizes the mother's womb. The only place where the person hopes to find complete peace without dying.


  1. This is interesting;

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  13. The psychology around hoarding is not usually understood by most people. A lot of people assume that you just need to throw out the stuff, but it is deeper than that.